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Steampunk: An Introductory Guide

By Edited Oct 28, 2015 2 2

There are loads of genres among media texts, but rarely do you find fans like those of steampunk.  It’s not just the books and comics that enthrall them, but the world itself. People interact with the steampunk world; you don’t go to conventions dressed up as characters you like but rather a character you create from

Steampunk Costumes
scratch and pretend to be.

It’s interactivity of the world, and the fans’ willingness to take part be they four or ninety, that has quickly made this a main stream science fiction subgenre and will ensure it’s existence in the future.  I don’t know of any other community that holds immersive conventions, where you stay in character all weekend and the hotel and staff are dressed up to play along.  

But let’s back up a little bit.

What exactly is steampunk?

The most popular, mainstream example would be the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert

Caravan Assault Appearatus
Downey Jr. and Jude Law; especially at the end when gadgets come into play.

In its simplest form, steampunk in alternate history fiction taking place during the Victorian age with an emphasis on technology.  During this time in history, the industrial revolution was producing new gadgets and gizmos, and steampunk in part derives it’s name from the steam powered equipment that its characters create.  Think steam powered computers and contraptions reminiscent of Jules Vern.

Popular aesthetics of the genre include airships and goggles.

How did steampunk come to be?

Steampunk is a rather young genre, though older than the paranormal romance category. The term had been coined by K. W. Jeter as a tongue-in-cheek modification of cyberpunk, which developed in 1984, as a way to describe his books and those of fellow authors writing in a similar manner.  Jeter’s books, Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987), were written to be companions to H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine and are considered the first novels of the genre.  The second book is the more famous of the two, and the first to have been labeled as steampunk because Jeter did not con the term until 1987.

Widespread awareness of the genre however did not develop until 1990 with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine.  And it’s wasn’t until 1995 that the word steampunk was part of a title – Paul Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy of short novels.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill in 1999 and the film version in 2003, however really popularized the genre to the mainstream audience and not just those hard core science fiction fans. 

Since then, there has been a soft explosion of steampunk media.  It hasn’t taken o

Castle's Steampunk Costume
ver bookstores or theaters yet, but it lurks around the edge. The webcomic Girl Genius has won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story two years in a row now, and steampunk books and stories have been showing up on award lists for several years now. They have also been featured in a few television shows, such as Castle.

Variants of steampunk

But with the popularization of steampunk the media it contains has shifted a bit. Today there are different versions of steampunk, and there are concerns as to whether some variants are truly steampunk or simply using elements of the genre to attract the steampunk audience.


Also cconsidered true or original steampunk, this style of the genre includes any recent science fiction that takes place in the Victorian period and a recognizable location (or an alternative history version of such) where the Industrial Revolution has begun, but electricity is not common so technology is steam or spring p

Disney's Atlantis Sub
propelled.  Also acceptable time periods are the Edwardian era and the very early years of the Industrial Revolution.

Thus, stories of this type lean more towards science fiction than fantasy, though it is possible for there to be a mixture of both such as in the Disney film Atlantis or Jeter’s fist book, Morlock Night (in which King Arthur has to save England from an attack by Morlocks who got a hold of the time machine).


While steampunk of this type still focus on the use of steam or spring powered technology, the setting is a fantasy world created by the author.  There are a lot of tabletop and video RPGs of this type of steampunk, most notable Final Fantasy VI and IX, and the societies of gnomes and goblins in World of Warcraft could be considered as such as well.


There are also versions where steampunk technology is in use in a hypothetical future, such as the films Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Treasure Planet.

Due to the lack of historical placement of these stories, there is some concern as to whether this steampunk sub-genre is any different from a regular fantasy.  Removing the story from a historic setting lends a more fantastic feeling to a work than a science fiction one, of which the original steampunk novels were. However there are texts of this type that while not taking place during the Victorian time, the worlds behave in similar ways.


There are smaller subsets of steampunk, typically conned by author to describe their own work and the terms are not widely used.  One is gaslamp fantasy, refereeing to fiction told in a Victorian style without a machinery focus, instead is more of a romantic story.  Steamgoth refers to dark versions of steampunk, and Western steampunk are stories that take place in a wild, wild west setting


Many steampunk fans adopt the genre as a type of personal culture, where elements of the books’ popular aesthetics show up in their choice of wardrobe and home décor. This trend is also called neo-Victorianism, as not everyone who enjoys Victorian design and clothing is a fan of steampunk.


Steampunk Computer
cks are popular, as are gears.  It’s also not uncommon to redesign modern technology to look like something from the Victorian era – computers housed in brass with gears on the side. Waistcoats and corsets are regaining popularity as clothing items for fans, as are military inspired garments. 

As for common items seen in books and films, airships and goggles are a must for the genre and are prominate on book covers. Though they are a bit hard to include in everyday life.



Jun 2, 2011 5:13am
I like this article and learned much about origins of steampunk...love the look being employed in decor! Thank you.
Jun 2, 2011 1:57pm
Excellent article, great overview. It's obvious you took the time to be thorough which is appreciated in the "300-word ad driver article world" infesting the Web these days. Thank you, sincerely, for your time investment in this. I enjoyed it, and I wish more people would take the time to really try to dig into a subject.
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