I’m currently reading Soulless by Gail Carriger. It’s a fun, witty, fluffy read, and, apparently, it’s steampunk. So, instead of doing a Currently Reading post, I decided to talk about steampunk and what the word actually means.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines steampunk as:
science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology
This is the most general definition, and the one that is often used to describe steampunk. However, this genre is much more than that, and it is much more difficult to describe. For example, the top definition from Urban Dictionary says:
Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.
The author of the definition goes on to explain certain sub-genres of Steampunk: medieval steampunk, Victorian steampunk, western steampunk etc. For example, the film Wild Wild West is generally labeled as steampunk, but it is set in the Wild West, which makes it western steampunk. (I actually can’t think of a medieval steampunk example, so I’d apprecite suggestions.) This definiton is actually in opposition to the common perception that steampunk is a sub-genre of neo-Victorianism – apparenty it doesn’t have to take place in a world inspired by Victorian England.
This leads to another definition – steampunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. It can be set in any historical period, but it has to involve some kind of “old” technology in a new, interesting way. (Use of non-existent science and technology is why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case od Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also considered steampunk by some.)
Steampunk often features dirigibles and zeppelins, and some other long-forgotten inventions. Steampunk did, however, get its name after the steam power, so steam-powered engines and machinery should be unvolved. Steampunk also shows a lot of love to cogs and clockwork.
Now, on to the books I’ve read that are labeled as steampunk. First of them is the aforementioned Soulless. Soulless is set in Victorian England, with the addition of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. It also features dirigibles, and a lot of talk about the natural science of supernatural creatures. The approach to science is very Victorian, so I think this book represents steampunk quite well.
Tales of The Ketty Jay series is also labeled as Steampunk, and it definitely falls into that category. This series is all about airships. The world can be seen as Victorian, but it is not a literal representation. It certainly does feel like it’s happening in the past, but it also might not be. The airships do use steam power, but they seem more advanced than digiribles, which is also very characteristic of steampunk. Science in this book is closely related to so-called daemonism, which is an interesting concept since science was often demonised in the past. This is definitely a series I would recommend, because it’s fun, and the characters are amazing.
There are also some classics that fall into the steampunk category, though they were written before the term was even invented. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne features Nautilus, a submarine that is very advanced for its time. However, in Jules Verne’s time, this book would probably be considered SF, since to its first readers it wasn’t a book set in the past. Another steampunk classic is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.
Of course, steampunk doesn’t exist only in literature. It is a subulture – it exists in fashion and is also a music genre. When it comes to fashion, steampunks are often described as “goths who discovered brown.” You probably all know how this fashion looks like, so I’ll move on to music. Steampunk music is something had to define. Generally, it should be music that uses only old instruments (no electronics) and it can be closely related to dark cabaret. Therefore bands such as Rasputina, and even The Dresden Dolls are often labeled as stempunk. Aurelio Voltaire and Emilie Autumn are also artists who are sometimes labeled steampunk, though their artistic expression is far more diverse that that. (Emilie Autumn is my favourite! Had to say it. XD) However, some bands go further than that – they are dressed in Steampunk fashion and their lyrics are like from a steampunk novel.
One of those bands is Abney Park. They started as a goth-industrial band, but they are now steampunk to the core. The band even created a fictional backstory: the band’s plane collided with a time-travelling dirigible called the Ophelia in a great storm. The band commandeered the vessel, deciding to become airship pirates. This backstory is used for many of their lyrics.
Other similar bands are The Cog is Dead, Ghostfire, Vernian Process, Steam Powered Giraffe, Unextraordinary Gentleman and many others. Ghostfire has a particularly interesting description on Last.fm:
The music of Ghostfire resonates to the debauched decadence and absinthe-fuelled anarchy of life in the eighties…
Stalking the cobbled streets; lurking in the shadows of the darkest alleyways… Dare you glance beyond the safety of the guttering gaslights, to where the gin-soaked doxy plies her trade, the dipper watches his mark and the drunken sailor staggers blindly?
It’s this shadowy world of villains, rogues and rascals that Ghostfire calls home.
In the darkest corners of the flash taverns, we raise glasses with vagabonds, footpads, pirates and thieves, all seeking sanctuary in the anonymity only notorious London Town can afford…
Now, I’m definitely not an expert on steampunk, so there’s still a lot for me to learn. I’d definitely like to hear from you. How do you define steampunk? Do you have any book recommendations? If you do, please share! 🙂