August 17, 2011

what is steampunk?

I’m going to go on a bit of a rant today. I’ve been participating in WriteOnCon this week, and I was happy to find that there were other steampunk titles that newbie authors were working on. However, when I clicked through to read the premises for these so-called steampunk tales, I was sorely disappointed, and somewhat enraged.

Gears and corsets do not a steampunk novel make.

Meghan B. over at Stellar Four adequately expressed my feelings on the matter. For those of you that have read the book or watched the film equivalent of The Princess Bride, you know that Vizzini (the little bald headed man with the annoying voice) always uses the term “inconceivable.”

Vizzini (the Sicilian), Fezzik, and Inigo (the Spaniard) are looking down the side of the cliff at the masked man climbing toward them.

     Six hundred feet now. The arms continued to pull, over and over. Six hundred and twenty feet. Six hundred and fifty. Now faster than ever. Seven hundred.
     “He’s left his boat behind,” the Spaniard said. “He’s jumped onto our rope. He’s starting up after us.”
     “I can feel him,” Fezzik said. “His body weight on the rope.”
     “He’ll never catch up!” the Sicilian cried. “Inconceivable!”
     “You keep using that word!” the Spaniard snapped. “I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

I have the same sentiments that Meghan has about the term “steampunk” when used by other writers.

Just because a story has gears and steam-engines and corsets and monocles, that doesn’t make it steampunk. You can argue with me all day about it, and I will adamantly defend my position.

It seems like some writers just throw steampunk elements into stories in order to appeal to the steampunk market, but when they don’t do their research, when they don’t adequately represent what steampunk really is, they’re only hurting themselves. They’ve inserted steampunk elements without properly portraying them and then have the nerve to call their work “steampunk”. I call it “pseudo-steampunk”. Fake steampunk.

Now, there are a lot of steampunk subgenres. In one way or another, these stories fit into steampunk, but only slightly. They walk a fine line. Clockwork Angel read more like a gaslight fantasy. Leviathan is more of a historical science fiction, though it doesn’t try to be steampunk; only other people slap that label on it. Leviathan is its own thing, even if it was inspired by the genre. Scott Westerfeld, the author of Leviathan has this to say on steampunk (from The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer):
It’s partly a set of nostalgias—for handmade and human-scale technologies, baroque design, and elegant dress and manners—combined with the puerile pleasure of mussing up a very stuffy stage in history, bringing a flamethrower to a tea party, so to speak. And this flamethrower extends to the political and social as well as technological, because Steampunk creates a new set of Victorian stories that expand the role of the colonized and otherwise subjugated in that era (girl geniuses, for example).
I have not read a so-called steampunk novel (other than Leviathan, which I will argue is not steampunk) that can stand on its own. Most of those that I’ve read rely on romance for the main plot and toss in steampunk elements, or they rely on werewolves, vampires, and zombies to carry the story rather than the science of steampunk. Or, they’re just awful books with pseudo-steampunk elements.

For examples of steampunk subgenres (taken from The Steampunk Bible):
Boilerpunk The blue-collar answer to aristocratic Steampunk, incorporating the experiences and hardships of the workers actually shoveling coal to bring steam to the upper classes. Vive la revolution!
Clockpunk  Clockwork technologies replace or supersede traditional steam power. (I think my novel fits here)
Dieselpunk A heresy in which diesel fuel and nuclear power replace steam power in alternate histories that often have a political component.
Gaslight Romance A mainly British term for alternative histories that romanticize the Victorian era. Some Brits would argue that all American Steampunk is actually gaslight romance.
Mannerspunk Fiction that may or may not be deemed Steampunk, in which elaborate social hierarchies provide the friction, conflict, and action of the narrative, usually in the context of endless formal dances. At parties. In mansions.
Raygun Gothic Although not strictly a subgenre, this type of retro-futurism based in part on art deco and streamlined modern styles has been used for a variety of science fiction settings, usually in movies. Coined by William Gibson, the term has become more useful in the context of Steampunk as the fiction has come to feature more and more tinkers and artists.
Stitchpunk Fiction influenced by the DIY and crafts element of Steampunk, with a prime example being the animated movie 9, in which cut Frankenstein doll-creatures stitched together from bits of burlap sack try to save the world. In a wider context, Stitchpunk emphasizes the role of weavers, tinkers, and darners in Steampunk.

Now, I have the nerve to call my novel steampunk because it is steampunk. It’s set in the Victorian era (which isn’t a prerequisite, but it has the proper feel). The main character is a clockwork engineer. I adequately describe the science behind certain clockwork and steam-powered machines. I actually use science that was present in that time period or that was in development. Rather than coming across as someone banking on a gimmick to get their book sold, I researched and studied the machines and mechanisms that I portray in the book. This is why I feared writing steampunk for so long. I was so afraid of doing it wrong, and I think that’s why the book that I wrote fits the steampunk genre. Because I was afraid, I made sure that my science was at least plausible. I’m not an engineer, so there is some fictional stretching here and there, but I go into detail about cam mechanisms, gear trains, crank linkages, mainsprings, pawls, and other linkages. I don’t just throw a handful of gears together with a hot-glue gun and call it a working machine. To me, it seems like the writers that toss pseudo-steampunk elements into their fiction are mimicking modern steampunk jewelry: it’s pretty, but not functional.

I wanted to write a book that took steampunk as it should be and tell a compelling story without relying on another genre to support it. Yes, my story has romance in it, but it’s the subplot. Not the other way around. Whether or not that’s what people want to read, I can’t be sure. I wrote the book that I couldn’t find, the book that I wanted to read but didn’t exist. I’m proud of that. There isn’t an ounce of magic in my novel. There aren’t any magical or paranormal creatures. It’s just science and a little bit of romance.

To me, steampunk is more than gears and steam-power. It’s more than Victorian age society, more than corsets and bustles, more than a skin, as some people would put it. More than a layer of science, airships, corsets, goggles, and gears, Steampunk is an atmosphere. It’s a feeling. Steampunk, true steampunk, penetrates the very layers of the world within a story. It makes up the building blocks of the story, the setting, the characters, the society, and the action. It is its own sort of magic that lives and breathes within a story, not something that’s thrown in for spits and wiggles.

What are your opinions of steampunk? Are there other genres that suffer from misuse?


  1. I think a lot of people are not fully aware of what various subgenres are. For the longest time, I considered the anime Cowboy Bebop as just sci-fi...hadn't even thought of it as space opera until I started learning more and more about subgenres. The book Leviathan was referred to me as a steampunk along with Incarceron. There will be those who argue for and those against, but it sounds like you've done the research needed so that your novel can be firmly planted into the steampunk subgenre.

  2. I think it was Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine that defined steampunk: it had an alternate-history Victorian era setting, in which Babbage was able to perfect his Difference Engine (a programmable mechanical computer) in the 1830s. This in turn touched off an explosion of steam-based technology similar to our own silicon-based explosion, not to mention a profound impact on global politics and society.

    I'd add one more sub-sub-genre to your list: call it Fantastical Steampunk, which features constructs such as artificially-intelligent (or even self-aware) automata — especially those that can respond to speech.

    What (to me) is really interesting is that the ancient Greeks had a similar level of technology — they understood steam power and even built mechanical computers (e.g. the Antikythera Mechanism) — but never took the next step. That could make for an interesting variant.

  3. Angela, I love Cowboy Bebop. :) I'd refer to it as a space western over a space opera.

    FAR, I tried reading The Difference Engine and hated every minute of it. It's glorified as THE book that defined steampunk, as you say, but I don't see how. Maybe the second half of the book is better than the first. I don't know. I stopped reading it. It was way too boring. I'll agree with you on the Fantastical Steampunk subgenre. Clockwork Angel employs automatons that recognize and deliver speech, and seem to have minds of their own. And yes, steam power and mechanics have been around for a VERY long time. It is interesting to see that scientific invention and innovation didn't really take off until the Victorian era. I blame the Dark Ages. They put scientific and human progress back another thousand years. If it wasn't for that part of history, I'm sure we'd be well into space travel by now.

  4. Another blogger friend of mine wrote a similar themed post for the cyberpunk genre recently. While I agree, the thin veneer of steam elements over a story don't make a Steampunk, I also don't think focusing completely on the accuracy of the steam makes a novel a steampunk either. Then it's just Victorian Science Fiction.

    The key element, in my eyes, of all of the '-punk' genres and subgenres is that word. That experience of becoming the Other in your own world and trying to find your new place. Without that element of 'why don't I belong here?' it's not really a -punk novel.

  5. Patrick, I originally pitched my novel to my critique partner as Historical Science Fiction, because that's what I thought it was. I still think it's Historical Science Fiction, but I think it also fits in the Steampunk genre. Steampunk is such a fine, delicate line, that it's hard to tell when something is or isn't Steampunk. My definition may not be the same as others' definition, and that's fine really. I just think a lot of people slap "steampunk" on something as a gimmick, without really delving into the elements that really make the genre. And I have to disagree with your final statement... somewhat. I think it's more of a "Where do I belong?" rather than a "Why don't I belong?" -Punk novels definitely have that feel of searching for identity, but it can be in a positive way. The main character can be, and usually is, someone who is different, someone who goes against the grain, but they don't necessarily have feel as if they've been cast out. They can feel as if they've just been a tad misplaced. But in that sense, I think most genre fiction main characters fit that mold. At least the characters I write do. Thanks for commenting :)

  6. Honestly, I'm not sure why such humbuggery has to be brought up over whether something is "steampunk" or has "steampunk" elements. Why can't something have steampunk elements and supernatural elements? I mean, are the labels really THAT necessary? As long as the story is good, who cares? The purpose of the labels is to help categorize something--usually so that people can shop easier. You just disagreed with these someone about where Cowboy Bebop lies, and the lines become so blurry and irrelevant at a certain point, I'm not sure it's something to get an ulcer over.

    I am proud of you for researching the science. That means it'll be good science fiction. But mixing and matching, taking stuff here and there, is what creates variety and innovation.

    I'm confused by the need to put everything in a box when sometimes there are just good stories. If a story takes place in a clockwork victorian society, but also features a rash of genie attacks, will you be angry that it's not classified on its own shelf with geniepunk, or is the clockwork society okay? If it DOES take place in a victorian clockwork society, but instead of being about victorian society if it's simply a romance novel ala Jane that wrong?

    Lol, sorry if this rambles. I just feel like there's categorizing, and then there's splitting hairs and I am confused. :D

    (Also, forgive if I ramble. Just got off work. Brain is fried.)

  7. I don't mind stories with steampunk elements and various other elements. I'm perfectly okay with the fact that the genre lends itself to meshing with other genres. I prefer not to read those, but I'm one reader in a bajillion. My problem is the inclusion of steampunk for gimmick's sake, where it seems as if it's been edited in just so it will appeal to that market. That's what I have a problem with. I have nothing against steampunk fantasy or vampires in victorian society. I have a problem with books that are hugely, like 99% future dystopian and then they throw in that 1% iota of steampunk just so they can fit under the genre. That's what I hate.

    I suppose I didn't make that clear in the original post :P

    And yes, some people have different opinions of where certain works fall into certain genres. I would label Doctor Who as science fantasy and Torchwood as urban fantasy. Someone else will label it science-fiction. I may label Cowboy Bebop and Firefly as space westerns while someone else may label them as space operas. The genres and book divisions are as subjective as the works themselves, and I think that's wonderful. I just don't like that people improperly use those labels, if that makes sense.

  8. But that's where my point came in. It's difficult to "properly" use a label if you can't agree on what the label is. But, you did explain better, so now I have a bit more of an idea what you're talking about. I still maintain that it would be difficult to tell what's thrown in just to cash in and what's legitimately there, but I guess that's up to the author to make those elements work, even if it's just a tiny piece of seemingly incidental steam punk atmosphere. It shouldn't seem shoehorned in, it should feel like it belongs--no matter how minor. If it doesn't, that is certainly the failure of the author.

    Hooray, I learned something! :D

  9. Holy wow - did I learn loads about the different sub-genres. Great post, Brooke!

  10. Nice post. I do agree that there's a lot of steampunk elements being slapped on to marketing because steampunk is the current new thing. I disagree that writers doing so hurt themselves. I think it harms the genre itself. Because one person thinks "Brazil" is a steampunk movie (don't ask why, I have no idea) then other clueless people will point to that listing and say see? it IS steampunk. Which makes it hard for newcomers to educate themselves on the subject.

    I've had far too many arguments with people saying Steampunk is what I want it to be.

    My friend Richard Harland wrote a YA novel called Worldshaker which I think is very steampunk. He and I have had many discussions over what is and isn't steampunk and agree on most points.

    I look forward to reading your finished novel.

  11. Thanks for the post. I had been looking for something related on STEAM PUNK FESTIVAL. I will definitely be back for more information.