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A Steampunk Litmus Test

There is an awful lot of confusion about what this thing steampunk really is.  People trying to understand this newly popular genre are often confronted with vague statements that it’s “whatever you want it to be” and “you’ll know it when you see it”.  While these sentiments are very open and welcoming, they aren’t really very helpful to people trying to join in.  With only that to go on, people could assume that neon skeletons in go-go boots are steampunk.  It helps to narrow it down a bit further for the sake of understanding.  As someone who is often asked what steampunk is, I have pondered this question a lot.   I have spent the last three years, paying attention to the growing pains of the genre and I have begun to distill things down to some succinct answers.  For the purpose of this article, let’s say we are determining if a story, book, movie, what have you, is steampunk.  I hope that some of this will be of help to you.  These are just my observations.  Your mileage may vary.

Definition

“Steampunk” the term was coined by K.W.Jeter as a tongue in cheek play off of the then popular genre cyberpunk in the 1980’s.  He was referring to the altered history science fiction stories that he and some friends were writing.  He felt if there were a collective term for them, it might help set them apart.  I’ve always felt that the term was inelegant, inaccurate and clunky, but it is the one that has persisted.  Steampunk, as we will explore in a moment requires neither “steam” nor “punk” as most people conjure the image.  The “punk” in steampunk leads the average person to think of the punk rock culture and music, which it has little to do with.  In much the same way that punk culture was counter culture, our punk is a divergence from the norm.  The average Victorian gentleman didn’t have a science lab in his basement, an airship at his disposal or thoughts of exploring the darkest continent with his automatons. As for the absence of steam, we will get to that in “power sources”.

Premise

Steampunk is at its core Victorian science fiction.  So, the first element to seek out in any story is the element of science fiction. In other words, elements of the story that are anachronistic, speculative or fantastical.   While entertaining and often a ripping good read, Sherlock Holmes stories are generally not steampunk as they lack any element that is not possible.  Doyle’s writing is about the improbable but not the impossible.  Even the current movie, while containing aspects that at first glance seem supernatural, manages to explain all its seemingly science fictional aspects except for one minor plot detail towards the very end.  Since the story doesn’t hinge on this point, I state fairly confidently that it isn’t steampunk.  It’s a wonderful period piece, but no more steampunk than any other Holmes story.  Steampunk is not a veneer or a feeling, but a quantifiable genre.  It is a subgenre of science fiction, so the first thing that must be present is the science fiction or at the very least fantasy aspect.

Settings

Steampunk, as originally defined, is based in the Victorian era, and perhaps a bit into the Edwardian era as well.  It’s not a huge expanse of time, but it was a very exciting, and verdant one, especially for those motivated individuals that often populate steampunk tales.  There was still so much to explore, discover or create.  Also, when we say Victorian era, I feel we refer to a time period, not a place, so anywhere in the world during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901), not just London, although it is a very apt setting.  India, Japan, or the American west are also perfectly acceptable, if often overlooked settings for steampunk stories.  You can also have an alternate reality with as much or as little resemblance to Earth as you wish.  “The Golden Compass” for example is often considered steampunk for its ambiguous time period and imaginative transportation.  Post apocalypse settings are not really appropriate unless the apocalyptic event happened in the Victorian era.  All the elements that make up steampunk diminish the further from that era you get.  “Mad Max” for example has diesel as the main power, but we can get into that in the next segment.

Power Sources

Steam is obviously the most common steampunk power source; steam engines, steam powered riverboats etc.  This is a fairly large indicator of steampunk, but you can have several other power sources that also work equally well.  Clockwork is often used, and cogs or gears are a major symbol of the steampunk genre.  Magic is another possible power source for a more fantasy based steampunk story.   You can even have a completely made up source often referred to as aether, but the level of tech should still remain fairly primitive, just verging on the industrial revolution.  Once you get into other actual, historically valid power sources, you have stepped beyond steampunk.  I consider the rise of diesel power to be the end the steampunk era, and the beginning of dieselpunk.  Beyond that you have atompunk, cyberpunk and postapocalypticpunk; all based on the type of power that is prevalent in the era.  Take “Firefly” for instance.  It is science fiction, but not era appropriate and the presence of much more sophisticated technology, takes it out of the steampunk genre.  “Mad Max” is dieselpunk, since the existing power, depleted though it is, is still diesel.  You can’t unring the technological bell.  People fighting for survival aren’t going to reinvent old technology; they are going to try to salvage what exists first.    I’m going to state here that cases can be made for scenarios which will work, but it’s going to be very rare and a lot of work on the part of the writer.  There’s nothing wrong with postapocalypse stories, I enjoy them immensely but they are very rarely steampunk.

Scenarios

There are several scenarios that are exemplary of steampunk.  Exploration is a very Victorian adventure scenario.  “From the Earth to the Moon”, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” are examples of Jules Verne’s work that could arguably be called the first steampunk stories.  Invention or mad science is an excellent steampunk scenario.  Creating life as in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein”, building robots or inventing time travel are all perfect examples of steampunk style stories.   Fantastical modes of transportation make up wonderful story bases.  Altered history is often a key scenario of steampunk.  Books like Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” take us to a past that never happened.  These stories often feature slightly anachronistically accelerated technology or tech which has taken a different path than ours.  It should however still seem like something that could have been invented in the Victorian era.  Gleaming brass pipes, gauges and spigots spouting steam and rattling merrily as they perform whatever task they are about.

Elements

Anachronism, as I mentioned before, is often a steampunk element.  Airships or dirigibles are a favorite element of steampunk stories, but in reality weren’t common until much later in history.  Automatons or robots are a fascinating element of steampunk stories.  Goggles have become quite ubiquitous in the steampunk community, but like a not so secret hand shake, they serve to help us identify one another.  They are also completely practical when it comes to most steampunk characters going about their endeavors, whether it be flying in an airship or practicing mad science.  Also gears, cogs and keys are touches that work as identifiers.

So to sum up, the below list includes the very essence of what comprises steampunk, an ingredient list, if you will.

Premise

  • Science fiction

Settings

  • Victorian era, but anywhere in the world
  • Alternate universe, but still fairly equivalent to the technology of Victorian times

Power Sources

  • Steam
  • Clockwork
  • Magic
  • Made up power sources

Scenarios

  • Exploration
  • Mad science
  • Invention
  • Transportation
  • Altered history

Elements

  • Anachronism
  • Airships
  • Automatons
  • Goggles
  • Gears
  • Cogs
  • Keys

If the story contains something from each category, you can fairly confidently call it steampunk, but like all good recipes, a single ingredient is not enough.  The presence of steam in a story wouldn’t make it steampunk without the right setting, scenario and elements, just as a pair of goggles doesn’t turn a random outfit into a steampunk ensemble. All the flavors must combine to make it truly steampunk.  It is a marvelously rich, imaginative, fertile genre in which to tell stories.  The dirigible filled sky is the limit really.

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About The Author

Diana Vick

I am an illustrator, writer, costumer and steampunk enthusiast.
I have done illustration for comic books, animation and collectible card games such as Magic the Gathering and Legend of the Five Rings. Currently, I do art for my own line of cards and gifts in my Zazzle shop.