On the punkery of steam

This was an article I was asked to write for a college mag recently, asking me for a writer’s perspective on the steampunk genre. It borrows a little from my spittle-flecked 6 Part History of Steampunk series, found here. I don’t know why I’m considered an expert when there are folks that have been doing it far longer than me. Maybe I just charge less than the famous folks.
Anyways, enjoy. 
Before I start dribbling about steampunk from an author’s perspective, I should probably define what I think steampunk is. This is more dangerous than it sounds.
The debate about what IS and IS NOT steampunk has kicked off many a flame war in various poorly-lit alleys of the internet, not to mention several drunken punch-ups at Conventions That Shall Not Be Named. When people try to explain steampunk, you’ll see lots of vague hand-waving, and hear odd, slightly masturbatory terms like – ‘retro-futurism’ and ‘neo-Victorianism’ and ‘techo-romanticism’ being splashed about like cheap hooch at an Irish wedding. (I’m Irish, before you get offended)
But yes. Lots of ‘isms’, basically.
Some people will tell you steampunk should be set in Victorian times. Some people will tell you in should be set in England, preferably London. Some people will tell you there should be an inexplicable amount of tea-drinking and corsetry. Everyone should be well mannered and everyone should be wearing goggles, even in the shower or making sweet, sweet love to the beautiful heiress on the floor of the aether-bot workshop, an artful smudge of grease arranged on her heaving… Yes, well…
As far as I’m concerned there are four mandatories:

  1. The book needs to be set in the past (otherwise you’re writing science-fiction).
  2. The setting needs to be industrialized (otherwise you’re writing fantasy).
  3. There needs to be some kind of advanced technology that you wouldn’t normally expect to find in the setting (otherwise you’re writing historical fiction).
  4. You should be having fun (otherwise, what’s the point)

SO, this is my definition of steampunk, in so far as writer-types and readers goes:
Steampunk (noun): A sub-genre of soft science fiction, typically set in an industrialized historical period, in which anachronistic technology is present.
The pre-conceptions with steampunk harken back to its roots – the ‘scientific romances’ of HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the man who would NEVER have to buy his own drinks at a Steampunk con, Mr Jules Verne. These authors took us on fantastic voyages to other worlds and other times, often with the aid of fantastical technologies beyond imagination, in settings that were almost exclusively British donchewnoe (hence the bias towards English settings in the genre).
Funny thing is, even though many folks look back at these writers as the fathers of the steampunk genre, they weren’t writing anything close to steampunk at all – in their day, they were writing contemporary fiction. It’s only because the works survived for close to 150 years in our collective consciousness that the label steampunk can be applied after the fact.
The real origins of steampunk fiction lie in the works of authors like KW Jeter, Tim Powers, James Blaylock and the father of cyberpunk, Mr William Gibson (all hail). Though Jeter coined the term ‘steampunk’, it was probably Gibson who gave it life, funnily enough whilst praying aloud that the label didn’t get applied to his book THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE:
“I’ll be happy just as long as they don’t label this one. There’s been some dire talk of ‘steampunk’ but I don’t think it’s going to stick.”
Ironically, Gibson’s statement probably did more to immortalize the term than anything before it. Such is his powah. Fear him.
Truth is, I think the attempt to codify and catalogue the IS and IS NOT of steampunk is the work of demon crack babies and Illuminati robots programmed to take all the fun out of life. The cool thing about the genre is that it’s still relatively unexplored and undefined. The most successful writers in the genre are those who’ve taken the few accepted tropes and turned them on their heads. Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series was set in the colonial west of America and threw in some zombie survival horror to boot. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series was half traditional Steampunk, half OTT fantasy with flying whales and genetically engineered war bears. For my part (you didn’t think you’d make it through this without hearing a plug, did you?) I set my story in feudal Japan and combined some traditional fantasy with combustion-driven technology and it’s called STORMDANCER and it’s out on MacMillan in the US/UK and AUS in September 2012 and oh my god I need to pay my mortgage if you buy a copy it will really help me out and plug, plug, plugplugplugpluuuuuuuuug.
The good news for writers who feel like playing in the steampunk sandbox  is that it’s seen as a reasonably hawt commodity by major publishers right now. Westerfeld’s series hit the NYT bestseller list and everyone involved drove home in a limousine, but there hasn’t been a book that simply broke the genre and led to a market-saturating glut of clone works (like say, that book that shall not be named but starts with ‘T’ did for paranormal romance and vampires). So there’s still some fun to be had before the ship inevitably sails.
Which is, after all, what steampunk is really all about.

24 Responses to “On the punkery of steam”

  1. Indigo says:

    So that’s what steampunk supposedly is… ; )
    Here I was thinking more in the realm of punks letting off steam (which seems to be the theme of most disagreements on the terminology). I know, I know bad play on words. I do know the key ingredients, even though I tend to still think it resides heavily in the realm of historical fiction.
    Nice write up and I hope this serves to quell a few arguments. (Hugs) Indigo

    • Well, some of it is historical fiction, sure. But I’ve seen some steampunk worlds/setting that don’t correspond to real world times/locations. They’re set in entirely fictional worlds with industiralized, 19th century-ish technology.
      And the punk bit does play a part, sure, but only to some people. i personally think SP should contain some of the iconoclasm of cyber punk and the real world punk movement of the 70s (you can’t spell steampunk without the ‘punk’) but that’s not a universal belief by any stretch.

      • Indigo says:

        Cyber punk and the 70’s punk movement, now I’m intrigued. In any case you’ve succeeded in convincing me to explore SP
        more. Thanks Jay!

        • Always welcome. There’s some fun stuff out there in the genre, an some very talented peeps working in it. 🙂
          The link between cyberpunk and steampunk is pretty tenuous, tbh. A lot of SP writers looks at SP as a way to explore brighter yesterdays, back when the world was grand and wide-eyed and innocent, and let’s ignore all that nasty history stuff like slavery and child-prostitution and whatnot. The machine isn’t really the enemy in a lot of SP.
          I tried to do something a little more traditionally ‘punk-ish’, and go for a more anti-establishment/authority type vibe. The ‘punk’ part of steampunk gets ignored to much, to my mind. But again, that’s the cool thing about the genre – with so few rules, it means lots of things to lots of different people.

  2. Tygenco says:

    In the grand scheme of things, I’ll stick with writing/drawing fiction and let the fans decide which sub-genre said things might be defined as.
    Punkery of Steam should be the name of your Abney Park tribute band. 😛
    I’m hoping people (in the general sense) will actually take the moment to think a bit about what you’ve said here because you’ve brought up excellent points.
    Side note, have you ever seen Steam Boy? It’s brilliant.

    • I haven’t seen Steamboy, nope. I am on a bit of a anime trip atm, though. Tried Full Metal Alchemist (didn’t like it) and now I’m watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (which I really dig). So I’ll put Steamboy on the list. 🙂

    • Indeed. Genre in the eye of the beholder.
      Lol, I’m not sure AP would want me doing the tributes, tbh 😀
      I haven’t seen Steamboy, nope. But I’m on a bit of an anime trip atm (tried Full Metal Alchemist, now I’m doing Avatar: The last Airbender) so I’ll put it on the list.

  3. A-bomb says:

    We are never, ever, ever going to agree on a definition of steampunk, so in the interests of martial harmony I’ll refrain from explaining in this forum all the reasons you are WRONG.
    Instead, I’ll ask about the “punk” part, which you went into in some detail in an earlier post you wrote about defining steampunk. I think the idea that punk = anger is interesting and relevant – any reason it didn’t make it into this article?

    • Having read around, it’s not a universally held opinion. A lot of folks see steampunk as harkening back to a halcyon ‘better’ day (ignoring all the unpleasantries of real life 19th century existence like, oh sayyyy SLAVERY and CHILD PROSTITUTION) and avoid the punk aspect altogether.
      So while I certainly think steampunk should contain an element of Rage Against the Machine, not everybody does.

    • I guess it’s just not a universally held view. I certainly think the ‘punk’ element of SP is very important, but a lot of creators/scenesters don’t buy into it at all.

  4. Ray Dean says:

    I don’t doubt that the debate will continue on forever… but that’s part of the fun… some people like the fantasy aspect (magic/fairies/etc) but I enjoy the more industrial concept… hard chunks of coal/metal and hot steam escaping vents… but that’s the fun… and yes, I’m having fun.
    Great post 😀

    • Exactly, it’s totally part of the fun. if anyone actually succeeds in nailing it down, that’s when it will stop being fun for me, and I’d wager, most other creators in the scene. That’s why I try to keep the definition as vague as possible 9which annoys some people, but hey)
      Fun is coloring outside the lines.

  5. Great post!
    Steampunk is a very fun genre to read/write, although I get kind of choked up whenever I write something set in even the vaguest of steampunk settings. (I love the steampunk world portrayed in THE IRON THORN, if you haven’t checked that out.)
    Also, I never actually thought of just having fun with the genre. My WIP is clockpunk-ish (hurr hurr) but I always feel like I have to write to certain strict guidelines. Let’s hope I can get out of this mindset, because it’s really taking a toll on my progress!

  6. Upon reflection, I’m not sure how I first stumbled across your blog, but it’s become my “must read” morning blog list. You’ve got a way of being informative and funny (and sometimes profane) that I love.
    I’ll definitely be helping you with your mortgage payment come September. STORMDANCER is my kind of steampunk/wuxia mash-up… even if it is Japanese not Chinese. Would that be bushido then? Too many terms to debate, so little time…

    • Very much agreed Stephanie 🙂

    • Aw, thanks Stephanie, that’s very nice of you to say. I appreciate the time you spend here, even if you do have to dodge the occasional F-bomb 🙂 (I’m worse in real life, trust me :P)
      Bushido does indeed plays an important part in the book. There IS a samurai caste in the setting and they do follow Bushido. Pretty hard to separate the samurai from their code, so it pretty much made it through unscathed. Only difference is, my samurai are running around in power-armor with chainsaw katanas 🙂

      • You had me at “chainsaw katanas.” If you need a reviewer when the time comes, I’m your huckleberry.
        And your F-bombs don’t bother me. Sometimes, life necessitates the dropping of an F-bomb.

        • Oooh, Tombstone reference! Val Kilmer was great in that flick.
          I’m sure I’ll need all the reviewers I can get, lol 🙂
          And yeah, with you on the F-bomb protocol. Although I’m shooting those things like a machine gun some days…

  7. beckyday6 says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve been trying to understand what Steampunk is for ages, now I think I finally get it.

  8. steampunkdistrict says:

    Thanks for this nicely written article. I like your view and description about the steampunk genre in literature. There aren’t a lot of good written articles about the definition – maybe too few people have the gutts 😉

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