Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. Steampunk involves a setting where steam power is still widely used—usually the Victorian era Britain—that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them; based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc. This technology may include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.
Other examples of steampunk contain alternative history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s Analytical engine.
Steampunk is sometimes compared to cyberpunk, although apart from the shared origins of the name, they have almost nothing in common. Their time period and level of technology are different and steampunk settings also tend to be less dystopian.
Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by individual artisans into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical “steampunk” style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk.
Although many works now considered seminal to the genre were published in the 1960s and 1970s, the term steampunk originated in the late 1980s as a tongue in cheek variant of cyberpunk. It seems to have been coined by science fiction author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for works by Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates, 1983); James Blaylock (Homunculus, 1986); and himself (Morlock Night, 1979, and Infernal Devices, 1987)—all of which took place in a 19th-century (usually Victorian) setting and imitated conventions of such actual Victorian speculative fiction as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In a letter to science fiction magazine Locus, printed in the April 1987 issue, Jeter wrote:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…
Steampunk was influenced by, and often adopts the style of, the 19th century scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, and Mary Shelley.
Perhaps the most well known example of steampunk is Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine in Walt Disney’s 1954 film version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Several works of fiction significant to the development of the genre were produced before the genre had a name. Titus Alone (1959), by Mervyn Peake, anticipated many of the tropes of steampunk. One of the earliest mainstream manifestations of the steampunk ethos was the original CBS television series The Wild Wild West (1965–69), which inspired the film Wild Wild West (1999). The film Brazil (1985) was an important early cinematic influence to the genre.
Because he coined the term, K.W. Jeter’s novel Morlock Night (1979) is typically considered to have established the genre. Keith Laumer made an early contribution with Worlds of the Imperium (1962). Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb (1967) and Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air (1971) have been cited as early influences. Harry Harrison’s novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1973) portrays a British Empire of an alternate 1973, full of atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, ornate submarines, and Victorian dialogue. In February 1980 Richard A. Lupoff and Steve Stiles published the first “chapter” of their 10-part comic strip The Adventures of Professor Thintwhistle and His Incredible Aether Flyer.
1988 saw the publication of the first version of the science fiction roleplaying game Space: 1889, set in an alternate history in which certain discredited Victorian scientific theories were instead provable and have led to the existence of new technologies. Contributing authors included Frank Chadwick, Loren Wiseman, and Marcus Rowland.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s 1990 novel The Difference Engine is often credited with bringing widespread awareness of steampunk to a wider readership. This novel applies the principles of Gibson and Sterling’s cyberpunk writings to an alternate Victorian era where Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s proposed steam-powered mechanical computer, which Babbage called a difference engine (a later, more general-purpose version was known as an analytical engine), was actually built, and led to the dawn of the information age more than a century “ahead of schedule”.
The first use of the word in a title was in Paul Di Filippo’s 1995 Steampunk Trilogy, consisting of three short novels: “Victoria,” “Hottentots,” and “Walt and Emily,” which respectively imagine the replacement of Queen Victoria by a human/newt clone, an invasion of Massachusetts by Lovecraftian monsters, and a love affair between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, a 1990s TV science fiction-western set in the 1890s, on Fox Network, used elements of steampunk via the character Professor Wickwire, whose inventions were described as “the coming thing.” Alan Moore’s and Kevin O’Neill’s 1999 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel series (and the subsequent 2003 film adaption) greatly popularized the steampunk genre.
Nick Gevers’s 2008 original anthology Extraordinary Engines features new steampunk stories by some of the form’s pre-eminent practitioners, as well as other leading science fiction and fantasy writers experimenting with neo-Victorian conventions. A major retrospective, reprint anthology of steampunk fiction was released, also in 2008, by Tachyon Publications; edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and appropriately entitled Steampunk, it collects stories by James Blaylock, whose “Narbondo” trilogy is typically considered steampunk; Jay Lake, author of the novel Mainspring, sometimes labeled “clockpunk”; the aforementioned Michael Moorcock; as well as Jess Nevins, famed for his annotations to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
While most of the original steampunk works had a historical setting, later works would often place steampunk elements in a fantasy world with little relation to any specific historical era. Historical steampunk tends to be more “science fictional:” presenting an alternate history; real locales and persons from history with different technology. Fantasy-world steampunk, such as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian novels, on the other hand, presents steampunk in a completely imaginary fantasy realm, often populated by legendary creatures coexisting with steam-era or anachronistic technologies.
Self-described and popular author of “far fetched fiction” Robert Rankin has over many novels increasingly incorporated elements of steampunk into narrative worlds, both Victorian and re-imagined contemporary. He was in 2009 made a Fellow of the Victorian Steampunk Society.
In general, the category includes any recent science fiction that takes place in a recognizable historical period (sometimes an alternate history version of an actual historical period) where the Industrial Revolution has already begun but electricity is not yet widespread, with an emphasis on steam- or spring-propelled gadgets. The most common historical steampunk settings are the Victorian and Edwardian eras, though some in this “Victorian steampunk” category can go as early as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some examples of this type include the novel The Difference Engine, the comic book series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the Anime series Fullmetal Alchemist and the roleplaying game Space: 1889. Some, such as the comic series Girl Genius, have their own unique times and places despite partaking heavily of the flavor of historic times and settings.
Karel Zeman’s film The Fabulous World of Jules Verne from 1958 is a very early example of cinematic steampunk. Based on Jules Verne novels, Zeman’s film imagines a past based on those novels which never was. Other early examples of historical steampunk in cinema include Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Both contain many archetypal anachronisms characteristic of the Steampunk genre.
Historical steampunk usually leans more towards science fiction than fantasy, but there have been a number of historical steampunk stories that incorporated magical elements as well. For example, Morlock Night, written by K. W. Jeter, revolves around an attempt by the wizard Merlin to raise King Arthur to save the Britain of 1892 from an invasion of Morlocks from the future. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers involves a cabal of magicians among the beggars and thieves of the early 19th century London underworld.
Paul Guinan’s Boilerplate, the biography of a robot in the late 19th century, began as a website that garnered international press coverage when people began believing that Photoshop images of the robot with historic personages were real. The site was adapted into an illustrated hardbound book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, and published by Abrams in October 2009. Because the story was not set in an alternate history, and in fact contained accurate information about the Victorian era, some booksellers referred to the tome as “historical steampunk.”
Since the 1990s, the application of the steampunk label has expanded beyond works set in recognizable historical periods (usually the 19th century) to works set in fantasy worlds that rely heavily on steam- or spring-powered technology.
Fantasy steampunk settings abound in tabletop and computer role-playing games. Notable examples include Skies of Arcadia: Legends, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy IX, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.
The gnomes and goblins in World of Warcraft also have technological societies that could be described as Steampunk as they are vastly ahead of the technologies of Men, and are not magical like those of the Elves.
In between the historical and fantasy sub-genres of steampunk is a type which takes place in a hypothetical future or a fantasy equivalent of our future where steampunk-style technology and aesthetics have come to dominate. Examples include the anime series Turn A Gundam (1999–2000), “Trigun,” and Hayao Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic anime Future Boy Conan (1978), and Disney’s film Treasure Planet (2002).
John Clute and John Grant have introduced the category gaslight romance or gaslamp fantasy. According to them, “steampunk stories are most commonly set in a romanticized, smoky, 19th-century London, as are Gaslight Romances. But the latter category focuses nostalgically on icons from the late years of that century and the early years of the 20th century–on Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and even Tarzan–and can normally be understood as combining supernatural fiction and recursive fantasy, though some gaslight romances can be read as fantasies of history.”
The term steamgoth, coined by author and artist James Richardson-Brown, emphasizes a far darker view of Steampunk’s anachronisms.
Another setting is Western steampunk, which overlaps with both the Weird West and Science fiction Western subgenres. Several other categories have arisen sharing similar naming structures, including dieselpunk, clockpunk, and others. Most of these terms were invented for supplements to the GURPS roleplaying game, and are not used in other contexts.
Various modern utilitarian objects have been modified by enthusiasts into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical “steampunk” style. Example objects include computer keyboards and electric guitars. The goal of such redesigns is to employ appropriate materials (such as polished brass, iron, wood, and leather) with design elements and craftsmanship consistent with the Victorian era. The artist group Kinetic Steam Works brought a working steam engine to the Burning Man festival in 2006 and 2007. The group’s founding member, Sean Orlando, created a Steampunk Tree House (in association with a group of people who would later form the Five Ton Crane Arts Group) that has been displayed at a number of festivals. The Steampunk Tree House is now permanently installed at the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware.
In May–June 2008, multimedia artist and sculptor Paul St George exhibited outdoor interactive video installations linking London and Brooklyn, New York City in a Victorian era-styled telectroscope. Evelyn Kriete, a promoter and Brass Goggles contributor, organized a trans-atlantic wave by steampunk enthusiasts from both cities, briefly prior to White Mischief’s Around the World in 80 Days steampunk-themed event.
In 2009 artist Tim Wetherell created a large wall piece for Questacon representing the concept of the clockwork universe. This steel artwork contains moving gears, a working clock, and a movie of the moon’s terminator in action. The 3D moon movie was created by Antony Williams.
The Syfy series Warehouse 13 features many steampunk-inspired objects and artifacts, including computer designs created by steampunk artisan Richard Nagy, aka “Datamancer”.
The BBC series Doctor Who also incorporates steampunk elements in the design of the Doctor’s time machine, the Tardis, first presented in the 1996 American co-production when the Tardis interior was re-designed to resemble an almost Victorian library with the central control console made up of eclectic and anachronistic objects. Modified and streamlined for the 2005 revival of the series, the Tardis console continues to incorporate steampunk elements, including a Victorian typewriter and gramophone.
From October 2009 through February 2010, the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford hosted the first major exhibition of Steampunk art objects, curated by Art Donovan and presented by Dr. Jim Bennett, museum director. From redesigned practical items to fantastical contraptions, this exhibition showcased the work of eighteen Steampunk artists from across the globe. The exhibition proved to be the most successful in the museum’s history and attracted more than eighty thousand visitors.
Because of the popularity of steampunk with goths, punks, cybergoths, industrial music fans, and gamers, there is a growing movement towards establishing steampunk as a culture and lifestyle. Some fans of the genre adopt a steampunk aesthetic through fashion, home decor, music, and film. This may be described as neo-Victorianism, which is the amalgamation of Victorian aesthetic principles with modern sensibilities and technologies. Some have proposed a steampunk philosophy, sometimes with punk-inspired anti-establishment sentiments, and typically bolstered by optimism about human potential.
Steampunk fashion has no set guidelines, but tends to synthesize modern styles influenced by the Victorian era. This may include gowns, corsets, petticoats and bustles; suits with vests, coats and spats; or military-inspired garments. Steampunk-influenced outfits will often be accented with a mixture of technological and period accessories: timepieces, parasols, goggles, and ray guns. Modern accessories like cell phones or music players can be found in steampunk outfits, after being modified to give them the appearance of Victorian-made objects. Aspects of steampunk fashion have been anticipated by mainstream high fashion, the Lolita fashion and aristocrat styles, neo-Victorianism, and the romantic goth subculture.
Steampunk music is even less defined, as Caroline Sullivan says in The Guardian: “Internet debates rage about exactly what constitutes the steampunk sound.” This range of steampunk musical styles can be heard in the work of various steampunk artists, from the industrial dance/world music of Abney Park, the inventor/singer-songwriter creations of Thomas Truax, the Carnatic influenced music of Sunday Driver, the “industrial hip-hop opera” of Doctor Steel, the darkwave and progressive rock sounds of Vernian Process, the Unextraordinary Gentlemen, the electronic sounds of The Wet-Glass RO, Darcy James Argue’s 18-piece big band Secret Society and the musical storytelling of Escape the Clouds. The British-American composer David Bruce’s 2010 octet ‘Steampunk’ was commissioned by Carnegie Hall.
In 2006, SalonCon, the first ever Neo-Victorian/Steampunk convention, was held. It ran for three consecutive years and featured artists, musicians (Voltaire and Abney Park), authors (Catherynne M. Valente, Ekaterina Sedia, and G. D. Falksen), salons led by people prominent in their respective fields, workshops and panels on Steampunk as well as a seance, ballroom dance instruction, and the Chrononauts’ Parade. The event was covered by MTV and The New York Times
Steampunk has also become a regular feature at San Diego Comic-Con International in recent years, with the Saturday of the four-day event being generally known among steampunks as “Steampunk Day”, and culminating with a photoshoot for the local press. The Saturday steampunk “after-party” has also become a major event on the steampunk social calendar; in 2010 the headliners included The Slow Poisoner, Unextraordinary Gentlemen and Voltaire, with Veronique Chevalier as Mistress of Ceremonies and special appearance by the League of STEAM, and in 2011 UXG returned with Abney Park.
Steampunk has begun to attract notice from more “mainstream” sources, as well: The episode of the TV series Castle entitled “Punked”, which aired on October 11, 2010, prominently featured the steampunk subculture and used a number of Los Angeles-area steampunks as extras (an earlier episode of NCIS:LA had Abby going to a “steampunk” bar in a segment which was soundly criticized by the steampunk community); the Nashville-based country-rock band Sugarland used steampunk-styled lettering for the cover of their October 19, 2010 album The Incredible Machine, and their stage act featured steampunk-inspired costumes; Canadian supergroup Rush included steampunk elements in their 2011 “Time Machine” tour, including steampunked amps and instruments; the comic strip Luann showed the title character dressed in steampunk fashion for Halloween on October 31, 2010, and in February 2011, the band Panic! at the Disco released a music video for their new single, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa,” depicting a steampunk wake. The video included appearances by the League of STEAM, who also served as consultants and provided costume pieces for the band.