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What is Steampunk?

Updated on January 10, 2012
Yeah, it's kinda like that.
Yeah, it's kinda like that.

Where Fantasy Meets the Industrial Revolution

Though it might technically be considered a sub-genre of fantasy (or science fiction), Steampunk takes the whole idea of swords and sorcery to a new level entirely. Usually set in a environment very similar to the progressive, inventive and pioneering days of the late 1880's and the turn of the last century, Steampunk pushes the envelope of what Arthur Conan Doyle or Jules Verne might have written, taking the steam technology and scientific theory of the time to titanic heights.

The Path Not Taken

Imagine a world where steam technology became more widespread and versatile than petroleum and electricity, a world where the zepplin and the blimp were the kings of the sky, where the romantic, progressive, and stylish conventions of the Victorian Era were never abandoned in favor of plastics, streamlined chrome, and mass production. Imagine a world where intricate clockwork makes possible wonders that border on science fiction, where ideas and inventions like Nikolai Tesla's and Leonardo Da Vinci's collide and take on new life. This is the world of Steampunk.

And the best part is, it's everywhere, if you know how to look for it. The influence of Steampunk can be seen in films, from Wild Wild West to The Golden Compass, even the cobbled-together rigs of Spacehunter look like something out of a rustic Victorian outland. Consider also Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Steamboy, which takes the genre and thrusts it firmly into the anime limelight-- there are countless others, from Howl's Moving Castle to Castle in the Sky that fall into this category as well-- and that doesn't even cover books.

Steampunk Books

As a writer and an avid reader, this is where the genre gets good for me. I'm a junkie for all the 'punks, so I snap up anything Steampunk (or Cyberpunk, but that's another topic altogether!) that comes mashed between two covers, whether it be short, long, graphic or otherwise. So where does one find books with a Steampunk twist? Consider these recommendations:

Anthologies are a great place to start. Heck, Tachyon just released a new anthology called Steampunk that contains nothing but what you're looking for. Barring that, I highly recommend Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines to kick off his Hungry City Chronicles, or the graphic novel The Five Fists of Science which stars a dynamic duo of Mark Twain and Nikolai Tesla as they fight the demonic hordes of J.P. Morgan at the turn of the last century. Other awesome books that deserve a look are Alan Campbell's Scar Night, Whitechapel Gods, Steampunk: Manimatron, and of course, literary god Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.


And If Books Just Aren't Your Thing...

Steampunk has also made it's appearance in Videogames. One of my favorite examples is Rise of Legends, which features the steam-driven Vinci, whose technology goes as far as massive land-leveling cannons and airscrew bombers that pound the ground with heavy ordinance. Another good example would be the PC RPG Arcanum (Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura) which is firmly rooted in the Steampunk world, or a good console counterpart: Final Fantasy XII.

Steampunk as a Movement

"If three people do it... they may think it's an organization! And can you imagine fifty people a day? ...friends, they may think it's a movement."-Arlo Guthrie

Like Cyberpunk, steampunk has a following outside of fiction as well-- the term has been used to describe a resurgence in Victorian Era styles accented by rivets and clockwork and rust and other things that, while industrial and victorian in their own way, give the genre it's punk flavoring.

But the Victorian Era was flavored a little different in the American west of the 1880's, and where Steampunk treads into this frontier it begins to blur the lines between westerns and space-westerns, filling the space in-between with elegant artistry, caligraphy, and clockwork war-machines powered by steam. I'd have to say that the aforementioned Wild Wild West is an excellent example of this.

So if you like the character and flash and romaticism of the Victorian Era, the rust of the Industrial Revolution, or the gritty quickdraws of westerns, and the idea of taking the technological "road less traveled" makes you even a little bit excited, then Steampunk is the thing for you. Follow the links below (or anywhere else on the page) for more Steampunk goodness!


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    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 7 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Ah, yes, you are correct. There's a lot of crossover between the genres, though. As mentioned in a comment on another of your hubs, I blame the dirigible.

    • Earl S. Wynn profile image

      Earl S. Wynn 7 years ago from California

      Good eye! Bioshock actually came out after I wrote this article (I think) and it falls more into the category of Dieselpunk. (20's-40's interbellum aesthetic.)

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 7 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      I'm surprised you didn't include Bioshock as an example of a Steampunk video game.

      Good stuff, as always.

    • anime_nanet profile image

      anime_nanet 9 years ago from Portugal

      You can watch a steam-punk movie right here in hubpages.

      Check out the classic How's Moving castle in: