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SteamPunk: The Marriage of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Updated on March 9, 2011
M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer is the author of four novels and received a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing from Grand Valley State University.

A portrait of a SteamPunk inspired woman.
A portrait of a SteamPunk inspired woman.

What the heck is SteamPunk? If you’re unfamiliar with the sub-genre, start by thinking back to the age of steam trains and boats. Picture giant metallic gears that turn slowly to move the hands on a clock. Then think of fictional inventions that existed in print long before their time; Jules Verne’s Nautilus or H. G. Well’s Time Machine. Now picture a world where you are surrounded by all of this; clockwork inventions replacing the modern technology we know and use today. Now you’re starting to get an idea what SteamPunk is.

According to Wikipedia (the infallible source for all information) SteamPunk was popular as far back as the 1980s, however I didn’t find out about it until the last few years where it has experienced a sort of resurgence with the help of books, art and Facebook games. Yet, even though I didn’t learn the name until recently, I was unknowingly familiar with the genre. Movies like Wild Wild West, which came out in 1999, was SteamPunk and I didn’t even realize it. So the genre has been there for some time, it just took me forever to focus in on it.

Now, I’m a big fan of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres and it seems like SteamPunk has fallen into place within my mind like a Lego that was always meant to be there. I enjoy the imagination and ingenuity of SteamPunk and the sense of an alternate Victorian history creates a mood that is easy to get into, yet hard to leave. I began to wonder where this genre came from and why I liked it so much; even though I had very little experience with it. Again, according to Wikipedia, the term was coined by Science Fiction author, K. W. Jeter as a play on words from the cyberpunk genre. It was intended to encompass not only his works but works of other competing authors at the time, all of them influenced by the works of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Mary Shelly, to name a few. Its history is actually quite interesting and I encourage anyone to read about it (even if Wikipedia is making things up.)

This image, titled "Exodus", was my first attempt at rendering SteamPunk themed art. I think it turned out pretty well.
This image, titled "Exodus", was my first attempt at rendering SteamPunk themed art. I think it turned out pretty well.

As a writer of fantasy, I haven’t given a huge amount of thought to the sub-genres. Technically, everything I’ve read is in some sort of sub-genre, but rarely does it enter my mind that that’s what I’m reading. When I think of fantasy, I generally think of “high-fantasy” or “sword and sorcery” fantasy, which is usually the magic in a medieval setting (I try not to include elves in my own writing). Even though these are most commonly associated with the general term ‘fantasy’ they’re both sub-genres, in much the same way that cyberpunk is a sub-genre of Science Fiction.  It is my opinion that, the sub-genre SteamPunk, is the marriage of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres (in their general ideas at least).

I’m going to use an example that might come as a surprise to some people: World of Warcraft. The MMORPG is, at first glance, high fantasy. You have the medieval architecture, elves, magic; everything you would traditionally associate with fantasy. But you also have gnomes and goblins. Those gnomes and goblins are the best engineers, making clockwork style machines since the game’s launch in 2004. Since then their influence has only spread throughout the game, making a motorcycle, helicopter or mechanical squirrel a common sight. And yet, despite this clash of technology and medieval architecture, it works. I don’t believe it would have integrated as seamlessly if the engineering style wasn’t SteamPunk. So, in my mind, SteamPunk is advanced technology (science fiction) that has the ability to fit into fantasy settings, whether it’s high fantasy or a Victorian alternate history. So, even though it’s a sub-genre, it arguably has an equal amount potential for creative expansion as Fantasy or Science Fiction.

That isn’t to say, however, that a more modern style of technology can’t be integrated with fantasy. Star Wars is the perfect example of when technology meets magic. But in that example, I feel like a traditional science fiction story incorporated magic as opposed to steampunk which feels more like a traditional fantasy story incorporated technology. Plus, any science fiction that incorporates magic will instantly be compared to star wars, where as steampunk doesn’t have a gold standard for people to judge new stories by, and therefore has more room  for creative interpretation.

Another good example of SteamPunk marrying the two genres is the video game Bioshock. The game takes place in an alternate past where an underwater city, known as ‘Rapture’, uses a number of SteamPunk style inventions to explain how a city can exist under water. The style has an early 20th century vibe to it, but I would still argue it is SteamPunk and the introduction of plasmids (genetic altering shots to give you magical powers) proves once again that the two genres can co-exist in the same space.

I admit, I’m still new to this sub-genre, so I’m no expert. These are all assertions I’ve made since I took interest in it. But, from what I’ve seen so far, there is a lot of potential here and I hope to see it gain in popularity in each area of entertainment whether it be books, movies, tv or video games.


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    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 4 years ago from United States

      nsnorth - I'm not as hardcore of a gamer as I used to be, but I do try to keep up as much as possible. I've been hearing a lot of good things about dishonored, so I think I will have to look into it. Thanks for the comment and the suggestion!

    • nsnorth profile image

      nsnorth 4 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      I don't know how much of a gamer your are, but Dishonored was released a few months back, and it draws a lot on steam punk influences. You may want to check it out.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      ThePelton - Yeah, Wikipedia is a touchy source to use. At the time that I wrote this article the definition of steampunk matched up pretty well with what I had already learned about the genre and was an interesting read. But I knew that it might be changed which is why I mentioned above that Wikipedia might be lying. In the future I'll have to find a source that is a little more consistent. Thanks for the comment!

    • ThePelton profile image

      ThePelton 6 years ago from Martinsburg, WV USA

      I like your hub, but I do wish to quibble a bit about Wikipedia. That site can be edited, and in some cases sabotaged, but anyone who wants to write on it.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      zebulum - You're right, Steampunk is more complex than what I've laid out here, but I would still argue that the sub-genre makes it possible for science fiction and fantasy to co-exist in the same story. Like in the example with World of Warcraft. The game is rooted in the fantasy genre, and yet technology and engineering is prominently featured in the game. If it was the sleek technology we often think of from science fiction stories (like star trek) it wouldn't fit in the universe, but because it's Steampunk inspired, nobody questions it. Bioshock is another example where the Steampunk technology and landscapes are complimented by the plasmids which, even though rooted in the game's scientific explanation, are a very much like casting spells. I suppose one could make the argument that magic and other fantasy elements can exist in any kind of science fiction (like star wars) but in those scenarios the fantasy elements are added to a science fiction story. I feel that Steampunk allows for science fiction elements to be added to a fantasy story. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    • zebulum profile image

      zebulum 6 years ago from USA

      Steampunk is a bit more complex than this, and it isn't really fantasy so much as it is "Yesterday's Beliefs and Sciences" extrapolated upon, as all good science fiction likes to do with technology. It's not fantasy, at all, in fact, even when it has fantastickal stuff. In the yesterday, the beliefs were thought true, (like the belief in phlogistan) and doing the science fictional act of creating yesterday's tomorrows means, sometimes, making room for the stuff that they believed.

      Don't be confusing your Steampunk with your Decadents. The Decadent Movement in fantasy literature preceded Steampunk, and is continuing on without it just fine.

      But, you know, whatever.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      tdarby - Thanks for the compliment! SteamPunk really is starting to take off. :D

    • tdarby profile image

      tdarby 6 years ago

      Great hub--thanks for all the info. There is some really good steampunk being produced right now.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Rebecca E. - For the longest time, I wasn't sure what it meant either. The more I learned, the more I liked what the genre had to offer. Thanks for the comment!

      BobbiRant - Even though Wikipedia said it started in the 80's, I didn't find out about it until recently. Maybe I just wasn't looking hard enough back then, but there has definitely been a resurgence in popularity within the last few years which has brought it to a lot of people who have never heard of it. Thanks for the comment!

    • BobbiRant profile image

      BobbiRant 6 years ago from New York

      I didn't know much about this, even though I had teens in the 1980's so I probably should have known. Great informative hub.

    • Rebecca E. profile image

      Rebecca E. 6 years ago from Canada

      love this, and it has helped me know what others are talking about. Great job!

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Rusty - Thank you for the compliment!

    • Rusty C. Adore profile image

      C Levrow 6 years ago from Michigan

      Love this hub! I'm starting to take an interest in the whole SteamPunk thing as well. I like that you call it a marriage of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I think that is a good description.