Steampunk. It’s a literary term at its core but it is also a sort of movement that has been constantly growing in popularity. The problem is that steampunk is really fucking confusing. And it doesn’t have to be. The culture of steampunk however tends to highlight different aspects than its literary foundation and that can get pretty convoluted. It’s also a very flexible genre, allowing for many variations on the genre itself.
Here’s the deal. Steampunk is fantasy or science-fiction set in an era that heavily relies on steam power. This means primarily the Victorian era or the Old American West. That’s one of the most confusing aspects. At steampunk parties (which are a lot of fun and I highly recommend going to a larger one, if only for the excuse to dress up), the outfits look more like those of a wanton barmaid in the Old West. But most people define steampunk as only Victorian so you can see why some of the confusion is there. See how simply the term breaks down? “Steam”, for the steam powered machinery of the time periods the works are set in. The punk is because authors are allowed (& encouraged really) to break typical fantasy, sci-fi, or historical rules in order to tell the story.
Out of the literary aspect of steampunk has risen quite the subculture. Parties, events, decor, crafts, clothing and accessories can all be found featuring the steampunk vein. In a way, it combines the elements of a romantic nature with masculinity. Think of the way a single piece of menswear combined with a more feminine outfit causes the entire piece to stand out. Or high tea with robots if that’s a better description.
If you’re interested in steampunk, start with the classics. Jules Verne & HG Wells works are foundational works for steampunk writers. The term hadn’t yet been developed but those books definitely inspired the current genre. You’ll also want to read Michael Moorcock’s “The Warlord of the Air”. From there you have a lot of options. I really enjoyed “The Girl in the Steel Corset” by Kady Cross, the comic series “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan” series and Cassandra Clare’s “The Infernal Devices” series for steampunk book choices. Phillip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass is within the steampunk genre as is Tim Powers “The Anubis Gates”.
Cherie Priest is an excellent steampunk writer. One of my favorites. I’ll also clue you in on a little tip. If you see a book with the word “clockwork” in the title, it’s probably steampunk. Not always but that’s a popular word among steampunk writers. One called “The Greyfriar” blends vampires and steampunk as do Gail Carriger’s works. While these two are excellent blends, not all attempts to combine vampires and steampunk work out so well. Kevin J. Anderson, author of numerous best-selling “Dune” and “Star Wars” books has also written a couple steampunk works, the best of which is “Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius”. The book plays off the infamous from Jules Verne’s novel and is a definite favorite of mine. A couple books I haven’t had the chance to read yet are “The Iron Duke” and “The Alchemy of Stone” both of which have received rave reviews.
Hopefully that helps clear up steampunk’s unnecessary mystery and gives you a start on a reading list. If you prefer to choose a film introduction to steampunk, you’ve probably already experienced this world. “Van Helsing”, “Sherlock Holmes”, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, “The Prestige”, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, “Hellboy” and “Brazil” are all steampunk films.
The primary thing to remember when looking at steampunk is how flexible it is as a genre. Often the sci-fi influenced works seem more obviously steampunk because they focus on the machinery of the West or Victorian era and make it a bigger part of the book’s world, that can be set in other eras. Whereas fantasy inspired steampunk utilizes the time period and historical aspects as a foundation and adds fantastical elements. Books though can incorporate both. The reason it can be so hard to define is that by including even small elements of steampowered machinery or Victorian or Wild West influences, a sci-fi or fantasy writer can make a case for steampunk. The best way to understand the nuances is honestly just to read the various books. And then don’t stress about it. Half the steampunk fans out there probably couldn’t truly define the term.