Steampunk is a mix of antique aesthetics and futuristic technology.It can explore the abuses of science and technology—or just tell a good story.
Last week, we covered cyberpunk, which can be considered the original “punk” subgenre of speculative fiction. Steampunk could be described as cyberpunk’s eccentric great-aunt. While cyberpunk tends to deal with the present or near future, steampunk deals with the past, what it could have been, and what it says about society today.
Even if you’ve never read anything from the steampunk genre, you might be familiar with the concept. The world never developed past steam, which hasn’t stopped humanity from developing massive airships or artificial intelligence. Everyone wears corsets and top hats, and for some reason, all their clothes have gears on them, and everyone’s wearing goggles.
Steampunk has a reputation in some circles for being a silly trend—basically an attempt to rewrite the past and make it seem a lot cooler than it actually was. However, the genre has also produced some pretty amazing works. While steampunk can be a shallow aesthetic, it can also be an excellent way for writers to examine the roots of social issues like classism, sexism, and racism, and how those things still survive in the present day.
The Origins of Steampunk
Unlike cyberpunk, which is generally agreed to have started with Neuromancer in 1984, the origins of the steampunk genre are less clear. The term “steampunk” was coined in 1987 by the science fiction author K.W. Jeter, to describe his 1979 novel Morlock Night. The book was based on H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine which has been described as a precursor to steampunk.
However, the genre itself may predate its name. While Mervyn Peake, the author of the Gormenghast trilogy, wouldn’t have recognized the term steampunk when he finished the trilogy in 1959, the trilogy has several steampunk elements. The first two books of the trilogy were pretty straightforward fantasy, taking place in a gloomy castle full of eccentric characters. Despite taking place in the same world, Titus Alone had some sci-fi elements, making it a precursor to today’s steampunk settings.
Before that, steampunk had ancestors in the works of early science fiction. These authors were, in their time, chronicling the future instead of the alternate past. Jules Verne‘s adventure novels, Mary Shelley’s artificial human in Frankenstein, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine were all inspirations for steampunk. Several modern steampunk stories, such as Morlock Night, references these earlier stories directly.
Writing a Steampunk Story
There are two ways you can go about writing steampunk. The first way is aesthetical. This kind of story might sometimes get a bad rap for being unrealistic or romanticizing the none-too-pretty past, but it’s possible to write steampunk without doing that.
The steampunk aesthetic can be a great way to have fun as an author since the ridiculousness of its premise can free you from expectations of realism. Who cares if gravity doesn’t work like that, or if steam power isn’t that strong? We’re driving a blimp around the world in 79 days. Reality, for the time being, is on hold.
The second way to write steampunk is to take on the nasty underside of whatever historical era you’re spoofing. This can include issues like sexism, classism, imperialism, or any combination—and face them head-on. In this sort of setting, steampunk technology can be used to resist or solve those issues, or as a tool of oppressive forces to make things even worse.
If you’re going to try to tackle any social issues in your story, you’ll want to read up on your history first. If you don’t feel up to addressing those issues, there’s nothing wrong with having a wacky adventure full of airships and Victorian robots. Speculative fiction can be a great way to explore social problems and alternatives to injustice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.
If you’re thinking of writing a steampunk story, an excellent way to start would be to familiarize yourself with the genre. You might want to start by reading some of the genre’s ancestors. The works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, with their electric submarines and time machines, were significant influences on steampunk technology.
To familiarize yourself with modern steampunk, I’d suggest the Steampunk anthology, along with Steampunk Reloaded and Steampunk Revolution by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. These three short story anthologies contain a wide variety of steampunk and retro-futuristic stories by authors from all over the globe. Also, they’ve got a nice mix of serious and aesthetic stories, giving readers a full view of the genre.
Like cyberpunk, steampunk can be an excellent way for speculative fiction authors to explore social issues through futuristic technology and fictional settings. It’s also a great way to have fun if you like writing science fiction or adventures. Really, it’s up to you.