What is Steampunk Fiction?

What is Steampunk Fiction?

By Steampunk Origins | Updated Oct 09, 2019

what is steampunk fiction

Is Steampunk fiction something that I can come across easily and is it a common genre in the literary world? Has Steampunk fiction ever been made into movies? What is Steampunk fiction?

Steampunk fiction features plenty of ‘retro-futuristic’ inventions as people might have envisioned them in the future. The technology that was described included fictional machinery like those found in the works of H.G Wells and most notably, Jules Verne. Modern-day Steampunk fiction writers include: Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfield and Stephen Hunt.

What is Steampunk Fiction?

A genre of books, films and games, steampunk is set in the world of Victorian science-fiction. The science-obsessed Victorians were the first to create speculative fantasies about what we might be able to achieve with technology: HG Wells's The Time Machine, Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

Since the 1960s, writers who grew up loving these Victorian fantasies have been creating their own – full of clanking machinery, brass spectacles, ingenious clockwork inventions by eccentric professors, and – the signature steampunk item – flights by Zeppelin.

How Steampunk Fiction Features in the World of Literature and Film

Nowadays it can be found under the umbrella of other speculative fiction genres. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is undeniably a fantasy novel as well as being a steampunk classic, and Alan Campbell’s Scar Night is a horror novel with steampunk DNA.

It’s still inadequate to explain steampunk as just ‘Victorian Fantasy.’ The most common theme is to show a world where humanity, usually set in the Victorian era, has adopted technologies that combine past and future – think ‘steam-powered, gear-driven time machine’.

But the genre encompasses much more than that, from the Darwinists’ genetically modified creatures in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, to elements of the supernatural in Powers’ The Anubis Gates, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, and the more recent Soulless by Gail Carriger.

Let’s take a look at five very good examples of Steampunk fiction and the different avenues it can take in terms of storyline:

1. The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers (1997)

This is what Hollywood executives call a ‘high concept’ novel. If it hadn’t been well-written it would still enthral as the idea is simply too strong to fail. Think Dan Brown, but with well-constructed sentences and pre-echoes of Roland Emmerich’s popcorn movie ‘Stargate’ (source).

2. The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

The Difference Engine outlines the iconography and ideology of the New World. In the alternative reality brought vividly to life in The Difference Engine (1991), the 19th century mathematician Charles Babbage not only conceived the titular apparatus, a mechanical computer, but lived to build it and in doing so, ushered in the information age in parallel with the industrial revolution.

3. The Martian Ambassador, Alan Baker (2011)

This sees another odd couple pitted against dastardly villains in a neo-Victorian setting. Special Investigator Thomas Blackwood is partnered with Lady Sophia Harrington to track down and unmask the evil villain behind the assassination of an alien diplomat, a crime which has strained relations between Earth and the Red Planet (source).

4. Johannes Cabal the Detective, Jonathan L. Howard (2011)

A similar whimsical tone is taken by Howard whose insouciant period pastiches feature his alter ego, Johannes Cabal, a suave aristocratic necromancer turned detective. Howard’s artful reimagining of an Edwardian England has anti-gravity airships traveling along ley lines, fantastic but unfeasible technology in everyday use and insect-like helicopters swarming the skies (source).

5. The Executioner's Heart, George Mann (2013)

By the late Noughties Steampunk had graduated to the mainstream and the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs saw publishers scrambling for the rights to any Young Adult or SF novel featuring a feisty female in crinoline, or a leather corset brandishing a large automatic weapon as she stalked fog shrouded streets in search of supernatural prey (source).

What is Steampunk Fiction?

So, what is Steampunk fiction? Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that, as the name suggests, comes from the idea that technology never developed beyond steampunk. The science can deviate a bit from there, but that’s generally where it all starts. It’s a look into what could have happened had science and industry taken a different turn, but didn’t.

It’s a highly enjoyable genre that can easily transport the reader to an alternate realm and it has consistently proved that its formula works in both books and film. With a massive library available, Steampunk fiction has proved that a look into the future that never was, or might eventually be, results in gripping reading material for people of all ages.

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