What is Steampunk?
By Steampunk Origins | Updated Oct 09, 2019
It’s hard to exactly pin down what Steampunk is, which is why I’ve decided to show its influences across creative outlets, each waving their meta Victorian flags with pride, while adding something unique to a genre that started (like most good things) as a joke.
Steampunk emerged from the smoke and shadows of the sub-genre known as Cyber Punk. Driven by some of the World’s greatest Science Fiction writers: Roger Zelazny, Philip K Dick, and Harlan Ellison, Cyberpunk tended to focus on the juxtaposition of high tech and a crumbling social infrastructure (source).
Steampunk takes Cyber Punk and adds an extra dimension of fantasy to the mix, not to mention a lot of weirdness. Whereas Cyber-Punk tends to follow serious philosophical issues surrounding the advancement of technology in a morally and social complex World, Steampunk is free to explore all the edges, playing mostly with the idea of the individual and its significance in maintaining a soul (source).
There is hope In Steampunk, likely because at its core the genre is about standing against oppression and using tech or magic (sometimes the two are synonymous) to build a World where society and the self can co-exist, usually with something steam-powered chuffing away in the distance.
The aesthetics of Steampunk is often linked to Victorian fashion. Divided into class, the Steampunk is free to wear the latest in Meta-Victorian fashion: Petticoats and fifty button boots for the ladies, three-piece suits and tailored moustaches for the gentlemen.
The choice of hat is important in creating your image, whether it be a time travelling chimney sweep in their flat caps, the bowler hat wearing robot salesman, or the steam-powered stove pipe.
Steampunk isn’t tied to Victorian and can play around with Renaissance frilly shirts and Jacobean ruffs, when in doubt add a few cogs to be safe. Go to Comicon and you’re bound to find will find someone in a Darth Vader’s helm crafted from brass and cogs.
Once you move away from the classy Victorian style it becomes a matter of storytelling in order to explain how you a thirteenth century squire travelled to Mrs. Mullbury’s cake and gin shop in pursuit of her legendary Lemon Cake Surprise.
Steampunk in Miniature Gaming
Kharadron Overlords from Games Workshop are fantasy Dwarfs flying around in heavily armed hot air balloons (source). I don’t know what’s more Steampunk is than a race of long-lived tinkerers spending all day building insane contraptions sporting respectable beards? They are a faction in Warhammer Age of Sigmar, and while relatively new in the history of Games Workshop could fit nicely into any creative soul that wants to find their inner Steampunk through miniature modelling.
The Adeptus Mechanicus have been around in Games Workshop since the release of Rogue Trader (1987). Situated on Mars, this nightmare from a Giger painting represents the intellect and science of the forty first millennium, a time constantly overrun with war and terror (source). Players can field armies of crab-legged tanks and alien looking “heroes” that attempt to purge all humanity in themselves in the name of purity. If that’s not enough to get your inner coal powered nerd excited, then there may be something wrong with you.
Konflikt 47’ Miniatures by Warlord Games
Konflikt 47’ is ideal for those miniature hobbyists that want to follow alternate history, which means taking history as we know it and giving it a little tweak. In this game the players put themselves on either side of the Second World War, it’s 1947, and there’s robots and all sorts of weird stuff (source).
There’s werewolves, zombies, something called a Nachtjager which looks like the bat monster in the film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (source). It’s an excellent game for anyone interested in the “What ifs” of history but doesn’t want to take it too seriously (source). The models are well priced and carry a certain reality to their clunky designs that suggests they really could have existed way back when.
Steampunk in Literature
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
Fortunately, The Milk is a children’s story of 160 pages centred around a father who does his best to explain what took him so long to fetch the milk for his two children’s cereal. It is a silly story, written for children, with the idea that it would be read by parents, possibly at bed time, possibly several times a day, so it had better be fun for everyone involved (source).
Like all of Gaiman’s work, this story can’t be put in one specific genre, and instead acts as a social gathering for all manner of odd thoughts, which gives Steampunk a chance to tip its tall hat without drawing too much attention to itself.
The main element that stands out as particularly Steampunk is the Stegosaurus adventurer that travels through time in a hot air balloon. Then there are pirates, a volcano god, and a group of gelatinous aliens that go around replacing geographical locations with commemorative dinner plates.
This is a great place to introduce your children into playful odd literature, and with beautiful illustrations by Chris Riddell you don’t have to worry about them not paying attention because there’s something nice to look at while you take a moment to catch your breath and gather your sanity.
It’s the kind of book that you don’t have to get embarrassed about reading as an adult. It’s the kind of story that reminds you that children’s literature doesn’t mean badly written adult fiction, it’s something fun and free, loose in genre, and doesn’t bother with all the boring bits adult fiction seems too dim to take out.
Hopeless, Maine is what would have happened if Cthulhu were to live in a Studio Ghibli story. A strange realm sat out on the edge of consciousness, teaching us that weird isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s always interesting (source).
Created and run by Tom and Nimue Brown, Tom is originally from Portland, Maine and has since thought better of it and moved to Stroud, Gloucestershire where he lives with his wife where they create art, stories, and all manner of things in-between. It’s a modern marriage which means he does the tentacles and she writes the stories, but they’re not adverse to switching it up, which is after all what Steampunk is all about.
True to its inclusive roots, Hopeless, Maine offers artists from different walks of life the opportunity to contribute to the mythos of this strange little island. A wonderful chance for any aspiring creative, or just someone who wants to give Steampunk a try and would like to make a few friends along the way (source).
For those geeky few that love to be a part of a culture with a rich history then there is no better place to start than Vol. 1, which is listed below. Take a moment to introduce yourself to Salamandra, one of the many orphans to be found on the island. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
And for the rest of you who just want the skinny on the latest Hopeless Maine then strap into your favourite revolving sky boots and prepare for Hopeless Maine Vol. 2. The stakes have never been higher, the air is tense and slightly foul with a new disease threatening to bring down the citizens of this secure little gem (source).
It’s the centre of Spoon-walker politics, so remember that those cephalopod suffered well into a weekend to give you the right to draw your favourite pie server whenever you saw fit.
Hellboy by Mike Mignola
Hellboy has it all: A cat loving half demon who is haunted by his demonic half while saving the world from demons, Nazi occultists, and Lovecraftian entities. Hellboy might not be the first comic to come to mind when thinking Steampunk, but you get alternate history with the Nazis becoming somewhat successful with their occult interests resulting in some of the scarier characters such as Karl Ruprecht Kroenen who director Guillermo del Toro adapted further in his movie adaptation into a gas mask assassin with dust for blood (source).
Hellboy uses Steampunk elements to share themes of the unknown with the audience, whether it be Grigori Rasputin’s technomancy as he attempts to summon some cosmic horror, or the invulnerable robotic army found in Guillermo del Toro’s sequel: The Golden Army. What’s important is Hellboy’s pursuit to remain human no matter the reasons to think otherwise, such as the discrimination he receives for his appearance from the very people he tries to save. It’s a story about isolation, trying to escape one’s past, and smoking a big cigar as he defends the World from anyone too stupid to get the message.
Steampunk in Videogames
Final Fantasy Ix
Developed and published by Square the Final Fantasy series often slips in and out of Dystopian and Steampunk, with the Cyber-Punk anarchism of Final Fantasy VII, the airship forces found in Final Fantasy IV. Final Fantasy IX seems to encapsulate all that is Steampunk which is somewhere between a Space Opera and a philosophical search for one’s identity (source).
A world full of mist powered airships, cannons that fire living ammunition, and animate magic dolls that wander around causing mayhem and occasionally stopping to play cards and make friends (source). The Final Fantasy series is known for its wilful ignorance of reality, something which Steampunk’s seems to relish. Here is a game which isn’t so much about alternate history but alternate reality. A place to escape, if just for a little while, to give you enough time to take on anything (source).
Developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks, Dishonoured is a stealth action game released in 2012. Here is a game that breathes Steampunk both in its look as well as its politics and morality. Set in the bleak industrial city of Dunwall, Dishonoured brings a certain mythology to the genre that separates it from other Steampunk games.
A running theme with Steampunk games is choice, in this game the player can make the choice to kill or subdue their way through an environment that is hostile and uncompromising. It’s a world that lives and breathes corruption, allowing players to back up their bloodthirsty actions, while at the same time refusing to give them an out.
An interesting feature of the game is the presence of swarms of flesh stripping rats and bug-infested zombies that appear more often as the player hacks their way through the game. This is an interesting metaphor for the disease and death that seems ingrained in the system, with those wonderful people over at Arkane Studios taking it that one stop further as a living breathing entity like mythological monsters made manifest.
There’s the handcrafted heart, a nod to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, one of the ancestors in literature that paved the way for Steampunk as we know it. What’s interesting is that the heart reveals information about the areas in which the player travels to, something which wouldn’t be out of place in an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Runes carved from Whale bones, which could be a nod to Bram Stoker who was said to have written Dracula in Whitby England known for its Whale bones and strong gothic culture, and quaint little Dracula museum.
There’s mention of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, although it’s interesting to see the tables turned with the cosmic horrors butchered in the name of industry. Anthropomorphised fish can be seen through the game, alluding to the problems surrounding humanity and its desire to reach new heights, which helps Dishonoured lend a little gravity to the Cyber Punk roots that spawned the genre.
Opposition in the game comes in the form of uniformed guards that follow set looks, this might be a result of laziness of design but I’d like to think of it as a metaphor for the uniformity of the establishment. An interesting feature of the game which is intentional is the Overseers who wear demonic masks reminiscent of Samurai Oni. The Overseers are tasked with rooting out and destroying any ties to magic which is used by the protagonist to reclaim their honour.
Dishonoured is about identity, even the choice to hide one’s face behind a mechanical mask is an act of rebellion, to become more than human through the use of technology and magic.
Developed by Lionhead Studios and published by Microsoft Games Studio, it’s hard to talk about weirdness without bringing up Fable. From chicken chasing, to carrying out the whims and desires of animate doorways, the Fable series likes to mix things up. Is it Postmodern? Or is it just silly? Either way it’s a series that’s brought a lot of fun.
Now while the first Fable would set the scene for a franchise that will live on in spirit more than anything else, it is hard to refer to it as Steampunk. The second and the third instalment however slip into it like an old glove.
As these fantasy roleplaying games progress we find the country of Albion moving into the industrial age, replacing villages and grand oaken trees with towering chimneys, plated armour with top hats. The Fable series may not be Steampunk from root to leaf, but it does carry that certain flair that can only be mistaken as either Steampunk or a fever-dream guided fashion statement.
The great thing about mixing Steampunk with the mad lot down at Lionhead Studios is it blends the not quite yesteryear we find in Steampunk with the absurdist humour found with those bad-toothed souls found across the pond. It can be silly and serious without having to explain itself, which is after all one of the tenants of any self-respecting Steampunk.
The influence of the genre isn’t just found in the architecture but the culture that blossoms around it, the main element for me is the character Reaver. Voiced by the magnanimous and all-round softy Stephen Fry, it’s harder to picture a more dastardly (and dashing) Steampunk villain? Anti-hero? Whatever, then the youth-stealing industrialist known as Reaver.
Reaver is a character you want to hate, and with two games full of his schemes and tricks, you’ve got amply reason to. Personally, I can’t bring myself to hate him all the way, he’s the Freudian Superego made manifest and he’s been drinking gin all morning. The bad thing is he makes sense, especially when considering how much the industrial age brought the World forward, and how much it cost to do so.
The Hobbes in Fable 2 and 3 come into their own as a race of scavengers that amble around on rickety stilts, ready to take pot shots with their blunderbuss. There’s something about seeing a little goblin creature in a top hat that puts a smile on my face, probably because it’s the kind of insanity you’re likely to find in a game like this.
What is Steampunk? That’s easy, Steampunk is everywhere. It can appear as something small and casual to the unobservant busybody, or it can be an expression in rebellion, morals, and fun. It’s easy to say that Steampunk is a fashion limited to sticking a few brass cogs on your shirt, which it is, but that’s just the beginning.
Steampunk is for the history buffs who want to travel through time and take all the best bits and blend them with the modern way of thinking. It’s a battleground for ideas on industrialization, famine, and greed. It’s a war for individuality, with occasional stops to see if your cybernetic monkey butler is still working.
Steampunk differs from person to person but what is inarguable is that it has taken a hold of our culture. Found in literature both high and low. Games, table-top warfare, there’s no escaping from Steampunk, so perhaps it’s a good thing that they’re all so damn nice.