Steampunk 101

By: Jean Marie Stein

The Victorian era, and the steampunk it inspires, was a time of great interest in ghoulies and ghosties and things that bump in the night. Many wanted to know if science was wrong and people did have souls and lived on after death. Interest in mediums, ghosts and vampires were at a height. Many of the greatest ghost stories and horror novels come from this period. Just think of A Christmas Carol and Dracula. Today in steampunk we have the novels of Neil Giamen and Anno Dracula. Victorian times had many reports of haunted factories. Ron Miller’s painting pictures the ghost among the steampunk gears.

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Ghost in the Gears Painting by Ron Miller/Black Cat Studios


Steampunk originated in the 1980s, in the world of science fiction, when people everywhere had begun to lose faith that science would usher in a brighter future. As a result, sci-fi was filled with dystopian stories set during or after the collapse of civilization—if the story didn’t right out end with the end of the world. Readers and writers began to miss the optimism of the earliest sci-fi, and its vision of a better, hopeful tomorrow. Science fiction writers who didn’t feel they could believably write about a better future began to set their stories in a pseudo-past or on less technologically advanced worlds, places where disillusion had not yet had time to set in. These writers drew their inspiration from the previous major age in science, when steam was king and scientific research was transforming every part of life. For many in that era—roughly 1860-1920 (covering the reign of the queen who gave the period its title, the “Victorian Age”)—optimism for the future of humanity was at its height. Since steam was the main source of power but the sensibility was a more modern one (liberated women and rebellious heroes) this movement was called “steampunk.”

Steampunk quickly became the basis of movies, novels and fashion focused on the styles of the Victorian era (and the Edwardian which followed), and its popularity has only increased as much sci-fi continued to focus on downbeat themes. Steampunk was characterized by electric dynamos, dirigibles, penny-farthing bicycles, lavish decoration in bronze and copper and, anything that operated through intricate, interlocking clockwork parts. In steampunk-inspired fashion, you’ll find corsets, belled skirts and parasols for women, and waistcoats, top hats, lavishly designed military uniforms, and exaggerated flying/driving goggles for men—but scratch that last bit; those goggles are found on everyone. Locations featured in steampunk movies, tv shows and books included the biggest and most up-to-date cities of the era (think London, Paris, New York, Chicago, San Francisco). Steampunk storylines tend toward a) enormous mechanical constructions designed to carry out spectacular assassinations or wipe out whole cities; b) adventures that tour vast portions of the globe, or c) a heroine fighting to be accepted for her own worth in Victorian society. Most steampunk works reflect the inspiration of science fiction progenitors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and the élan of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure tales.

Many people have already seen steampunk movies without realizing that is what the films were. They probably categorized them as mystery, as in the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes, or animation like Howl’s Moving Castle, or comedy like The Wild Wild West, or children’s fantasy like Hugo, or science fiction like Time After Time. But all those films, like the rest listed below were masterpieces of steampunk.

1979 — Time After Time
1981 — Time Bandits
1994 — The City of Lost Children
1999 — Wild Wild West
2003 — The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
2004 — Howl’s Moving Castle
2004 — Van Helsing
2007 — The Golden Compass
2009 — Sherlock Holmes
2011 — Hugo

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Hugo 2011 directed by Martin Scorsese and Academy Award Winner for Best Cinematogrophy  

Although there is much dispute over what the first steampunk novel was, most would agree that Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air put the genre on the map. Below is a list of 10 highly acclaimed steampunk books that offer a jumping-off point for anyone interested in sampling its best.
Written by a wide variety of authors in a wide variety of styles and featuring a wide variety of subjects, readers will certainly find something to suit their taste.

1971 — Michael Moorcock, Warlord of the Air
1979 — K.W. Jeter, Morlock Night
1983 — Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates
1990 — William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine
1992 — Kim Newman, Anno Dracula
1995 — Philip Pullman, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)
1995 — Paul Di Filippo, The Steampunk Trilogy
1999 — Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
2001 — Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines Quartet
2009 — Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

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Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest