Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Steampunk is a genre of fiction that’s been quietly influencing literature for a long time, but over the past few years it’s exploded in popularity. A form of sci-fi which draws on Victorian ideas about the future, steampunk offers a backdrop of top hats, cogs, and steam-powered inventions. A while ago, I talked about why steampunk is so popular, and attempted to explore the benefits that come with understanding the genre. These benefits are often discussed as being rooted in potential – what modern, near-mainstream steampunk means to readers and writers has yet to be decided, but there are many possible paths the genre might take.
Up until recently, steampunk has been treated as a sub-genre – an aberration that hops back and forth between fantasy and sci-fi. Consequently, it has developed a dedicated ‘cult’ audience with a deep understanding of its imagery and themes. Now, however, the mainstream seems ready to embrace steampunk fiction as an entity in its own right. Steampunk writers are faced with an unknown future in this brave new world. How will mainstream exposure change the genre? What themes will take prominence? What genre traits will prove most relevant?
There’s no immediate answer from existing steampunk fiction. No matter how popular it is with its readers, it all comes from a world where the average reader needs ‘steampunk’ explaining to them. While the future of any genre is always in the hands of the creative innovators willing to grasp it, there is another genre which may hold the secrets to success…
Embracing gothic fiction
Gothic fiction has an established history of success, and a great deal in common with steampunk. In fact, it’s possible that by examining gothic fiction, steampunk writers can access a timeline of literary success that’s applicable to the future of their own genre. This can help them capitalize on the strengths of steampunk fiction, as well as revealing the subjects and story elements that will most engage a new, mainstream readership.Does #gothic fiction offer a roadmap for #steampunk success? In a word, 'yes'. #writingtip Click To Tweet
Of course, it’s all very well to declare a similarity, but before that can be of use we need to look at the evidence in more detail.
Both gothic and steampunk are genres partly established in, and strongly associated with, Victorian times. Because of this, they retain many aesthetic and thematic features from that time in their present incarnations. Both concentrate on the human and post-human as subjects – the gothic generally through supernatural themes and steampunk generally through the scientific (though both frequently cross the fuzzy boundary between the two).
Perhaps one of the most readily apparent similarities is that both gothic and steampunk ideas are not restricted to fiction. Both have an acknowledged place in fashion – it is not much more unusual to see someone bedecked in steampunk paraphernalia than it is to meet a ‘goth’ – and a clear set of aesthetic sensibilities; both have a definitive ‘look’.
This idea of a ‘look’, a visual expression of the genre’s themes, is one of the key facets of gothic fiction which is so useful to steampunk writers. Buildings, clothing, music, even certain weather conditions can be accurately described as gothic.
Gothic fiction originated in Romanticism, and the genre is bound up in the uncanny, the macabre, and often the melodramatic. When we describe something as ‘gothic’, these are the themes we’re identifying.
To state that this widespread understanding of the genre has been both a cause and a result of gothic fiction’s success is to state the obvious. The key to understanding how useful this is, however, is to appreciate the freedom it gives authors. When a moonlit night, a melancholy ghost, or a deep and uncanny dread can all be described as ‘gothic’ then they cease to be separate elements. When packaged together, they become a whole.
Having this packaged sense of genre means that one element of a genre can call on others with little effort. In the gothic, when we see a mist-shrouded castle on a cold winter’s night there is an immediate emotional reaction. This visual shorthand, using familiar devices often called ‘tropes’, is a fantastic tool for writers as it allows them to summon all kinds of reader experiences with seemingly unrelated stimuli.
Being able to establish such complex themes with such ease depends on the reader being genre-literate – it’s a perk of entering the mainstream – but it has also allowed gothic writers to introduce fresh ideas and concepts which might overcrowd a story that had to work harder to establish its baseline themes and tone.Genre associations allow readers to instantly understand the 'rules' of your story. #writingtip Click To Tweet
There are many, many examples of the ways in which gothic fiction has adopted additional premises. There is the feminist gothic (such as in Kate Horsley’s The Monster’s Wife), there are gothic stories set in space, and even ‘gothic Lolita’ fashion. That’s not to say that these ideas are tacked on – many are enhanced by being examined through a gothic lens. That’s certainly the case with coming-of-age gothic fiction. As author Deborah Noyes explains:
By its nature there’s something gothic about coming of age, and a fair number of these stories [address] that theme (and others that may be of interest: subversion and transgression; resistance, both passive and aggressive; alienation; the awareness of youth and beauty as transitory states…) You’re young enough to glory in youth, after all, and old enough to grasp the inevitability of its going…
– Deborah Noyes, Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales
As Deborah implies, the ability to deliver an entire genre’s worth of ideas in a single, instantly understood package makes it easier to experiment with how those ideas are applied.
This is the opportunity quickly approaching steampunk writers; the ability to have their genre’s core ideas and themes understood to such a degree that their books are no longer advertised as ‘steampunk’ fiction, but ‘coming-of-age steampunk fiction’, ‘steampunk murder mystery’, or ‘steampunk romance’.
Stories that deal with these themes already exist, of course. Any steampunk fans will likely be shouting at their screens that I’m ignoring offshoots like ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘gaslight romance’, but the difference is that these are terms familiar within the steampunk genre. Tell someone on the street that you’re writing a ‘cyberpunk’ novel and you’ll have to explain ‘cyberpunk’, how it relates to ‘steampunk’, and what ‘steampunk’ is in the first place. It’s about as far from an instant sale as you can get. On the other hand, explain you’re writing a ‘futuristic gothic’ story and there’ll be an instant sense of recognition. That’s the kind of familiarity that steampunk writing is on the cusp of enjoying.
But if these associated ideas and tropes are so useful, what’s included in the steampunk package?
The steampunk aesthetic
Steampunk glories in huge zeppelins, vast brass cogs, and amazing machines powered by steam. These are the visual tropes of the genre, but what is their emotional significance?
The most famous gothic characters are arguably figures such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. In the Romantic tradition from which gothic fiction emerged, these figures are defined by the extremities of the human experience. As literary figures they are passionate, defined by their wants and urges. In the end, Dracula wishes to feed and dominate, whereas Frankenstein’s monster becomes a creature of vengeance.
I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Gothic themes speak to our subconscious appreciation of our own desires, and fear of their repression and re-emergence. While all fiction comments in some way on what it is to be human, gothic fiction does so by examining the extreme human.
In contrast, steampunk more frequently deals with a lack of passion. The world is not less engaging, but antagonists are more concerned with control – social, economic, or other – than abandon. Steampunk is a Victorian vision of the future, updated for the modern day. In this way, it is not so much ‘futuristic’ as it is reflective of an alternate present. It’s a pretty cool present, with loud and gorgeous machinery, a well-dressed populace, and a formal and rigid social code. All of that, however, feeds the chief emotional response which drives steampunk: nostalgia.
Beneath it all, steampunk is ‘what could have been’: an assessment of our current society. As I mentioned in my previous steampunk article, cogs and steam make sense when it comes to machinery. On a gut level, we feel they work, we can see the cause and effect, and so they act as a perfect counterpoint to more obtuse, potentially less effective, systems.
Some of the most perfect steampunk antagonists we’ve seen so far are the clockwork androids from British sci-fi show Doctor Who. These intricate, clockwork robots are disguised as courtiers from 18th century France, with fine clothing, wigs, and porcelain masks. A fatal malfunction has left them stranded aboard a broken spaceship, and when they run out of spare parts, they try to fix it by killing the crew and using their body parts instead.
The aesthetic suits the story perfectly, and this is not by chance; the robots are driven not by human emotion but by a lack of it and an inability to appreciate its value. They are technology without any emotional restraint, horrors of a post-moral world. They are perfect steampunk villains because this is the question steampunk levels at the real world – have we built the wrong future?Steampunk naturally critiques the present via an imagined alternative. Let it! #writingtip Click To Tweet
Steampunk is about the potential loss of humanity, and so antagonistic elements explore what we fear we have lost and what we are left with. This is why, apart from Victorian London, steampunk has found a natural second setting in the Old West. It’s a period in which civilization encroaches on the frontier, and we know the ‘wrong sort’ of future may be on the horizon.
Both gothic and steampunk fiction ask us to justify ourselves. They confront us with alternate selves who highlight our faults and triumphs both through difference and through similarity. Gothic fiction usually aims for the individual, while steampunk prefers to target society.
Steampunk themes in application
This is the package with which steampunk writers are equipped: visual tropes such as incredible but decidedly colonial societies and their mechanical marvels, and deeper themes of social criticism and the value of a present, active humanity. The emotional response is a deep unease that we are doing things wrong, that we are losing ourselves, and conversely the hope that we are not.
This should not be seen as a limit for the genre; far from it. From questions about mortality and emotional truth, gothic fiction has merged with every other genre going. You can buy ‘gothic’ hair bows, and this isn’t a meaningless assumption of the aesthetic; there’s a real artistic statement in taking a symbol of mortality and repurposing it as a fashion accessory, a statement of supremacy over mortal dread.
For steampunk to establish itself in the mainstream in the way gothic fiction has already achieved, this should be the goal of steampunk writers looking to the future. To firmly lash the steampunk aesthetic to its central themes, and then take the resultant package elsewhere for experimentation.
This process has already begun in works such as Alan Moore’s steampunk/superhero comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – where steampunk wonders become merely another weapon of war for an imperialistic state – and Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith’s steampunk/fantasy videogame Dishonored – where the state, though delightfully Victorian, is gradually revealed to be grimly fascist, and the player sacrifices their humanity for the power to fight it.
Steampunk has a brilliant aesthetic and asks deep questions, and in the years to come the genre will be defined by those willing to take these virtues and confidently explore their outer limits. Here’s hoping you’re one of them.
For more on steampunk fiction check out Why Is Steampunk So Popular? or for advice that applies to all sci-fi try The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Science Fiction Book.
Are you a proud steampunk? Are you looking forward to mainstream success, or do you think the genre will fare better out of the spotlight? Let me know in the comments.