Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Steampunk can be baffling to those outside the genre. What is it about the thought of steam-powered Victoriana that people find so fascinating? How has a particular type of technology situated in a very particular time period become a fully-fledged genre? Whatever it is, there’s no denying steampunk’s popularity; with numerous movies, video games, fashion items and more books than you can shake a bag of cogs at.
In this article I’ll be looking at why steampunk is popular, and what writers from any genre can learn from its success. But before that we have to answer the question that almost everyone asks the first time they see someone in a top hat and monocle strapping on a jet pack…
What is steampunk?
Simply put, steampunk is a type of science fiction that imagines advanced steam-powered technology in a world either based in the 19th century or with the stereotypical features of that time period. Steampunk is usually focused on Western society, most commonly set in Victorian England or sometimes the Wild West (though as with any genre there are variations).
Visually steampunk draws on an industrial aesthetic with brass, cogs, clockwork and, of course, steam being key to the ‘look’ as well as formal 19th century Western fashion.
Jacopo della Quercia’s The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy knowingly showcases many tropes common to Steampunk fiction.
Steampunk frequently dabbles in alternate history, placing an accentuated importance on real life inventors such as Nikolai Tesla or Charles Babbage as an explanation for ‘advanced’ technology like air ships and computers that run on clockwork and steam power.
Needless to say, it takes a unique – and seemingly random – combination of ingredients to end up with Steampunk. So how did we get there and, more importantly, what can we learn from the genre’s creation?
Steampunk is a fascinating genre, in that it has grown from future-facing speculative fiction to nostalgia based sci-fi. The roots of science fiction are in the work of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne in books such as War of the Worlds and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In these books, 19th century authors imagine futuristic devices, amazing in their capabilities but still very much of their time.
Verne’s Captain Nemo, for instance, captains The Nautilus, a submarine with capabilities far outstripping any craft that existed at the time. In his The League of Extraordinary GentlemenAlan Moore brilliantly describes Nemo as a ‘science pirate’.
These inventions and characters were incredibly influential, and many authors built on the 19th century’s ideas of the future even as that imagined future came and went. Through this process steampunk has a basis both in fact and fiction, a pseudo-historical origin that gives it a tangible claim on legitimacy.
It’s this claim that authors from other genres should seek to emulate, and that steampunk writers must appreciate. Steampunk feels real because it originates from a truthful place. Authors may reimagine Victorian society, but they do so by combining the benefit of hindsight with the authentic attitudes of the era.
No matter what you write, this core reality is out there. In all of history and nature some situation like the one you’re writing has happened, and you can use it to see how people really reacted. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire centers around a gripping battle for power, and is riddled with situations lifted from real historical events.
Human beings are capricious and unpredictable, but we all recognize real human behavior when we see it. Do your research and you’re guaranteed to find one perfect fact that sells the reality of your narrative to the reader.
Historical context isn’t the only thing that makes steampunk so satisfying; there’s also the inherent logic of the genre.
The logic of cogs
Clockwork plays a big part in steampunk technology, and it’s not just there because it looks good. There’s something about clockwork that humans find understandable. Cogs move cogs and while we may not understand the intricacies, we can see for ourselves that that’s how a device works. Likewise steam power produces satisfying amounts of noise, great belches of steam from huge devices, that fits how we feel a huge machine should work.
Contrast that with current technology, silent electricity and unfathomable microchips, and you can see what steampunk offers readers. Fantastical though it may be, steampunk makes sense. Machinery works in a way that often feels realer than our own world.
Coupled with a strict, rule-based society such as the Victorian era this kind of technology sets up a world that even the newest reader instantly feels like they understand.
Robert Rankin often uses steampunk in his fiction, such as The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, but he uses it as grounding effect for far stranger ideas. Mermaids and aliens make frequent appearances and yet surrounded by clockwork they’re somehow more acceptable. The world feels dependable enough that the reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief is increased. They know everything works, they can see that everything works, so this new twist must also make sense.
The lesson for authors is that allowing your reader some measure of comfort pays off. Whether it’s your characters, your world or your style, allowing your reader to ‘learn’ an aspect of your story will increase their willingness and ability to accept the rest of it.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series uses a similar device. Harry may live in a magical world of monsters and wizards, but he is a mundane character steeped in our own recognizable world. He becomes a talisman of relatability whose presence makes fantastical events less ludicrous. We believe in the character and therefore we’re more disposed to believe the events he witnesses.
In order for a reader to be able to understand an aspect of your story, you must first understand it yourself. Sit and write down the defining characteristics of the element you wish them to learn. Stick it in your workspace so that it serves as a constant reminder never to stray from the central truth that readers can observe and understand.
Steampunk logic is tied up with its history. We believe clockwork and steam power work because we know, vaguely, that they do. They are real elements of our historical past. In the same way, basing characters on real emotional drives and defining characteristics will create a powerful resonance to which readers will respond.
Deep subconscious drives are all well and good, but there’s one final reason why steampunk is so popular.
Aesthetics of zeppelins
Steampunk’s look is unique. It matches the fun gadgetry of sci-fi with the ornate formality of the 19th century for the best of both worlds. Complexity is rendered fun, and sci-fi whimsy gains a patina of respectability. As a genre steampunk possesses the same kind of charm as a deliberately overcomplicated Rube Goldberg machine.
Joe R. Lansdale’s Flaming Zeppelins showcases the merits of the steampunk aesthetic.
Steampunk fiction comes ready-made with an aesthetic world the reader can submerge themselves in, and the details really do matter.
The key is in the low level implications of big events in your story. It’s fine to say ‘air travel is vastly more common at an early point in human existence’, but what would that mean economically and socially? Rankin’s The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions posits a Victorian society whose imperial warmongering has only been exacerbated by steampunk technology.
Steampunk jewelry is industrial and brassy, their social outlook usually conservative. The deeper you think about the implications of your setting and characters the more completely the reader will be drawn into your world. Without even a conscious effort the complexity and consistency of your story will be apparent. It’s not that you’ll begin to add more information to draw in the reader, it’s that you’ll naturally expound on the little things that make a story seem real. Again, the more research you put into your story the more tiny but vital details will present themselves to you.
Lessons of steam power
Steampunk should serve as an illustration to all authors that a reader will accept any situation as believable if it’s presented skillfully and consistently. There is no event that is beyond the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Research and plan a relatable story with its roots in fundamental truths, be they emotional or historical, and readers will follow you to Venus on a rocket powered by pistons. You could even attack your heroes with a giant clockwork spider, although that’s gone wrong before…
Though it’s become a genre in its own right – with subgenres such as gaslight romance and steamgoth – steampunk is still sci-fi at heart, so try The 3 Golden Rules of Writing a Science Fiction Book for more useful advice. Or if you want to know how to get readers to accept a wildly different world check out Are you in danger of losing your readers’ suspension of disbelief?
Are you a steampunk fan, or are you new to the genre? Either way I’d love to hear from you in the comments.Why Is Steampunk So Popular?Click To Tweet