The Steampunk Literary Genre: a scholarly summary

Captain Nemo's favourite lounge chair.

Captain Nemo’s favourite lounge chair.

For the past week, this blog has been dedicated to describing the building blocks of the Steampunk Literary genre: Setting, Characterization and Plot. But how do we define Steampunk? There are as many definitions as there are Steampunk enthusiasts. Here is a small sample:

  • Neo-Victorian Retro-Futurism (my personal favourite), though I might modify that to Neo-Vicwardian Retro-Futurism.
  • Quasi-Victorian Alternate History
  • A subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world. (Dictionary.com)
  • A subgenre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. (Wikipedia)
  • a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology. (Oxford Dictionary)

I favour inclusionistic definitions, rather than definitions than exclude possibilities. Once a genre is set in stone, it stops growing, and when it stops growing, it becomes dull and unchallenging. I also don’t believe that my definition could be (or should be) the definitive one, which is why I listed a few different definitions. All of these definitions are are both right and wrong; right, because they do cover some of the aspects of the Steampunk genre, and wrong, because they aren’t detailed enough. Because the genre differs from each day to the next, for each individual writer and reader. The Steampunk literary genre isn’t a butterfly you can pin to a board.

However, there are some aspects of the genre that can be used as genre markers:

  • There will be a major character who is a scientist or inventor
  • the genre involves scientific innovation as a major plot point
  • there is a tendency to utilize Victorian notables as characters (Queen Victoria)
  • the genre does ‘borrow’ characters from Victorian and Edwardian fiction (Sherlock Holmes)
  • Steampunk settings most often are industrial; and may be borrowed from Victorian or Edwardian fiction
  • Stylistically, the genre tends to mimic Victorian literary style and language
  • Many Steampunk novels incorporate ‘fantasy’ elements like magic
  • Mash-ups are a popular literary device

Steampunk, as a literary genre, is still in the process of being explored and defined.  There are no real don’ts or must haves. If you aspire to writing something in the genre, just grab your muse and hold on…

Lately, there has been a growing trend towards alternative culture becoming mainstream. I welcome the idea that everyone has suddenly realised how much fun we ‘outsiders’ have enjoyed all these years. It means there is a proliferation in the sort of  movies and books and events that I love. But there have been two ugly fads to appear with this trend.

Firstly, there are the people who think all newcomers are ‘second-best’ enthusiasts, and some of these individuals grow to actively dislike their subculture because it is now popular. I feel like telling these people to GROW UP!  You’ve spent years complaining about the lack of opportunities in your subculture, and now that there are more creative people entering it, things are only going to get more vibrant and interesting. And just because you like something, that doesn’t mean you own it.

Secondly, there are the people who hop onto a growing fashion trend just to make money. People in the know are quick to pick a phoney. There is nothing wrong with being a newbie and still learning all the aspects of a subculture like Steampunk, but don’t expect to make friends if your enthusiasm is simply to make a quick cash killing from that subculture. This includes people who write in the Steampunk genre without really understanding it, hoping to make a sale on the back of the growing readership for the genre. This usually means taking any story and just ‘sticking cogs on it’, which means it won’t have the proper characters, setting or plot for a genuine Steampunk novel.

I don’t want to discourage anyone who sincerely wants to write in the Steampunk literary genre. Your enthusiasm and sincerity will glow in your work. It is an amazing genre, because it can be so many different things.

For anyone interested in Steampunk, there are many wonderful sites in the webiverse.

I have a Facebook site dedicated to Steampunk: www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

Feel free to drop by.

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14 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Plot, Setting, Steampunk, YA Work in Progress

14 responses to “The Steampunk Literary Genre: a scholarly summary

  1. A friend of mine advised me that the link to Steampunk Sunday isn’t working. It you are looking for it, try Steampunk Sunday, Queensland Australia as your search.

  2. Yes the first definition does it for me too. Actually you got there ahead of me, I have half-written blog about what makes steampunk for me – a combination of factors.

    Reginald Pikedevant has something to say about gluing gears on it:

    By your list I don’t write steampunk 🙂 the closest is the technology/plot point but that’s pushing it. The technology is merely there.

    • The technology is merely there … and affecting how you plot develops and your characters act? Is your setting Steampunk and you characters active and engaged with that technology?

      That is one of my favourite Steampunk ditties, by the bye.

      I look forward to reading your take on Steampunk.

      • > … affecting how you plot develops and your characters act?

        There is one critical event in the first book that relies on the technology; in the second book the technology is the cause of the plot (though essentially a macguffin); and in the third there’s a lot of travel that means the plot moves along more swiftly (because travel is quicker).

        But as many reviewers have commented, the steampunk elements are subtle 🙂

      • Subtle is good! And if you had one critical-to-the-plot event that relies on technology, your books are most certainly Steampunk!

  3. Great series on the Steampunk literary genre! As a new writer in the genre (my first book was published this week!), I’ve found the posts informative and encouraging. And I do agree with the two ugly fads you mention, although I find the first more irritating and antithetical to the steampunk culture than the second, which is merely crass commercialism.

  4. wsmarble

    This is fantastic. I’ve never seen as thoughtful and rigorous a treatment of the open-ended culture/theme as you have concisely crafted in this “keeper.”

    This is the only time I have ever hit “save as favorite” for a blog post.

    Thank you, thank you and thank you for writing this!

  5. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    Reblogging this tonight. It is a good jumping off point for tomorrow’s blog.

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