I love writing steampunk.
What I don’t love? Explaining it to people.
Like most writers, most of my friends and family aren’t avid readers. Of those who do read often, the majority are into either romance or mainstream “literary” fiction. Even among my friends and family who read “genre fiction” or “speculative fiction” (science fiction, fantasy and horror), not all of them are familiar with the steampunk subgenre.
So when people ask “what do you write?” and I answer “mostly steampunk retellings of fairy tales,” I usually get the furrowed brow and the follow up question. “What’s steampunk?”
It’s hard to explain, for a few reasons. First, it’s a mashup subgenre of multiple different genres: science fiction, alternate history, fantasy, horror and more. Second, it’s a fairly expansive subgenre that includes a lot of variety. Any category that includes both Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books and China Mieville’s Railsea is a pretty eclectic group.
A coworker left me the following journal, which I love because it’s sort of “show and tell” answer to the “what is steampunk?” question. Both the visual style of the journal and the text on it give someone a good quick sense of what steampunk is about.
People tend to come up with their own definitions of steampunk. Here’s my personal definition of steampunk fiction:
“Steampunk fiction consists of thrilling tales written in a style evocative of 19th century fantastic stories, in a quasi-Victorian setting featuring anachronistic steam or clockwork powered technology and some kind of social critique.”
If that’s still confusing, let me break that down for you.
- “Thrilling tales” – Typically, an adventure/horror/sci-fi/fantasy/romance story.
- “Written in a style evocative of 19th century fantastic stories” – Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, etc.
- “In a quasi-Victorian setting” – alternate history, or a retrofuturistic fantasy that seems similar to our Victorian or Wild West period.
- “Featuring steam or clockwork powered technology” – The “steam” part. Robots, airships, mechanical men, mad scientists.
- “And some kind of social critique” – The “punk” part. Confronts and reveals our culture or Victorian culture, including issues of race, gender, class and economics.
When you break it down like that, you can see how there’s a lot there to appeal to a writer. I love writing action-packed adventure stories with awesome gadgets. I love the old classic Universal Horror movie monsters, which were mostly based on 19th century authors work. From an aesthetic standpoint, wardrobe doesn’t get much more fun than the Victorian era. Plus, using a non-modern, non-contemporary setting to slide in social commentary? Very sneaky. Very chaotic good.
That’s why I love writing (and reading!) steampunk.