Ever seen pictures of people in top hats and ball gowns toting big complicated brass guns and wearing strange goggles that look like they can see into the future? Chances are you’ve encountered a bit of steampunk. But what is steampunk, I hear you ask? Well…
Steampunk is a cross between science fiction and alternate history. Usually set in Victorian times, it is full of modern technology that has been given a stylistic retro twist. Think steam powered mobile phones or mechanical horses and you’re on the right track. And that’s it, by the way. If you have those two things you’re probably reading/writing/watching a steampunk story.
Just Two Things? That Seems Simple Enough
It is. But also there’s more to it because of course there is.
There are many elements that people expect to appear in a steampunk story. Airships, for example. I once asked a bunch of people what they would like to see in a steampunk story and their number one request, without a shadow of a doubt, was airships.
Airships evoke feelings of excitement and adventure, but also elegance and style. That’s why they belong in any steampunk world, because that’s what people want from their steampunk stories – fun, excitement, adventure, and to look good while doing it.
You also get lots of goggles, automatons, top hats, pocket watches, corsets, flying helmets, eldritch beasts, and mechanical creatures, but it’s the airships people go on about the most.
So Steampunk Is About Being… Cool?
In a way, yes. You see, an important aspect of steampunk is the aesthetic. People love how the inventions and devices you see scattered throughout steampunk are not only functional but look good too. They hark back to Victorian times, when it wasn’t enough to build yourself a sewage processing plant, you had to make it look awesome as well.
I mean, look at this!
That’s Crossness Pumping Station, a sewage works built in 1865. A sewage works, for crying out loud! How gorgeous is that? Is it any wonder steampunkers love it so?
Is It All About The Technology?
Not at all. One of the things people love about steampunk, and one of the reasons it keeps growing in popularity, is the chance to dress up in magnificent clothing and cosplay at whatever character you can come up with.
Want to be a jungle explorer? Fantastic. A swahsbuckling sky pirate? Excellent. A sneak thief with a fearsome reputation? Bring it on! There are more ways to participate in the steampunk scene than you can shake a gold-topped walking stick at.
What Sort Of Stories Do You Get?
The tales you get can be as varied as the outfits. So long as you get the aesthetic and the Victorian setting right you can do pretty much whatever you like. But you do get some recurring themes however, which should come as no surprise given the nature of the material.
Technology being central to steampunk the whole man versus nature thing comes up a lot, especially with regards to war and new ways of killing people. You see this in things like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the film Steamboy.
Also, as steampunk stories are often set around the time of Sherlock Holmes, detectives often make an appearances, something which I myself have been guilty of in the past (with no regrets, I might add).
You also get alien invasion stories (thanks to The War Of The Worlds), zombie stories, magic stories, and many, many alternate history stories, because like any good genre steampunk is malleable enough to fit any tale you want to tell. So long as you get the setting and the look right people will generally let you do whatever you like, and God bless them for that.
Sounds Great! Where Do I Start?
Well, if you like anime why not begin with Steamboy or Laputa: Castle In The Sky. If you like comics you could give Hopeless Maine or The Boston Metaphysical Society a try. Or if it’s books you prefer how about Clockwork Magpies or Dexter & Sinister: Detecting Agents. Any of those should give you the steampunk fix you need.
Steampunk is about style and setting, but that’s just the starting point. The best steampunk stories are full of character and heart. They take you on a journey, showing you what might have been, what is, and what could be if we’re not careful. They make you think, and they make you laugh, and they leave you feeling like a proper tale has been told, scratching that entertainment itch in a way that genres with fewer top hats and talking cats ever could.