A Short Guide To Steampunk

Article by Kieran Burt.

Steampunk is an important subgenre of science fiction, marked by the constant use of steam in technology. While it’s a niche subgenre, it has a rich history, starting from literature but moving into TV, film, video games and even conventions. Due to its nicheness, steampunk is often overlooked as a genre, which means that many of these stories go unnoticed by general audiences. 

Steampunk was first coined in 1987 by K. W. Jeter as a way to describe his novel, Morlock Night. He did this somewhat jokingly, as a way to reference Cyberpunk, a genre defined by the dystopian advancement of technology, however the name stuck. Other notable steampunk authors in this time period include Tim Powers, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Authors such as H.G Wells and Jules Verne provided a source of inspiration for these modern writers, with novels such as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. 

Steampunk is defined by the Steampunk Tribune as being “Heavily based in the Victorian era [or aesthetic], Steampunk fuses classic themes and styles from the 19th century such as top hats, flying goggles, classic interiors and looks, with the notion of an accelerated technological advance in steam powered devices and classic engineering of the time.” The worlds inhabited by steampunk ask the audience to imagine a world where all of humanity’s technological advancements happen in the age of steam power, and continue from there. 

More recently, popular Steampunk books include Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve in 2001, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld in 2009 and The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook in 2012. This list is always expanding as people write more, and it’s truly a blossoming genre. Upcoming steampunk novels include The Lady’s Triumph: An Alt‑history Regency Steampunk Adventure, releasing 28 September 2022 and Lazarus by Sarah Cawkwell, releasing on 11 November 2022.

Steampunk has made its way across to visual media, such as film, TV and video games, though they have not grasped the popular attention the books have. However, that isn’t to say that there are no visual steampunk properties. Perhaps the biggest of them so far, is the film adaptation of Mortal Engines. Released in 2018, the film received middling reviews, but flopped at the box office, becoming one of 2018’s biggest disappointments. When looking at TV series, one of the most well known would be Jekyll and Hyde, though unfortunately it got cancelled after one season.

Looking at video games, steampunk has had more success. The Bioshock franchise has plenty of steampunk influences, however Bioshock Infinite clearly fits in the genre. Set in 1912, the story takes place in the city state in the sky known as Columbia, the female personification of the United States. Another popular series taking influence from the steampunk aesthetic is the Dishonoured franchise, though its true classification is nearer to whalepunk. Finally, another game worth mentioning is The Order of 1886, which is set in an alternate timeline and sees the player defend London against monsters with steampunk inspired technology and weaponry. 

Steampunk is much more than just books, films, TV and video games however. Fans will regularly participate in cosplay with their favourite technology and gear, and will attend regular steampunk conventions. There are many conventions held across the world, as fans from all over show their love for the genre and the franchises that come under it. 

Steampunk is quite a recent genre, however that hasn’t meant that it has struggled to find thousands of loyal fans. What started out as a book by K. W. Jeter has since expanded into films, TV shows, videogames and even conventions that have spread across the world. 

Kieran Burt

My name is Kieran and I am based in the UK. I love writing about all things science fiction and fantasy, particularly Star Wars and Marvel. When I’m not writing or watching anything sci-fi related, you can probably find me exploring the open worlds of alternate lands through my Xbox.