Have you heard of Steampunk? It's your new favourite genre!
Steampunk is a sub-genre of sci-fi which has a historical setting, usually the Regency or Victorian eras and features anachronistic steam-powered machinery. As you can imagine, steampunk has roots in the aesthetics and themes explored by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.
The important distinction is that it’s not ‘Victorian science fiction’ but Victorian inspired science fiction. The difference is subtle but important. Back in the 1800s, they couldn’t have imagined the science that would one day be possible, so their view of the future seems to us already out of date. Steampunk is a Victorian futuristic world imaged by the writers of today.
Some of my favourite Steampunk books are:
The Affinity Bridge by George Mann
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Burton & Swinburne Adventures) by Mark Hodder
The Martian Ambassador (Blackwood and Harrington) by Alan K Baker
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua
If you’re having any trouble visualizing this aesthetic, I run a Pinterest board for steampunk. Check it out here!
I’ve adored Steampunk ever since I discovered it. I won’t pretend that being a massive history nut helps, not to mention my eternal love of the Victorian period. But I know fellow history lovers who wouldn’t touch Steampunk with a barge pole, and for understandable reasons.
One of the most common elements of Steampunk is alternative history and that can really get up some history lover’s noses. Steampunk takes the Victorian or Regency era as its starting point and turns it into an entirely different world. It’s a fantasy world, with roots in reality of course, but it’s still fantasy. In The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, Queen Victoria is assassinated very early on her in the reign, so when a time traveller starts talking about the period, the locals are baffled as King Albert is on the throne.
I can completely respect why many people don’t enjoy alternative history. But it’s this alternative history which draws me into Steampunk and the massive amounts of intelligence that goes into it. What good Steampunk authors will do is change one thing. Give the world one historically inaccurate element. In The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, it was the fumbling, misguided attempts of a time traveller to correct a historic mistake. That’s what causes world history to deviate (think A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury).
What writers then have to do is play everything out to its logical end. If A happens, how would that affect a Victorian society? What are the ramifications? How would that alter the world? You actually have to have a really good grasp of history before you can dare to create an alternative one.
Even in artwork, throwing a gear here or a watch there to give it a ‘Steampunk look’ there is considered a real no-no. Everything has to be functional, logical and have its place. It’s a far more complex world than ‘just chuck steam in there’.
If you're after some more Steampunk, there's a list of my ever-growing post series: