Defining Steampunk

Over the past two years, I’ve been on panels at several literary conventions that attempt to define Steampunk. I think one of the things that makes a clear definition elusive is that Steampunk is not just a literary subgenre. It’s really a subculture with strong crafting, music, costuming and lifestyle components as well. Because it’s a subculture, the elements that make Steampunk are often those items that are accepted by members of the subculture.

That said, there is a clear nineteenth century aesthetic that runs through the Steampunk subculture, but it’s not just that. The aesthetic is driven by the way nineteenth century people viewed the future. My friend David Oakes has attended a few of the panels I’ve been on and has combined some of my observations with several of his own to create an interesting definition of Steampunk. Here is his short essay on the subject, presented with his permission:


“If someone put a gun to your head, told you that you couldn’t describe any elements of the setting, that you couldn’t give a physical description of any of the characters, and demanded that you explain Steampunk only by the stories you would tell, what would you say?”

In two words?

SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE.

Not the lust for life that characterizes an Adventure story, though it is often present. Not the lust between characters in a normal Romance, though that can be there too. And not just the lust for tools and technology that drives the modern Techno-thriller either. Rather the lust for Knowledge. Even more than that, the lust for Understanding. The lust for the process of understanding that is Science.

The Technology is obviously important. But it cannot be a cold, impersonal Technology. It cannot be the sterile perfection of the “Better Living Through Chemistry” 1950s. Where Technology is once again taken out of the hands of the masses and restricted to the elite warrior-priest class of Scientists. Turned from a tool to make your life easier into one that promises to make your life better. To make you better. A goal of religious purification, the sanctification of existence through Engineering.

In Steampunk, you must be romanced by the Science. The Technology needs to be warm and inviting. It makes you want to use it because you want to use it. Not because you feel you must just to keep up, to run faster and faster and work harder and harder just to stay in place. Steampunk Technology may have its flaws, its imperfections. But that only gives it character and makes you want to love it even more.

But even more than wanting to use it, you want to get to know it. Intimately. Steampunk Technology is approachable. You can connect with it on a personal level. It invites you to look under the hood and see what makes it tick. And you can understand it. The processes are those that happen only in the heart of massive stars in distant galaxies, or at scales so microscopic that they defy common sense. No, Steampunk Technology is as easy to wrap your head around as it is to wrap your hand around. For they are one and the same. The operating principles are things you have already encountered every day of your life. The forces involved are as familiar to you as the levers in your hand or the bellows of your breathing. As natural as the wind and the rain. And for drama, the lightning. Material forces that can be understood by a physical being rather than theoretical possibilities knowable only by metaphor.

Steampunk is the stuff that Life is made of.


One of the things that really hit home for me about David’s essay is that Steampunk involves a love of Science not controlled by the “warrior-priest class of Scientists.” It struck me how well that explains the importance of Fatemeh Karimi’s character in my novel Owl Dance. She belongs to the Bahá’í Faith, a religion that eschews a priesthood, encouraging its members to know God through their own study. I like the idea that she serves as a metaphor for a genre—for an entire subculture—that encourages people to know science and technology for themselves. You can learn more about Owl Dance at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#owldance

David Oakes and I would love to hear what you think about his essay defining Steampunk. Is it close? Does it miss something critical? Let us know what you think!

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10 comments on “Defining Steampunk

  1. When I defined steampunk as a theme for my Poetry Fishbowl project one month, I broke the term in half. “Steam” tells the kind of technology at the core of the genre, which indicates the timeframe. “Punk” means you take the core concepts and issues of an age, and twist them, and look at the underside of society. And both aspects speak to the mood: steampunk has the bright charm of the steam age and the gritty challenge of punk culture.

    • That’s a nice, concise, definition, Elizabeth and provides a lot of food for thought. I certainly would agree that the “punk” element is a twist — though I think of it more as a science fictional or fantastic twist than one specifically to look at the underside of society. A lot of steampunk does look at society’s underside, but I’m not sure that’s an actual requirement of the subgenre. That said, I’d certainly be interested to hear what others think.

  2. Never delved into the Steampunk genre… been stuck in my paranormal romance! Going to have to check it out! Thanks, Emily

    • Thank you, Emily. Some good books I highly recommend are Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Worldshaker by Richard Harland and the anthology Gears and Levers edited by Phyllis Irene Radford. Enjoy!

  3. nebula61 says:

    I liked both your and Elizabeth’s explanations. I have been following the evolution of s/f over the decades and it seems to me that steampunk is a perfect melding of our love and fear of science and technology-with “steam” representing the fantastical aspects of sci-tech–the birth of our fascination with its mystery and glamour, the hope we harbored that it would make all our dreams come true–and “punk” representing the reality of our eventual compromises and disillusions, and coming to terms with its dangers, limitations and consequences.

  4. As the editor of a magazine with a few steampunk stories coming out soon, I can only say the writers I’ve dealt with have taken a literal approach–insisting there literally needed to be steam gushing out of equipment. In fact, one writer was surprised that I labeled the story as steampunk and offered to revised it so there was more actual steam.

    • Indeed, I’ve met quite a few authors who seem to take a very literal-minded approach to steampunk. I’m not certain it’s strictly necessary as long as the story is set in a period when steam power was prevalent and science/technology plays a role.

  5. Gary Every says:

    Thanks for publishing the essay david, it gave me a lot to think about. The first time I ever heard the term Steampunk was when Tyree Campbell put the word on the back cover of my novella The Saint and The Robot. There is no steam anywhere in the book although there is a fascination with technology – including a robot wife and a mechanical butterfly. I was pleased to see that my story does fit some important elements laid out by David Oakes essay, partiuclalry the thirst for understanding science. The central theme of whether science will be a tool for everyone or will belong to the warrior priest elite is a the main theme of the Saint and The Robot. As more people read, write and participate in the steampunk movement it will no doubt become more codified and is often the case the best stories will become those that turn these conventions on their head.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Gary. Interestingly enough, I’ve been thinking about The Saint and the Robot quite a bit in connection with some of my recent writing and some of the recent Steampunk submissions for Tales of the Talisman in that they all used alchemy to some degree or other. I don’t think alchemy is by any means an essential to Steampunk, but I find it interesting that Steampunk provides a platform to revisit it — and alchemy certainly serves as a metaphor for a priest-elite using science to achieve their goals. I absolutely agree, the more people try their hands at steampunk, the more it will evolve and change.

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