On Steampunk

This piece was originally written for an old website that thepaintedman ran, but seeing as it is informative and no less relevant. Some references may be a couple of years old, but here it is for a new audience!

Steampunk is the biggest literary and artistic genre that you’ve probably never heard of.  I can relate.  A few years ago I started writing Young Adult novels and while I was researching YA lit, I kept running across opaque references to steampunk until I finally took the arduous step of googling the term.  After reading up on everything steampunk, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard it before.  While no one’s ever heard of steampunk per se, everybody’s seen it: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sherlock Holmes, The Golden Compass, Hugo (I could keep going, but I’ll refrain).

So what is the definition of steampunk, you ask?  Jeff Vandermeer sums it up best in The Steampunk Bible, “First, it’s simultaneously retro and forward-looking in nature.  Second, it evokes a sense of adventure and discovery.  Third, it embraces divergent and extinct technologies as a way of talking about the future.”  Basically, steampunk is set in some version of the past (or in another world during a period that resembles our past), but with crazy modified technologies that, to put it simply, are just cool.  So basically, it’s this or this or this.

Or if you want to be a jerk about it, you could say that steampunk is the Eurotrash of geekdom.  (Thanks The Guild.)  For a genre that most people couldn’t refer to by name, it’s amazing how many haters there are out there.  Every week, someone’s pronouncing its demise.  In fact if you go to www.issteampunkdead.com you will find nothing but a page that says: “Yes.  Sorry.”

To put it bluntly, anyone who says that steampunk is dead is an idiot.  The beauty of the steampunk movement is its versatility.  Early steampunk was a modern riff on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, so much of it’s set in some version of Victorian or Edwardian London, involves crazy improbable dirigibles, and incorporates giant mechanized animal-bots.  If this is all that steampunk had to offer, I’d have to agree that it couldn’t possibly last very long.  Moreover, I’ve heard the criticism that steampunk doesn’t know what it is.  The gadgets in steampunk seem to suggest that it’s some sort of science fiction, but science fiction lovers tend to want (demand?) a science-y explanation for technologies while most of the technologies in steampunk are improbable at best.  (Wild Wild West, anyone?)  Die-hard sci-fi geeks see steampunk as some sort of stylized fantasy with flailing (and failing) aspirations toward science fiction, and to a certain extent these criticisms are right on.  All stories require some semblance of suspension of disbelief, but worlds should be credible.

Modern steampunk writers recognize that to move steampunk out of the back closet of speculative fiction, they need to deepen characters, enliven action, and produce intricate, realistic plots.  There are so many possibilities to explore, and the people immersed in the steampunk culture are creative enough to make use of the full panoply of options.  In fact, I myself am currently co-writing a Young Adult Steampunk novel that fits the genre, but is not the same old Victorian corsets or aviator goggles (although don’t get me wrong, I love both of those).  It’s set in a different world whose culture is loosely based on the Ottoman Empire, it revolves around technologies that are (mostly) explained, and it has twists and turns that you won’t see coming.  But don’t think I’m the only one fighting the good fight.  There are gobs of authors writing on the front line of steampunk.  For instance, I can’t wait to get my hands on the hotly anticipated debut Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff this fall.  The author has described his book as “telepathic samurai girls and griffins in steampunk feudal Japan.”  I’d go on, but what more do you need to hear?

New steampunk is awesome, it’s surprising, and let me say that there’s not a single thing about it that’s dead.

Katie Ernst
Guest Writer / Legal Counsel
Katie Ernst is the founder of the website www.misstreated.org, a website devoted to the issue of medical sexism. She graduated with honors from the University of California, San Diego with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She went on to earn her Juris Doctor from Loyola University, New Orleans, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2007. After giving up full-time legal practice because of medical issues, Katie turned her attention to writing. She's written novels for children and young adults, and has also written freelance articles for publications such as feministing.com, CBS Philly, and numerous other blogs and websites.
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