What is Steampunk?

Welcome to the World of Steampunk

Imagine a high-tech world where the machines were powered by steam and clockwork mechanisms replaced electronics. The literary subgenre “steampunk” is a form of speculative fiction, where the invention and spirit of the early industrial age is reinterpreted through sci-fi and fantasy themes.

The result is a quasi-Victorian world of anachronistic machinery, mixing the romance of the antiquated with the thrill of the new. Gentlemen in bowler hats sport monocles with all the capacities of google glass. Dirigibles float majestically overhead, piloted by sky pirates. Clockwork guns fire bolts of mysterious green light as their owners duel their way up and down the scaffolding of a new high-rise. A theme of high adventure and exploration predominates, with main characters often traveling to far off lands or falling into frequent skirmishes with unsavory villains. Technologies are often presented romantically, and with unproven assumptions of functionality.


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An Immersive World With a Growing Culture

Depending on the writer, fantasy, science fiction, horror, or historical fiction may be more or less incorporated; steampunk as a label refers mostly to the general theme of anachronism, romance, and adventure. The term “steampunk” first emerged in the 80’s and 90’s, but the subgenre draws a large amount of its inspiration from much earlier science fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. However, as it has become increasingly popular in writing and art, the phrase steampunk has also been applied to a growing subculture interested in creating art and clothing within the aesthetics of the genre. Modding everyday objects such as computers or phones to give them an antique feel has become an increasingly popular hobby among many artisans. For some it has even become a verb, so that “steampunked” versions of every kind of hardware can be found online. In recent years, the genres’ unique aesthetics increasing prevalence in popular movies, books, and art have made the term more and more a household word even to those not as familiar with fantasy or science fiction.

Creatively Bizarre Clothing

The clothing is inspired by Victorian England, but adapted for the adventurer’s lifestyle of its wearers. Buttoned vests and top hats may be combined with bandoleers and aviator goggles. Dresses are generally full length with tight waists and flared skirts, with tall boots or showy belts for a spunky look. Other gear might include flight jackets or military inspired coats, fingerless gloves, and pocketwatches. Buckles, buttons, and grommets in copper or brass are often used as accents, and a lot of leather is common. Favored colors tend to be navy blues, grays, or browns, but creative twists are always welcomed. Jewelry can be very simple or very elaborate, but the key accessories are of course the gadgets and gizmos, of which there can never be too many. These are elaborate with cogs and gears, clock faces and hands, hoses, lights, and vacuum tubes. In many respects, that a device looks plausibly high-tech and realistically well-worn is more important than strictly defining its functionality.

Don’t Forget the Weapons & Gadgets

Weaponry almost exclusively features firearms, but whether the guns shoot bullets, laser-bolts, or grappling hooks is open to interpretation. They may be pistol-like, rifle-like, or ghostbusters style backpack attachments. As with other gizmos, what is most important is that the levers and mechanisms by which they work are visible and realistic but still mysterious. Weapons generally feature copper and brass parts with leather grips, and are often made to look a little aged and worn, playing to the romantic imagery of the theme.

Events, Conventions & Cosplay

Costumes of these sorts are fun to make and design, and artists more and more frequently “steampunk” their clothes, computers, nerfguns, and other things to create fun and beautiful accessories. As the subgenre has become better known, conventions and events featuring steampunk styles have drawn larger and larger crowds. Some events are hosted by groups and societies interested in steampunk creations, the largest being the Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey, and SteamCon in Seattle. Towns may host as well, such as Waltham, MA, which hosts the Watch City Festival each summer to showcase its history and museums. Whatever their location, in the minds of most enthusiasts, these events are about sharing their love of the creativity and art of the steampunk style with appreciative audiences. People love to go to show off particularly well-done designs and clever ideas, while getting inspiration from gadgets made by other people. Some people create small pieces, such as jewelry or hats with accessorizing gears. The real fun, however, is in pushing the limits of the genre; some people retrofit mobile homes to give them a steampunk feel. Others create elaborate costumes with wide skirts or fitted moving parts. Whatever they might make, at a convention or cosplay event enthusiasts can be sure to find others who appreciate their skill and want to swap techniques. other featured events might include roleplay, storytelling, and performances in the theme. Steampunk holidays include the recently invented, self-explanatory “Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day”, on December 8th, when costumed folks wander the streets demanding to know what year it is. When large groups of people get into events like these, it creates a sense of immense energy and fun for both participants and passer-bys.

In Movies, Books, Magazines, Art, & Even Music

Steampunk is perhaps best known from the vast number of movies and books that have taken up the theme. The popular Japanese animator, Miyazaki, used steampunk elements in fantasy films like Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle. Other movies to include the motif were Stardust, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing, and The Golden Compass. The Mysterious Geographic Adventures of Jasper Morello is a short-film in the genre which came out in 2005 and has won several prizes. Television shows such as Doctor Who and Legend of Korra also borrow from steampunk imagery. Videogames like BioShock Infinite and The Chaos Engine incorporate steampunk aesthetics as well. Books placed in steampunk inspired worlds have also become more and more popular, with well-known fantasy writers branching out into the genre. Brandon Sanderson’s recent The Alloy of the Law and Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan are prime examples. Off the beaten track, the selection of books in the genre is vast and varied. Steampunk books that emphasize fantasy themes are The Last Page, by Anthony Huso and The Fall of Ile-Rien series by Martha Wells. The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, is known for combining steampunk with supernatural elements. A more strictly alternative historical can be found in the Peshawar Lancers, by S. M. Stirling. Science fiction elements are incorporated by Mainspring, by Jay Lake. For those interested in sampling the diversity of ways steampunk is written, several anthologies exist including ones edited by Gavin J Grant, Ann VanderMeer, and Tonia Brown. Steampunk is also increasingly found in comics, such as the League of Extraordinary Gentleman by Alan Moore, and the webcomics Missing Monday, by Elle Skinner and Red Moon Rising, by Rose Loughran. In the world of art, steampunk’s theme of invention has been taken to heart by a subculture of “makers”, artisans with an interest in technology, history, and the steampunk design.

You Can Find it Almost Everywhere

Today, some of the best in steampunk can be found on the pages of Etsy and Deviantart, where steampunk jewelry and gadgets capture the imagination. Professional artists like Eric Freitas, a steampunk-clockmaker, or Insect Lab Studios, produce sophisticated masterpieces of gears and metal. Several bands have adapted to the steampunk trend, playing an eclectic mix of industrial, gothic, and new wave music. Its influences include gypsy, cabaret, Indian, and folk, and features exotic or outdated instruments such as accordions, bagpipes, and balalaikas. Groups that are generally considered steampunk include the popular Abney Park and The Melting Clock as well as more obscure groups such as Steam Powered Giraffe, Victory and the Vaudevillians, and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. More well-known groups that could be considered to branch into steampunk styles include The Gorillaz and Beirut.

Fun, Exciting, & Inspiring – Get Into it!

Perhaps you sometimes feel technology has lost its romance in the impersonal confusion of software updates and smartphone upgrades. Maybe you long for the comfort of the old-fashioned, even as you enjoy the excitement of the new. You might just wish for an era when sophisticated science was the realm of hobbyists and human ingenuity seemed constantly on the cusp of the next new thing. Steampunk rehumanizes technology and rediscovers the inventor in each person. For artists and creatives, it is an art-style that challenges their creativity and makes mass-produced electronics feel personal. For writers, it is an appealing backdrop for world creation with imagery that is uniquely engaging and imaginatively romantic. The popularity of this subgenre has soared in the past five years, as more and more people find something to love in the retro-futuristic. What the next new thing in steampunk will be, it’s hard to say, but one thing is certain. Steampunk has always been, at heart, about the spirit of adventure and the ingenuity of the individual. So, whatever it is you want to create from steampunk… we can’t wait to see it. Until then, fare well, and may your airship fly you to far and fabulous destinations.