What Is Steampunk? 4 Authors Define the Genre

What Is Steampunk? 4 Authors Define the Genre

In early 2013, steampunk was once again declared “mainstream,” despite the fact that science fiction readers have eagerly embraced this subgenre for decades. To call steampunk–a coinage attributed to author K.W. Jeter back in the 1980s–mainstream indicates how its influence has extended across various art forms: music (Abney Park, Vernian Process), fashion, design and more. And yet this unique movement still defies easy description, drawing on influences from the literature of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to steam-powered gadgets to Victorian corsets. In fiction, the steampunk aesthetic has become so recognizable as to permeate non-SFF genres, including young adult and even romance. Bookish asked four steampunk authors to deconstruct the fantastical genre and explain its hold on their ever-growing legions of readers.

The airship aesthetic

“Steampunk: alternate history/fantasy/speculative fiction that includes/involves (but is not limited to): steam power, Victoriana, Victorian-themed anachronistic machines and goggles; fashion inspired by such including cogs, gears, corsets, frock coats and more goggles; action, adventure, meditations on the nature of heroism, meditations on the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, meditations on the nature of the relationship between humans and machines, and yet more goggles.”

Lilith Saintcrow, author of the  Strange Angels and  Jill Kismet series

(Have you seen the cover reveal for Saintcrow’s newest Bannon & Clare mystery, “The Ripper Affair”? Check out this latest foray into alternate-history steampunk England–which promises an unusual take on Jack the Ripper.)

The anti-modern movement

“Steampunk represents a creative movement that I never thought I would see in the contemporary arts. The past 30-odd years of decorative and functional arts have seen a tyranny of modernism. There was no room and no interest in any classic forms and antique creations. By 2006, Minimalism, in all forms of the decorative arts, reigned supreme, and nary a decorative flourish or hand-wrought detail could be found.

Then steampunk came along and changed the concept of ‘modern’ design. Finally, there was the freedom to not only include, but also celebrate, handcrafted elements that took their inspiration from the 19th-century arts and industrial crafts. Finally, there is a genre that represents the blessed freedom to create without the aesthetic restrictions of the ‘less is more’ philosophy.

Steampunk is not simple nostalgia or a fanciful trip down Retro Lane. This is a movement that fully embraces modern thought and technologies, and cherishes the evidence, not the obliteration, of the human hand.”

Art Donovan, steampunk artist and author of ” The Art of Steampunk: Extraordinary Devices and Ingenious Contraptions from the Leading Artists of the Steampunk Movement

The post-retro revolution

“I have no definition of steampunk. It’s too varied, and definitions are confining. I might describe it as a narrative that can combine some or all of the elements of 19th-century technology, adventure and the importance of sartorial style. It’s an opportunity to explore the interface between people in a time of technological change, colonialism and the rise of various sorts of revolution, war and/or empire in a world whose boundaries and frontiers are fluid.”

Kate Elliott, author of the Spiritwalker series: “Cold Magic,” “Cold Fire” and “Cold Steel”

The technology of hope

“Steampunk imagines a world in which the aesthetics, science and environment of the 19th century have been combined with an even greater level of technological development. Modern steampunk traces its origins back to the original sci-fi authors of the 19th century, like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. But while those authors took the science of their time and looked into the future and asked, ‘What could be?’ modern steampunk authors look into the past and ask, ‘What could have been?’ Steampunk is more than just technology. It is about creativity, adventure and the hope that, however bad the modern world may be, the march of progress will make the future a better place.”

G.D. Falksen, whose guide “Steampunk 101” is to date one of the most widely quoted and referenced articles on the steampunk genre and its related subculture


  1. I was disappointed to see the focus on the newer authors instead of going back to the ones who began writing Steampunk before Steampunk was “cool” and “mainstream.” The one who really started it all with not only the huge Steampunk music of the band Abney Park was the author Robert Brown who in 2010 released the book “Wrath of Fate.” This is Steampunk without being too cliche of thinking “slap some gears on it and call it Steampunk!” http://thewrathoffate.abneypark.com/2.html

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