Steampunk World Wednesday: What Makes a Story Steampunk?

I was recently having a conversation with Mike C, and the conversation sparked an intriguing question. What makes a story Steampunk? It can’t be the Victorian flair, because that just makes a period era novel. I know of someone writing a murder mystery set in 1902, but unless her villain is something unusual, I suspect that will just be another Sherlock Holmes story with a female protagonist. In fact, Sherlock Holmes is not strictly Steampunk, except of course in the latest iteration of movies. The BBC version of Sherlock is much too modern to be Steampunk.
That statement might seem to contradict my earlier assertation that Steampunk does not have to be Victorian and can, in fact, be set in any era. I still hold this to be true, but feel that the one piece of the puzzle that sets the tone from “Steam” or “Punk” or “Victorian” or “Postmodern apocalyptic” to be literally “Steampunk” is the technology–and the way people use it. For example, while Sherlock Holmes is not Steampunk, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang most certainly is.

The essence of Steampunk that draws people in is the technology–the technology of a future bygone era that never was. Brilliant machinery and miniscule gadgets all powered by “mysterious” technology from renewable (or diabolical) resources like the sun, winding gears, wind, coal, steam. Whatever the source, people could see where the electricity was coming from. And if they couldn’t, it was magic–but magic was taboo, and so they resorted to calling it alchemy, at least in the Western world. That technology doesn’t need to be made out of metal. What if, in the heart of the African jungle, a tribal shaman crafts a golem made from wooden joints and mud that runs on solar power, but he wishes for the village to believe that he’s actually working magic? (That’s a good one, I need to write that down…oh, wait). The Chinese were brilliant with gunpowder, what if they designed explosion-powered flying machines that were a crude sort of fission reactor based off of controlled explosions? In other worlds, other times, Steampunk could be a collapse of technology as we know it today and the arrival of new technology built by hand when the knowledge of computers is lost. Or perhaps the Japanese, who built robots before the word “Robot” even existed, left a secret cache of retro robots hidden beneath the earth and they burst forth with directions to protect the world from invaders–human or otherwise. That might already be an anime series…

The thing about Last Exile that makes it a good Steampunk series isn’t the cool Victorian-era uniforms–it’s the steam rifles that plug via long tubes into a giant steam machine and fire bursts of steam large enough to knock a man out of a plane. In my post-apocalyptic save-the-world-from-aliens story, it’s the fact that a devestated people cobble together flying machines out of boats and bicycles, and the Egyptians build solar-powered scooters.

So where is the fine line of technology? Not everyone can be a scientist or a tinkerer. In my conversation with Mike we were talking about whether hitting someone in the face with technology was necessary. In a long novel, the sprinkling throughout is probably adequate–the casual mention of a wristwatch that conceals a derringer, a pocket watch that also shows barometric pressure, a steam engine capable of going underwater for brief periods due to the retractable metal armadillo skin it carries on the nose. Little things that make the story. But in a short story of 4000 words? Focus on the aesthetic, just enough so that the person reading gets a flavoring particle of the world they are stepping into. Otherwise, you’re just writing another fantasy piece.

When it comes down to it, when blooming writers ask me how to make their stories Steampunk, I suggest that they read a few classics, and assume that those things really happened–Babbage’s machine was completed, Edison won the AC/DC war (or lost it sooner),  children didn’t run in fear of the Newark Steam Man, and Nero was a real guy with a real Nautilus. When you understand the basic concepts of technology that neverwas (or almost wasn’t) and the things that the first authors of “Steampunk” based their ideas from, you know where to boldly go. And remember, you can’t be an author if you don’t read. And read a lot.

For the purists out there, Steampunk is not purely science fiction. It is one part Fantasy, one part Sci Fi, one part Alternate History. Shaken, never stirred. No olive.

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One thought on “Steampunk World Wednesday: What Makes a Story Steampunk?

  1. Mike C. says:

    Very helpful article, Kronda. I think one point I left out when we’re actually discussing this though is how different it is to write steampunk than it is to experience it, like in a convention setting. I think I enjoy steampunk as an activity largely because of the cultural aspects, victorian outfits, and activities like afternoon tea. But when I attempt to write it, I find myself elaborating more on creating that overworld setting and describing the technology.

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