Thursday, January 21, 2010

Guest post-- Steampunk, by Alison McMahan

Alicia says: I met Alison at the U S Maine MFA program last month (this month?), and she agreed to do a guest post about a fascinating sub-genre, Steampunk. Here goes- thanks, Alison! This is so intriguing.



I’ve been a Steampunk fan for years, ever since I first read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea as a kid. A few months ago I decided to write a steampunk novella and found that it wasn’t enough to be a fan, I had to give some thought to the nature of the genre itself.

What is Steampunk? It’s generally defined as

as “Victorian science fiction,” that is, science fiction in an industrialized 19th century setting. I’ve also seen it defined as “a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used.”

There’s a whole list of serious and tongue-in-cheek definitions here.

Steampunk is a genre set a world that is still in a nearly artisanal/barely industrial and completely analog age, as compared to a digitally enabled industrial military complex. Its heroes, though good at action when action is required, focus on strategy and using their intellectual resources; trickster and detective figures abound. Like the 19th century, it’s a very misogynistic world. As a result the few women characters tend to be superwomen, women who can hold their own in spite of the extra obstacles in their paths.

Steampunk is a hybrid form; there is steampunk with an emphasis on sci-fi elements, in the shape of alternative history and alternative technological developments. There is also steampunk with an emphasis on fantasy elements, and variants such as steamgoth. The tone can be comic or dramatic or romantic.

There hasn’t been much steampunk romance written yet, but it’s a genre that’s in demand

and clearly on its way.

And watch for Katie MacAlister’s Steamed: A Steampunk Romance, due out February 2, 2010.

Where did steampunk come from? Victorian authors who imagined the future from a 19th century perspective, like H.G.Wells and Jules Verne, are considered proto-steampunkers. Authors like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley are precursors who showed the way to put fantasy and the paranormal into the genre, and Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle gave us some of the quintessential steampunk character archetypes, commonly used props (from brass goggles to gears to dirigibles of all kinds) and events. Proto-steampunk novels include Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine, and Sherlock Holmes stories.

By the early 1960s works that are now considered steampunk were being published as novels and comic books. Steampunk movies, TV Shows and games also appeared; see a complete chronology here.

When asked where the term Steampunk came from, Cherie Priest, the author of Boneshaker, responded as follows:

It is generally-agreed-upon that “steampunk” first appeared in a letter written to Locus magazine in 1987. Author K. W. Jeter was looking for a general term to describe his material (as well as the material of some of his contemporaries [Tim Powers and James Blaylock]) set in the 19th century or 19th-century-like worlds, with strange tech and wondrous marvels.

He said: “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ’steampunks’, perhaps…

His usage here was a riff on the label “cyberpunks,” a then-newish and very popular genre that was very science-fiction-forward, loaded with bad-ass hackers, virtual reality tech, and (frequently) predictions of a dystopian future.

Many steampunk fans credit William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel "The Difference Engine, " originally published in 1990, with popularizing the genre. “The Difference Engine” or “analytical engine” was, of course, the computer. They were followed by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Phillip Pullman, and China MiĆ©ville, then Cherie Priest, Jonathan Barnes, and K.J. Parker.

Steampunk has always existed cross-media, from the novels already listed to comic book series like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gotham by Gaslight, and the web comic Girl Genius, Films got started early by adapting the seminal works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and television hopped on board with shows in the 1960s like Wild Wild West, later resurrected as a Steampunk movie. The steampunk aesthetic is present in video games like Syberia and Arcanum.

Because I am a filmmaker I have been approaching my research from a filmic angle first. I've assembled my own list of films I’ve classified as steampunk: (

Some of these, like Dark City and City of Ember are also romances. I would count The Prestige and The Illusionist as steampunk; The Illusionist is a romance too. There is some debate about Sleepy Hollow ( -- because there is disagreement on how much fantasy can go into steampunk and still have it be steampunk. As far as I am concerned, the minute we see all the torture devices in an industrial 19th century New York City jail, and then Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp) put on his brass magnifying goggles, the issue is clear.

But it seems to be a trend to have Hollywood filmmakers deny that their films are steampunk. For example, Joel Silver, the producer of Sherlock Holmes said:

Silver said:

[It's steampunk] to an extent. I wouldn't go that far. It's not Wild Wild West, where there's lots of [crazy gadgets]. It really is 1891, but it is as if we shot it then. There's no real artifice, it feels like it's shot in 1891, but with incredible camera work and dollies. And yes, there is a part of the industrial revolution that's happening then, but it's not so much what's going on. The details aren't that deliberate.

But does genre live by props alone? Yes, Wild Wild West had some “crazy gadgets” but it also had a plot that brought an industrial mogul who was interested in producing weapons in a primitive environment. That’s a cross between alternative history and sci-fi. In Sherlock Holmes they might have gone short on the steampunk style props, but they started with a steampunk plot, just like Wild Wild West: a self-styled cult leader is using propaganda and mass hysteria to propel himself into power and, he hopes, into a position as dictator of not just England but the United States. All of that, and without television!

But who can look at the scenes of London in this trailer and deny its steampunk feel?

What Joel Silver and other deniers forget is that Sherlock Holmes is a quintessentially steampunk character, derived from a quintessentially steampunk proto-text. He might not need magnifying goggles or a quick rescue from a dirigible when a steam-powered ferry will do, but he embodies the trickster nature, strategic mind and archival memory of many steampunk heroes; and like them he is both light and dark, his keen intelligence keeping his emotional disarray from completely undoing him.

Like Wild Wild West, Sherlock Holmes is a “bromance,” a romance between two men. When the women love interests do appear, their screen time is limited, their opportunities for action severely restricted. This is probably the source of failure for both films. Steampunk, especially sci-fi steampunk, screams for believable romance, like the love story in Hellboy. Otherwise that grimy industrial world is just too dark, and the dark night of the hero’s soul even darker. Hybridizing the action/detective tropes with romance genre elements better would have saved the movie. Making Rachel MacAdam’s character a real match for Downey’s Holmes, in action as well as in name, would have been more honest and more dramatic.

The challenge to such a hybridization lies in the detective genre itself. Whenever the filmmakers showed Holmes looking at something it was usually an open point of view sequence – we see that Holmes is looking at something and we see his reaction to it, but not what he sees. At the end of the film, the missing point of view shots are replayed, and the mysteries explained. But Holmes rarely looks at the woman he is supposed to be so in love with, and in the few brief moments that he does the editors have cut the moments so short that many viewers will miss them altogether.

There has been much internet chatter about a sequel to this movie, with hopes for a new love interest for Holmes and an enlarged part for Mary (Kelly Reilly), the woman Watson wants to marry. Let’s hope the filmmakers take it in that direction. Holmes's head might be full of gears, but what we want to hear is the whirring of his heart.


Matthew Delman said...

Alicia and Theresa --

Love your work on this blog, ladies. It's a joy to find people who remind me of the hard-nosed editing professor I had in college, who also taught me a whole heckuva lot about writing simply by not being willing to take substandard work.

I run a humble blog devoted to steampunkery called Free the Princess. It's an attempt to blend discussions of the tech with actually writing it, and some folks seem to think it's successful.

The address is if you or any of your readers are interested.

Sarah Ahiers said...

i'm such a steampunk fan and have been for years and years. I even have a steampunk writing hat (you can see a pic on my bog if you're curious).
I'm glad it's becoming more accessible, but also a little sad as well.
Still, fun article!

Riley Murphy said...


Great Post! As a romance reader/writer - I agree with you. I too, think that the genre could do with more of a romance slant included in their storylines.

And about those storylines? I love the idea of bringing the future into the past. When you think about, the gadgets come with a preconceived notion of how they're going to work - but it's the switched up version of how they're styled and too, how this design causes them to function - that intrigues most people. A Flying boat, sailing through the stars in the universe? Totally awesome!

My favorite movies? Golden Compass and Van helsing. But, um, the latter could be because Hugh Jackman (with his long hair and three-quarter length leather coat) was in the starring role. Hey, (insert shrug here) I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers. hehehe :D

I think Leanne Gentry Sky did a post about this a while back. I wonder if she has anything to add on the subject?

Thanks for the great links and info!


Jordan said...

I thought the Sherlock Holmes trailers looked very steampunky. Interesting breakdown of the plot, too!

Jami Gold said...


Thanks for listing some of the stories and movies that you consider steampunk. That really helped clarify a definition of the genre for me. I had been thinking that it was a very narrow genre, but now I see it as much broader and I'm looking at some of those stories with a new understanding.

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...

I agree that Silver doth protest too much, and I find the idea that the romance was underdone attractive. I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes anyway. I actually prefer the more understated varieties of steampunk to over-the-top types like Wild, Wild West.

FWIW, my SF WIP includes a small homage to steampunk, in that the FTL and sublight engines in my starships are powered by steam turbines rather than Star Trek style double-talk reactors. Since I based them on Heim theory, it just made sense.

Julie Harrington said...

My first introduction to steampunk came with Gail Carriger's "Soulless" last year. I really enjoyed that blending with a great romance, a healthy splash of paranoral, the historical element, and a wee touch of horror. I'm really looking forward to the next 2 books in the series. It's so great to see a genre I knew nothing about (steampunk) picking up... um. Steam.


Genella deGrey said...

Great post!
I love historical romance novels or movies - so anything with costumes I'm down for.

Silver should suck it up and welcome the Steampunk label with open arms because it brings in a whole new audience. The studios are always bitching about wanting built-in audiences. Sheesh.


Andrew Rosenberg said...

I'm *ahem* writing a Steampunk Romance...with a strong female lead...with lots of action.

IMHO there's nothing Steampunk about Holmes except that weird gadget right near the end.

Heather Massey said...

Sweet post! I'm really looking forward to more steampunk, whatever its form. Thanks for linking to my steampunk post at Dear Author.

I loved WHITECHAPEL GODS by S.M. Peters and THE NARROWS by Alexander Irvine. Jay Lake's MAINSPRING had awesome airship action and imagery, although the plot left a little to be desired. Still, I recommend it.

I also enjoyed Nathalie Gray's erotic steampunk romance MECHANICAL ROSE.

And LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMAN can do no wrong (weeell, except maybe for the BLACK DOSSIER brain fart).

After putting it off for years, I finally watched WILD WILD WEST. Ugh what a disaster but I was riveted during the steampunk sequences. Please, Hollywood, make a big budget steampunk movie and put your back into it--now may be the right time.

Oh, and David Bowie as Tesla in THE PRESTIGE was a truly spiritual experience. Tesla is as steampunk as they come!

Dave Shaw said...

Iapetus, is it only anachronistic gadgets that make steampunk?

Andrew Rosenberg said...

There are certain Steampunk elements in there like Victorian Era setting, Holmes' inquisitive mind, and a couple anachronistic devices.
But it's NOT Steampunk because there's no real sense of invention or exploration, of testing the limits of technology, or some kind of alternate history or world. It's just a Victorian Era detective story, no fancy bells and whistles. (or gears and goggles)

Edittorrent said...

Does anyone remember the Wild Wild West TV show?

Dave Shaw said...

Alicia, of course. First run, reruns, etc. Great show.

Dave Shaw said...

Iapetus, my interpretation of what Alison wrote is that it's the plot that makes it steampunk. It sounds like you're excluding it based on technological and world building grounds. Is that a fair assessment, or am I misunderstanding?

Andrew Rosenberg said...

It's hard to say what exact plot is Steampunk or not, but it's not a Steampunk world/setting, and doesn't share many Steampunky themes like invention and exploration and the like. It's a Mystery plot, which is a pretty well-defined genre.

Anonymous said...

Well, this is a new genre for me to explore. Thanks for a great post :)

Took me a while to comment, I did get a bit distracted by the Sherlock Holmes trailer ...

Alison said...

Following up on the worldbuilding in steampunk at my own blog here: