What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is often referred to as the “greatest era that never was.” Set in the late 19th century, it encompasses all of the romanticism of the Victorian Era— including the ugly bits— all the literature, all the scientific theories and political upheavals, then cranks up the technological level on the whole thing to eleven.

Steampunk Origins
The term steampunk was first coined in the 1980’s by K. W. Jeter in an effort to explain the genre of stories written by him and several other authors of the time.
According to Wikipedia:
“Steampunk is often associated with cyberpunk and shares a similar fanbase and theme of rebellion, but developed as a separate movement (though both have considerable influence on each other). Apart from time period and level of technological development, the main difference between cyberpunk and steampunk is that steampunk settings usually tend to be less obviously dystopian than cyberpunk, or lack dystopian elements entirely.”
Since then steampunk has bloomed into much more than a small offshoot of science fiction literature. There are steampunk movies, magazines and even bands that produce steampunk music. More recently there has arisen a whole separate culture that considers itself steampunk in nature, consisting of men and women who enjoy the formalities and dress of the Victorian Era, as well as the imaginative technology of a steam driven gadgets. These steampunk followers gather at conventions, balls and expos to show off their finery and discuss all things steampunk.

Steampunk ‘Rules’
The largest thing to remember about the genre as a whole is that there are no set rules. That’s right. Steampunk is so anachronistic it can’t even settle on a standard for itself. While this seems like the setup for an ‘anything goes’ kind of free-for-all, there are a few unspoken guidelines you should look at when considering whether something falls into the steampunk genre.
1) It should occur in the Victorian Era. Some consider this a hard and fast rule, penning only 19th century based works. Yet others see it as a loose suggestion, writing steampunk tales set in the far-flung future. Just keep in mind the technology should reflect a humble Victorian beginning at the very least.
2) It should include steam-powered gadgetry. Again this is another commonly agreed upon stance. Most of the typical steampunk stories will be easily recognizable from the sheer wild inventions included. Some writers, however, focus on the characters rather than the technology, choosing for the steam aspect of the genre to remain a backdrop rather than the heart.
3) It must occur in or around Victorian England. This is the biggest sticking point for most steampunk writers. If the tale is not set in Victorian England, then it just isn’t steampunk enough. Poppycock to that, I say! (Yes, I said poppycock!) Steampunk is a state of mind, not a state of physical presence. While it was a great time for Great Brittan, hence the reason we even call it the Victorian Era, the fact remains that the 19th century happened all around the globe. This gives us plenty of fodder for steampunk cowboys, steampunk pirates, even steampunk Samurai.
4) It should feature goggles. This sounds like a joke, but I kid you not. One of the most common visual elements in the steampunk universe is the overwhelming presence of goggles. Why? Because they look so darned cool, why not use them! And a higher score if they actually do something!

Steampunk Offerings
So now you know a little more about the subject, and are eager to learn more. Where do you go from here? Allow me to list a few different mediums in which to get your newly acquired steampunk spats wet.
Books- You don’t have to delve into its deep scifi past to enjoy steampunk literature. There are many books out both past and present that employ the mindset of the genre with excellent results:
The Time Machine by HG Wells
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
Souless by Gail Carriger
Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters

Court of The Air by Stephen Hunt
Clockworks and Corsets by Regina Riley
Moving Pictures- Movies and television have been on the steampunk bandwagon long before there was even a wagon to band around. Here is a short list of popular movies that while they may not be decidedly steampunk, they do include the theme on some level:
Wild, Wild West
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

City of Lost Children
Howell’s Moving Castle
Disney’s Treasure Planet

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Music- Loads of independent groups are labeling their music as steampunk. In fact, there is a whole recording label that deals exclusively within the genre. Check out these links to learn more about just a few of my favorite groups:
The Unextraordinary Gentlemen
The Clockwork Dolls
Abney Park
The Cog is Dead
The Clockwork Quartet

(A version of this explanation first appeared on the Lyrical Press blog under the title Gears, Gadets and Gallentry, Oh My!)