Steampunk: A Journey into a Realm of Victoriana and Futuristic Marvels

You enter a home where the walls are covered by an elaborate wallpaper with beautiful flowers and rich colors. Framed portraits of family members watch over the place, while paintings of past battles remind you of many stories told next to the fire. Bookcases from floor to ceiling cover entire walls. A big clockwork rings, goggles have been left on the wood table, and in the background, you hear the sound of a Zeppelin passing by.

In the steampunk genre, the aesthetics of the Victorian era or the American Wild West is reimagined to include technology far exceeding the reality of the era. This mashup of future and past conjures specific pictures in the mind of the reader, while the story uses technology and elements of the different historical periods it explores to address social issues.

Today, we travel back to a past full of innovation and revolutionary ideas, to discover the origins of the steampunk genre, exploring its distinctive features and what makes the genre so appealing.

The Victorian Origins of Steampunk

Let’s take a time machine, as the origins of steampunk lie in Victorian Literature, which influence cannot be denied. In this period of tumultuous changes when human lives could be so easily crushed by the Industrial Revolution, authors like Charles Dickens were portraying social issues and the hardships faced by the working class in Victorian England.

But the times were also one of the marvels, translated with many inventions and technological advancements (including the steam locomotive, a classic engine of the steampunk genre) that also inspired writers to craft wonderful tales full of adventures and futuristic inventions.

One of the biggest influences on the genre is no other than French author Jules Verne, writer of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth (both of which are part of his Voyages Extraordinaires series). He entertained readers with a rich and intricate world-building filled with meticulous scientific and technological details. Even though he is recognized as one of the best science fiction writers of all time, Jules Verne was actually writing about the science of the day.

Born 20 years after Verne, Albert Robida, another French novelist and illustrator, helped shape the Steampunk genre with his everyday inventions in a trilogy of futuristic books. He is mostly known for his Téléphonoscope, a flat-screen television that provides 24-hour access to the most recent plays, classes, and teleconferences in addition to the most recent news.

H.G. Wells is another author whose visionary novels, particularly The Time Machine (1895), contributed significantly to the creation of steampunk. In the book, he investigated the concept of time travel using a steam-powered device, transporting readers to a future in which society and technology had altered suddenly. He pioneered the examination of other histories and retrofuturistic worlds by combining scientific speculative fiction, social critique, and adventure, all of which are essential characteristics of the steampunk genre.

The Invention of the Word Steampunk

Before the eighties, you could naturally find novels that are now considered part of the subgenre of science-fiction, before the term existing – such as Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air (1971).

The term was coined by K.W Jeter in a 1987’s letter to Locus magazine, as a tongue-in-cheek variant of cyberpunk at a time when stories like Neuromancer were present in abundance.

Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it to Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

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 “steam-punks,” perhaps….

— K.W. Jeter

Once the word was invented, you could say that the genre emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, with books like Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (1983), James Blaylock’s Homunculus (1986), and KW. Jeter’s Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987) seen as seminal works of steampunk.

Steampunk imagines a future in which the Victorians’ predictions of technological improvements have come to pass. It embraces the idea that the extraordinary advancements and technologies the Victorians envisioned weren’t just wild speculations, but real possibilities.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson (more often associated with Cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling stands as a prime example of steampunk, and the book is often credited with helping popularize steampunk fiction in the West. In the novel, Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer, has been successfully developed, altering the course of history.

The Key Elements of Steampunk

A lot of steampunk fiction is set during the Industrial Revolution or in a different period that is influenced by nineteenth-century aesthetics – though it can go beyond this century. It favors imaginative and visually pleasing technologies and concepts with a more or less realistic approach, depending on the writer. But steam power isn’t the only aspect of steampunk. The style includes ornate furnishings, wood and metal furniture, and steam-driven technology, which produces a world filled with cogs, clacking gears, and mechanical parts.

Along with its visual and structural elements, steampunk fiction explores political ideologies, cultural norms, and fashion trends from the time period in which the narrative is set. Outsider heroes often embark on dangerous journeys with steam-powered technologies at the forefront. Even while steampunk has many similarities with cyberpunk, its tone is often softer and more optimistic.

Naturally, Steampunk is typically a hybrid genre, combining aspects from fantasy, horror, historical fiction, alternate history, and other speculative fiction subgenres to create a unique vision. By encouraging readers to imagine an alternate past or parallel world where steam technology affects every aspect of society, from politics to fashion, the genre provides a unique blend of nostalgia and futuristic potential.

The Variations of Steampunk

Among the rich tapestry of steampunk fiction, you’ll find different book trends and variations from the genre, assuring each reader to find a book suiting him or her.

There is a Rich World of Steampunk Western, called Cattlepunk (or Weird West), you can go explore the American frontier where advanced steam technology exists alongside cowboys and outlaws. If you prefer to visit East Asia, search no further than Silkpunk, drawing inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity. Japanese steampunk is also a very popular genre in manga and anime.

For more supernatural and fantasy in your stories, turn your attention toward the Gaslamp Fantasy, a subgenre of Fantasy where mythical creatures and fantastical elements meet the steampunk aesthetic. Let’s not forget the Clock Punk, for more details on the precise workings of clockwork devices, automatons, and other mechanisms.

Also, often considered as the bridge between Steampunk and Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk shift the focus to the 1920s-1940s with retrofuturistic and occult elements and a darker approach.

Put your Corset, top hat, and goggles, settle in a big chair with a cup of tea, and dive into the many steampunk universes there are out there!