Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk
Steampunk has been described as “Victorian science fiction,” a futuristic version of a world long past—but never far from our hearts. It’s characterized by a solid industrial setting, advanced steam-powered technology, defunct scientific theories, Victorian English aesthetics, and (frequently) alternative history; it is worth noting, however, that—unlike cyberpunk, which is usually set in the urban landscape of near-future Earth—steampunk regularly departs from real-world settings completely.
Steampunk may also incorporate metaphysical themes, of the sort more commonly associated with fantasy than science fiction: there may be a great clock tower, in which there lies imprisoned a figure who is the embodiment of all the world’s sorrows. There might be a massive engine of unknown origin at the center of the world, which drives the life-force of an entire race of living machines, inevitably leading to a conflict of interests whereby its function would seem to endanger humanity. Steampunk grew, in part, out of early twentieth-century pulp fiction set within the Victorian era, and ethical questions of human progress and advancement were a common thematic element in Victorian writing.
In honor of Peter Jackson’s upcoming feature film, based upon Philip Reeve’s steampunk novel Mortal Engines, let’s explore five of the characteristics which successful steampunk novels have in common.
Steampunk features advanced technologies, often with abilities which would be incredible even by modern standards. At the same time, there is a strong element of retro-futurism; these technologies are anachronistic, as they may have been imagined by a fiction writer living in Victorian times. The steampunk writer must take the forward-thinking but still fundamentally limited prescience of the modern science fiction author, and imagine what the same individual might have written about 150 years ago—give or take a few decades.
Common technological elements of the steampunk genre include steam power, early experiments with wireless and electrical technology (which are often presented as being both powerful and uncontrollable, save perhaps by a few gifted individuals), complex mechanics driven by clockwork mechanisms, hydraulics, orreries, and automatons. Steampunk automatons are frequently represented as true artificial intelligences—either the unfortunate victims of uncaring men, or the monstrous offspring of a botched experiment. They are often cast as either the casual hero, striving to be human, or the tragic villain, whose responsibility for their own actions is deliberately debatable.
Meanwhile, the feats which such devices are capable of achieving may include such noteworthy accomplishments as the replication of solid matter, teleportation, the generation of free energy, travel beyond “the spheres” of the known universe (during a time when even the concept of the galaxy and the composition of stars were unknowns), and the reanimation of dead matter.
The Ambiguity of Power
Steampunk incorporates contrasting views. On the one hand, the nature of scientific progress and human achievement is placed under a critical microscope—but this is not to say that such ideas are presented as inherently bad. Rather, the suggestion is more that careful thought needs to be put into such concepts, lest we make ill-considered decisions—with potentially cataclysmic consequences.
In fact, steampunk embraces the concept of scientific advancement and achievement. Anything which is unknown or “outside” the laws of science is, if not invariably bad, certain to be sinister and suspect. Extra-dimensional powers and spiritual entities, where they are present, have ulterior motives and agendas that are at worst malevolent; at best, their plans take on such a long view that most characters can simply sidestep any scrutiny of their ethical considerations.
If a character in a steampunk story is fiddling with alchemy, researching sorcery, or dabbling in the occult, the powers with which they are contending are portrayed as dark and ill-advised influences. Magic and technology mix and react in uncertain ways, with magic (where it exists; it’s not a universal element) being portrayed as the essence of chaos. Its very use may serve to break down the natural order of things, and—if it is even successful—there are always unanticipated consequences.
Steampunk DIY: Do-It-Yourself
The Victorian era—the actual Victorian era—was a time of almost unprecedented invention and technological innovation, as compared to all the rest of human history. It also saw the growing frequency of large corporations, railroad barons, and captains of industry, and introduced (at least to the popular perception) the widespread idea of intellectual property theft as a damaging, criminal enterprise.
In modern times, for example, we recognize the frequent theft of ideas perpetrated by Thomas A. Edison, as well as his propensity for ruining the livelihoods and careers of his competitors so thoroughly that some died in relative anonymity many years after Edison himself was long gone.
The steampunk genre pays underlying tribute to the more genuine side of the spirit of Victorian innovation. Large organizations and powerful individuals are usually presented as having stolen their ideas, often for dark and sinister ends. The most remarkable innovations are the prerogative of individual, independent craftsmen and innovators, often unrecognized for the true extent of their genius, who are forced to assemble their gadgetry more or less single-handedly from secondhand materials. Time and again, the day is saved thanks to the life-long efforts of an unsung “do-it-yourselfer.”
A Motley Aesthetic
The appearance of steampunk settings has a lot in common with the era on which they are based. The average individual is not clean and well-kept, save perhaps in higher echelons of society—which are invariably keeping the majority of the population oppressed. Technology is functional first, and neat second: neatness, where it occurs, is one of several traits that tends to be characteristic of the corporate presence, the inner circle, and other parties with sinister or suspect motives.
Patchwork riveting, scavenged materials, and dirty streets intermingle with other cobbled-together visual elements, such as clothing and personal accessories which incorporate bits of the steampunk aesthetic. They may be functional, such as a steampunk or a clockwork-driven prosthetic limb, or they may be purely decorative, serving no apparent use—except to make an individual stand out as being a character in a steampunk setting.
Steampunk is a gritty, hard, and visceral setting, one that is based profoundly on visual imagery and readily recognizable components. The profound nature of its underlying themes is manifested directly in the way everything else is presented. Things look a certain way—right or wrong, benevolent or dangerous, friendly or hostile. There is, of course, a meta element to such a presentation: the visual nature of the genre is for the reader’s benefit, leading to the dramatic tension of a character interacting with something we know to be dark and sinister—even if we don’t quite understand why.
A Disenfranchised Society
Steampunk, like the other ‘punk genres, embraces the lone and asocial hero. Sometimes, a small group of these may be forced to work together, and might even find some common ground, but there is always a maverick streak—a sense of rebelliousness, which encourages them to rise up and work against a corrupt and inadequate system. The system, after all, is something that most people simply accept, for the sake of the greater good or simply not rocking the boat. As a result, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the main characters’ actions; some part of why they’re fighting, or working against the system, is based on their own internal dissatisfaction—or other needs that must be reconciled.
They might be doing the right thing, but not entirely for the right reasons—and they may not be going about what they’re doing in the best way. That’s not to say that the steampunk hero can’t be a clearly right-minded individual, only that they frequently aren’t, and the latter seems to be the ingredient of more highly-praised and critically-acclaimed steampunk. One of the great forebears of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—while not a work of steampunk in itself—features two primary characters: Victor Frankenstein, an obsessed man who follows blind ambition to a result that was dark and ill-advised from the beginning, and his creation, a creature who is at once terrible and innocent, as tragic a villain as any in the last two centuries of modern fiction.
In steampunk, nobody is perfect. The people in power are corrupt and uncaring; the do-gooders are naïve—and often obsessed—and the common people are either bitter, broken, or angry, reduced to the dog-eat-dog state of doing what it takes to survive. The villain may have the best of intentions, but fail utterly in their realization, and the hero might use the absolute darkest methods. In the end, steampunk is about upsetting a carefully constructed balance, often one that is stressed as having stood the test of time for most of human history up to that point, in response to the growing need for individual recognition and personal satisfaction. It is not a genre for the faint-hearted, or the unusually reserved.
It is, however, a lot of fun to read.
Need More (Steam)?
- Twenty Must-Read Steampunk Books—The Ranting Dragon
- What Is Steampunk?—Steampunk.com
- Another What Is Steampunk?—The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences
- Top Ten Steampunk Films of All Time—Rebels Market