Steampunk 101

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When I first encountered this word, I thought my friend was making it up. He approached me at a bookstore and asked me if I’d heard of Steampunk. I stared at him blankly for a bit, and then had to go look it up on the internet. I was convinced he was pulling my leg, making the gullible writer fall for some fabricated term. But what I discovered was more than just a definition—it was a whole culture.

Steampunk, at its simplest, is taking the themes of the steam era—most-often Victorian Britain, but not always–and adding a contemporary fantasy or sci-fi twist. Most commonly it seems to involve technology in some fashion, but what makes it cool is that these modern alterations are kept within the cultural confines of the times. Usually there is little to no electricity, so steam or springs must power these items. For example, you could have a bionic arm or leg, but it is made out of gears and brass. And though that might in some ways seem limiting, within those fundamental boundaries there are infinite, awesome combinations that can be done.

A word I see that keeps popping up on various sites in their definitions of Steampunk is anachronistic, which I think pretty much sums it up. Here’s Wiki’s definition of the term:

An anachronism is an accidental or deliberate inconsistency in some chronological arrangement, especially a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other. The item is often an object, but may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else so closely associated with a particular period in time that it would be incorrect to place it outside its proper domain.

The most natural place to start is with books, since they are the oldest form of entertainment we cover on this site. Even though the term Steampunk was coined in 1987 (as a sort of offshoot of Cyberpunk), there have been samples of this genre for years prior to this date. A lot of modern examples have been influenced by some of the themes in much older work, especially by authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, though written over a hundred and thirty years ago when Victorian times were modern day, definitely fits within the boundaries of what defines Steampunk.

Using these older works as a backdrop, I want to examine some recent modern examples. In Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld uses both machinery and genetics as strong themes in his story set at the beginning of World War One. And in Gail Carriger’s series The Parasol Protectorate, there are fantasy elements like werewolves and vampires, but within the structure of proper Victorian England. But there are also great technology advancements—like the protagonist’s kick-ass parasol! Surprising to me, the series that seems to be popping up the most is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a sensational series of books that deal with myth and science, set in both an old-fashioned alternate London and a modern one. But the scientific advancements and machines in the story definitely have that Steampunk feel.

Movies also have some great examples. Obviously there is the Golden Compass movie that ties in with Pullman’s books, and still carries that Steampunk vibe, especially in the imagery. But the first example of Steampunk I can ever remember experiencing was in the Will Smith movie, Wild Wild West. The crazy spider machines the villain created, both his personal one and his enormous monstrosities, fit wonderfully within the genre. The story takes place in America, not England, but the time period is comparable, and overall it has a really fun Steampunk feel.  And then there are movies like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This movie defines Steampunk, and includes characters of a lot of the influential writers that inspired the genre. There are loads more, like Van Helsing and The Time Machine, all which are unique in their own way, and all of which have some essence of Steampunk.

Since  I am by no means the go-to, end-all Steampunk expert, I am going to stick with the areas I am most familiar with (books and movies). We here at Lytherus are enjoying the diversity of subject matter our site offers, and Steampunk fits snugly within those boundaries. However, there is so much more cool stuff out there, and so I included a few examples below for all the areas Lytherus covers, which I have compiled from research and chatting with experts. I’m sure the level of Steampunk could be debated in some of these, but the point is that there is something there that is reminiscent of the genre, giving those interested a good place to start!

Anime:

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki

Metropolis (based on the manga series by Osamu Tezuka)

Turn a Gundam by Yoshiyuki Tomino

Steamboy

Fullmetal Alchemist (from the manga series by Hiromu Arakawa)

(see our review here)

Manga:

D.Gray-man by Katsura Hoshino

Monkey Typhoon written by Jōji Arimori and illustrated by Romu Aoi

Steam Detectives by Kia Asamiya

Comics & Graphic Novels:

Lady Mechanika written and illustrated by Joe Benitez

(see our review here)

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Raulo Caceres

Heart of Empire: Legacy of Luther Arkbright Written and Illustrated by Brian Talbot

Scarlett Traces Written by Ian Eddington and Illustrated by D’Israeli

TV:

Secret Adventures of Jules Verne

Wild Wild West

The more recent Dr. Who

Firefly


Video Games:

Final Fantasy VI and VII

Myst

Thief (the entire series)

Check out this Wiki list for additional games with some Steampunk feel.

Books:

The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick

Steampunk and Steampunk II, anthologies of short stories with this theme. Edited by Anne VanderMeer

I found a website that lists the best Steampunk books, as voted by readers. It features the books in the above article and many other great examples, if you want to dive in to the genre, or just get your feet wet.

Movies:

For additional Steampunk movie titles to the ones listed above, check out this list.

Additional Cool Links:

Tor.com Steampunk: this link has a ton of awesome sites that will saturate your brain with Steampunk.

Photos from Steam Con II

Steampunk Trading Cards

Steampunk Jewelry

This is by no means a complete list. If you are familiar with any of these areas and have any additional suggestions, I’d love to hear what your favorite Steampunk example is.

Written by Lauren Z.

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