So what is steampunk? Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. It is considered part of the broader category of retro-futurism, imagining how people in the past viewed the future. The term “steampunk” originated in the late 1980s as a tongue-in-cheek play on the cyberpunk genre. But steampunk has since grown into a distinctive style and vibrant subculture.
Characteristics of Steampunk
Steampunk is characterized by a blend of historical settings, industrial-era technology, and fanciful innovations. It typically incorporates Victorian and Edwardian fashions and technologies like steam engines and clockwork robots. But it also features elements that did not exist in that era, often imagined as retro-futuristic technology powered by steam or clever mechanics. This can include things like calculating machines, automatons, airships, traveling machines, and weapons that use clockwork parts or compressed air.
Steampunk settings are often anachronistic, blending real 19th century history with fictional places and events. Stories can take place in Victorian England, the American Wild West, imaginary city-states, or entirely fictional worlds. But they capture the sensation of living in a past era’s vision of the future.
Steampunk art, movies, and literature often feature steam-powered machinery with brass, bronze, steel, and wood components, like gears, cogs, sprockets, and performance gauges. Fashion incorporates historical garments like waistcoats, tailcoats, petticoats, and bowler hats, mixed with goggles, flying gloves, and clockwork accessories.
Where Did Steampunk Come From?
Steampunk traces its origins back to the early 1980s, when author K.W. Jeter coined the term to describe a developing retro-futuristic genre. Jeter was a science fiction writer who, along with Tim Powers and James Blaylock, had been exploring fantastical but historical settings and technologies in novels like The Anubis Gates (1983), The Digging Leviathan (1984), and Homunculus (1986).
In a 1987 letter to science fiction magazine Locus, Jeter described these works as “gonzo-historical hysto-comedies.” He proposed the more serious label of “steampunk” as a play on the 1980s’ dominant cyberpunk movement. The term stuck as an apt description of this particular retro-futuristic aesthetic.
But steampunk themes and motifs had emerged even earlier in films, fiction, and comics. 1971’s The Wild Wild West television series incorporated retro-futuristic anachronisms and proto-steampunk influences. And the 1979 comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore was an early fully-realized work of retro-futuristic fiction.
As steampunk coalesced into a distinct style in the 1980s, it grew beyond literature and into visual art genres. 20th century artists like James Gurney and Syd Mead had pioneered retro-futuristic illustrations, laying groundwork for steampunk’s machinic aesthetics. The growing steampunk movement soon incorporated their influences and expanded beyond novels to comic books, movies, fashion, and DIY crafts.
While early steampunk pioneers like Jeter, Blaylock, and Powers were part of the science fiction scene, steampunk writing now spans diverse genres. Over the past few decades, it has evolved into a popular motif across fantasy, alternate history, mystery, adventure, and more.
Some hallmarks of steampunk literature include:
- Alternate histories set in Victorian or Western environments
- Anachronistic retro-futuristic technologies, like automatons, airships, steam-powered computers, or weapons
- Plots revolving around technology and science, especially imaginative inventions and discoveries
- Strong female protagonists who defy conventional gender roles
- Adventurous characters like inventors, mad scientists, explorers, pirates
- elaborately detailed settings incorporating steampunk motifs
Many award-winning and mainstream books across all genres incorporate steampunk elements today. Notable examples include:
- The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis (1868) – Early proto-steampunk novel
- Infernal Devices graphic novels by K.W. Jeter (1987-1990) – The origins of the term “steampunk”
- The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990) – Seminal steampunk alternate history novel
- Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (2000) – Steampunk fantasy/weird fiction
- The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger (2009-2012) – Bestselling steampunk series
- Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld (2009-2011) – YA steampunk adventures
- Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (2009) – Hugo-nominated steampunk
- The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (2012) – Steampunk mystery/thriller
- Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (2013-2021) – Award-winning steampunk fantasy series
Steampunk in Film and Television
Steampunk motifs have frequently appeared in 20th and 21st century film and television, even before the term was coined. Early influences like The Wild Wild West TV show pioneered a Victorian era tech aesthetic.
Once the genre developed its own identity in the late 1980s, it became a visual inspiration. Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) was an early fully steampunk animated film. Since then, the imagined technologies and anachronisms of steampunk have been featured in movies across many genres:
- Wild Wild West (1999) – Steampunk western comedy film
- Steamboy (2004) – Japanese steampunk animation
- The Prestige (2006) – Thriller with proto-steampunk elements
- Stardust (2007) – Fantasy adventure incorporating steampunk magic
- Sucker Punch (2011) – Surreal fantasy action featuring steampunk mechas
- Hugo (2011) – Whimsical family film with steampunk automatons
- Mortal Engines (2018) – Post-apocalyptic action film with giant steampunk cities
Many television shows have incorporated steampunk settings, characters, and inventions:
- The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-1994) – Weird West TV show with steampunk technology
- Doctor Who (2006-present) – Episodes featuring Victorian sci-fi gadgets and motifs
- Warehouse 13 (2009–2014) – Adventures focused on steampunk-inspired supernatural artifacts
- The Legend of Korra (2012-2014) – Steampunk elements in its 1920s-inspired setting
Steampunk Video Games
The rich visual world of steampunk has made it an influential aesthetic across video games in the past two decades. Game designers incorporate steampunk mechas, weapons, architecture, and fashions to create distinct worlds that feel retro and futuristic at once.
Notable examples include:
- Final Fantasy VI (1994) – Early RPG with steampunk elements
- Thief: The Dark Project (1998) – Dark medieval setting with primitive steampunk tech
- Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001) – Fantasy RPG blending magic and steampunk
- Final Fantasy XII (2006) – Storybook steampunk sky pirates
- Dishonored (2012) – Action-adventure game with industrial styling and whale-oil powered tech
- BioShock Infinite (2013) – First-person shooter set in a fictional steampunk city
- Frostpunk (2018) – Survival city builder set in a steampunk ice age
- GreedFall (2019) – Magic and medieval politics meet colonial era tech
- Steelrising (2022) – Alternate history action-RPG set in a steampunk Paris
Steampunk Fashion and Accessories
Along with its literary and cinematic impact, steampunk has become a vibrant fashion movement focused on historical garments mixed with industrial flair. Steampunk outfits typically mash up Victorian or Edwardian fashions with anachronistic technologies:
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- Corsets, bustles, petticoats and tailored jackets creating a neo-Victorian silhouette
- Leather aviator caps, bowler, tophat and trilby hats
- Mechanical and clockwork accessories like monocles, watches, goggles, and spats
- Necklaces, chains, and jewellery incorporating cogs, gears, keys, and watch parts
- Ruffled poet shirts, knee-high boots, tailored vest suits for men
- Bold gloves, stylized bullet straps, holsters, and tool belts with fanciful devices
The most dedicated steampunkers craft accessories and costume pieces incorporating found objects to resemble proto-modern gadgets. Goggles, clocks, compasses, and lamps take on intricate brass filigrees and gauges reminiscent of Jules Verne technologies. Backpacks, pouches, and cases take form as pseudo chemists’ kits or surgeons’ satchels to complete the neo-Victorian explorer motif.
Steampunk makers have expanded the novelty aspect of the genre into diverse accessories, home goods, and crafts. These range from antique-looking customized electric guitars to steampunk rubber stamp kits for cardmaking.
Steampunk as a Maker Culture
At its core, steampunk is driven by a spirit of DIY ingenuity. It has fostered a thriving maker culture of crafters who bring its eccentric retro-tech objects to life. Designers and hobbyists use arts and crafts materials like leather, wood, and metal to construct imaginative steampunk accessories and decorative pieces:
- Custom modified goggles, often featuring gears, sprockets, clock hands, and circular gallifreyan script
- Antique-looking ray guns and sci-fi weapons fabricated from metal and wood parts
- Lamps, clocks, and gadgets using exposed brass gears and vintage gauges for effect
- Elaborate costumes putting a futuristic spin on Victorian underpinnings and tailcoats
- Figurines, models, and display pieces incorporating steampunk motifs
3D printing and CNC mills allow devoted hobbyists to craft serious cosplay props and replicas. Events like Maker Faire support this innovative steampunk builder community. Some designers have launched successful steampunk craft businesses selling jewelry, decor, tabletop gaming terrain, and more to eager fans.
Steampunk’s DIY ethos has even extended into the literary world. Online steampunk fiction zines provide platforms for amateur genre writers. And New York City’s annual Steampunk Hacked convention encourages fans to remix famous steampunk stories in their own creative styles.
Steampunk Art and Design
Steampunk’s unique design aesthetic makes it a strong influence across visual arts and industrial design. Sculptors, painters, and mixed media artists incorporate its signature motifs in 2D and 3D works:
- Sculptures from metal, wood, and salvaged machine parts evoking giant steampunk robots, weapons, and creatures
- Paintings melding Victorian scenes, subjects, and costumes with anachronistic technologies
- Digital 2D art and animations adopting steampunk’s retro-futuristic visual language
- Collages using vintage book scraps and papers to craft pseudo-Victorian machines and contraptions
Many artists gravitate toward steampunk’s fanciful interpretations of inventions. Illustrators depict clever vehicles, prototypes, and gadgets in intricate detail reminiscent of Da Vinci or Van Gogh drawings. Photographers build and capture tableaus of steampunk figurines, models, and costumes to share hyper-realistic interpretations of the 19th century retro-tech aesthetic.
Industrial designers also draw inspiration from the genre. Steampunk influenced home decor incorporates materials like rich wood, weathered leather, and antique-finished brass paired with elements like gears, needles, and clocks. The anachronistic mix of digital and analog, new and old, gives products a distinctive vintage-futuristic appeal.
Architectural designs also blend industrial piping, weathered metals, Victorian framings, and mechanical details to achieve a neo-retro-futuristic look. China’s steampunk amusement park provides a striking real-world example of steampunk’s architectural influences.
Steampunk Communities and Events
As steampunk has grown from a minor literary genre into an expansive international subculture, it has spawned diverse events catering to enthusiasts. Conventions like the Great Exhibition of Steampunk attract thousands of attendees annually. Participants arrive decked out for two days of panels, workshops, music, fashion shows, book signings, and more focused on all things steampunk.
These events provide an interactive hub for steampunkers to share their common interests. Costume contests invite attendees to show off their elaborate retro-futuristic outfits. Discussion panels dive deep into the genre’s literary and cinematic works. Crafting workshops teach skills like prop-making, leatherworking, and jewelry making to support the DIY maker community. And live music performances showcase steampunk-inspired bands and musicians.
But steampunk culture extends well beyond major conventions. Local communities unite for more regular teas, meetups, dances, music shows, crafting gatherings, and photo shoots where they can wear costumes and socialize in-theme. These local meetups make the subculture accessible even for those who can’t travel to large steampunk events.
Online groups provide another way for geographically disparate fans to connect daily. On Facebook, steampunk-themed groups boast hundreds of thousands of members sharing images, craft tutorials, fashion tips, and more. Sites like BrassGoggles Forum and the Steampunk Empire Gazette also provide a home for online discussion and collaboration about practical crafting techniques and community news.
Popularity and Influences of Steampunk
Over the past few decades, steampunk has ridden a wave of growing popularity, boosted by its visual appeal across many creative mediums. Steampunk motifs now show up in everyday culture through fashion trends, architecture, design, television, and film.
Steampunk offers creative source material that is both familiar yet imaginative. Its signature retro-futuristic technologies feel quaintly analogue compared to the realities of modern computing and AI. By looking to the past, steampunk allows us to reimagine the course of technological change in more optimistic and colorful ways.
Culturally, steampunk also fuels a spirit of rebellion and empowerment. Its tough female heroines, eccentric underdog inventors, and anti-establishment air pirates offer inspiring counter-cultural role models. They fight back against oppressive institutions and demonstrate the power of imagination and determination over brute force.
Steampunk has come to influence many aspects of culture and design, even outside its core community. Its vintage-industrial aesthetics lend a neo-retro flair to products, architecture, and visual media. And it empowers people to learn creative skills and take technologies into their own hands though its DIY maker culture. Thirty years after its tongue-in-cheek christening, steampunk continues to steam steadily ahead as an energetic influencer of art, fashion, and pop culture.