A Steampunk Writer’s Resource: The Victorian City

  • Authors: Judith Flanders
  • Release: July 15, 2014
  • Genre: History
  • Edition: Kindle
  • Pages: 544
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press


The 19th century was a time of unprecedented change, and nowhere was this more apparent than London. In only a few decades, the capital grew from a compact Regency town into a sprawling metropolis of six-and-a-half million inhabitants, the largest city the world had ever seen. Technology – railways, street-lighting, and sewers – transformed both the city and the experience of city living, as London expanded in every direction.

Now, Judith Flanders, one of Britain’s foremost social historians, explores the world portrayed so vividly in Dickens’ novels, showing life on the streets of London in colorful, fascinating detail. From the moment Charles Dickens, the century’s best-loved English novelist and London’s greatest observer, arrived in the city in 1822, he obsessively walked its streets, recording its pleasures, curiosities, and cruelties.

Now, with him, Flanders leads us through the markets, transport systems, sewers, rivers, slums, alleys, cemeteries, gin palaces, chop-houses, and entertainment emporia of Dickens’ London, to reveal the Victorian capital in all its variety, vibrancy, and squalor.


It is not necessary to know about the Victorian Era in order to enjoy the steampunk genre. However, authors of steampunk novels, short stories, or other works of fiction should have a familiarity with the norms and conventions of the culture. This is especially true if their works are set in an alternate version of the 19th Century. The historical details—both large and small—which help bring the story to life for their readers. Having a grasp of the basics of the era will also help a writer create a sharper contrast when he/she develops a story world that differs from the historical record.

For instance, dirigibles/airships are common elements in modern steampunk novels. Such modes of transport went out of favor after the spectacular explosion of the Hindenberg. Yet steampunk novels rarely refer explicitly to the potential of these ships to explode. More often than not, the ship is depicted in everyday use. Steampunk authors domesticate a technology that has proven devastating to human life, and in doing so establish a firm contrast between the real world and their story worlds. Without knowing the history of airships, though, would their incorporation into the steampunk world be considered so subversive?

Flanders’s novel provides intricate detail about life in Victorian England during the span of Charles Dickens’s life. It addresses many of the aspects that modern people take for granted. For example, how did people manage to wake up on time without the benefit of an alarm clock? How did the poor and middle-class citizens navigate the city of London? Which city professions were effected by harsh weather? How and why did the slums flourish? How was the grass cut in the city squares? What did farmers do when they wanted to sell fresh milk in town without any type of refrigeration? What happened to all of the human waste created by the inhabitants? This is a smattering of the type of questions Flanders addresses in her work.

The Victorian City delves into the history of the era and provides a good base for any writer interested in creating a steampunk novel with Victorian undertones. I recommend it as a great place to start your research. Flanders provides a thorough snapshot. Whether discussing the daily life of a laborer, explaining the science behind the poor air/water quality, or presenting the causes and effects of violence/protests in the streets, the author uses enough details to bring the subject to life. The book is available in print, ebook, and audio versions.

On Duality and Worldbuilding in Steampunk Literature

The steampunk genre is often used to provide social commentary on our present by means of the past. One of the ways it does this is by setting up dynamics of boundary disruption between timelines, cultures, and the self/other. It may sound obscure and theoretical, or—horrors—postmodernist in the extreme. But the disruption of these false binaries is a central and rich source of conflict and tension for the stories.

So let’s look at some examples of steampunk writing that sets up these dualities and transgresses them.

1. Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Stardust will always inhabit a special place in my heart and my dreams. I love the complex relationship between Tristran and Yvaine. I adore how Gaiman wrote the story almost as a thought experiment, taking on the mindset of a Victorian-era scribe writing English fantasy and drawing inspiration from his environment: a low wall in the middle of the countryside, a shooting star.

The film adaptation takes on a much more distinctly steampunk tone, particularly with the addition of Captain Shakespeare, but both do an excellent job of capturing the tension between our world and another, just beyond our reach.

In Stardust, this boundary is literal: a wall, bordering the magical realm of Faerie. The story is about the consequences of breaching that boundary, for better or worse. First, by Dunstan, resulting in a child who belonged to both worlds. Then by Tristran, not knowing that he was the key to restoring balance. And also, by Yvaine, divided from her home in the sky and her earthly form. They all transgress, and each transgression furthers their ability to overcome the physical and metaphysical barriers that divide them from their heart’s desire.

2. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Next we have a cultural divide in Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, an alternative history of World War II. It isn’t just the philosophical division between the Allied and Axis forces, but a technological one as well between the mechanical and biological, and a social one as Deryn inhabits a gender non-conforming space.

Deryn and Alek must work together to bridge their differences. Both are unable or unwilling to fulfill the roles deemed necessary for them. Both are seeking their own paths. Both discover that the societies of the Darwinists and Clankers and the world they inhabit is far more complex than they were told.

In this series, what initially seems to be starkly differentiated battle lines are blurred, and the focus is centered not on who is right and who is wrong, but their individual ethics and choices.

3. Soulless by Gail Carriger

In this book, the social mores of Victorian society are disrupted and amplified by the addition of a supernatural element. A comedy of manners begins from the first scene, with a rude vampire, a displeased werewolf, and Alexia—soulless and a spinster.

One of the primary delights of the Parasol Protectorate series is how deftly Carriger weaves the rigid social system with the supernatural classes. Alexia is an outlier in her family and society: her preternatural state renders her incompatible with the normal and paranormal, even as she and Lord Maccon realise their fiery compatibility with one another.

4. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Finally, a classic of the steampunk genre, exemplifying the tension between past, present and future while also exploring questions of the human condition. The differentiation between the peaceful Eloi and the terrifying Morlocks.

Wells uses his time traveller to examine theories of what makes us rational, moral creatures. How distinct are our beastly, animal impulses from the pure logic of invention and industry? His experiment takes on the tones of the theories of his day, but give us insight into the hopes and fears manifested by these bursts of technological innovation.

And in this way, Wells bridges the divide between the Victorian era and the digital epoch in which we now live.

We become part of the narrative as we transgress the boundaries of past and present, by turns embracing and rejecting the leaps of innovation that sustain our lived realities. We pick and choose our gizmos and costumes and social codes, disrupting dualities while bonding over tea.

Steampunks look to the past, and see a future.

Rebecca Diem is a writer, music lover and nerd. She is the author of the indie steampunk series Tales of the Captain Duke, beginning with The Stowaway Debutante (2014), following the adventures of a defiant young aristocrat who saves a band of airship pirates from certain peril and talks her way into joining their crew. Her favourite feature of steampunk is its ability to disrupt and re-imagine both history and the future. She currently lives in Toronto, and is on a never-ending quest to find the perfect café and writing spot. You can find her at https://rebeccadiem.com/.

Defining Steampunk

Image taken from free image library Pixabay(https://pixabay.com/en/clock-time-gear-gears-face-blue-70182/)What began as a small subgenre of science fiction has become a movement large enough that almost everyone has some idea of what steampunk is. Yet for most people the idea of steampunk is extremely vague. The word conjures images of corsets, gears and airships, but what does it actually mean?

Steampunk is a genre that brings advanced steam technology to the Victorian era(or an original world made to resemble the Victorian era). You’ll often find an interesting jumble of modern and Victorian sensibilities in steampunk stories, many of which play directly off of tumultuous politics caused by rapid changes in technology. Most steampunk fiction is optimistic, using the advanced tech to better the world.

Like fantasy or science fiction, steampunk is all about the setting. You’ll find all kinds of stories in steampunk: murder mysteries, adventure novels, romance novels, political novels and novels that combine all of those elements.

The steampunk movement is a vibrant DIY culture filled with creative people of all kinds. And the art forms are as varied as the people. There are painters, seamstresses, illustrators, sculptors, metalworkers and more creating amazing steampunk adventures. Some are enthusiasts who actually have day jobs in the arts but more are people who taught themselves so they could express their passion for this genre.

You can also find many people who build their own steampunk gadgets. Many of these are for costume use only but you can also find lots of functioning steampunk gadgets–some of which take real modern technology and transform them into beautiful steampunk creations(my favorite example is steampunk keyboards).

Of course there are people who sell all of these beautiful creations, but part of the culture is learning to make your own. It’s the “punk” in steampunk.

Steampunk now also has a few subgenres of its own:

Clockpunk is set in what is called “the Enlightenment Era”, shortly before the industrial revolution. Some advanced technology exists in the world but instead of being powered by steam it uses gears or clockwork technology. You’ll usually find this kind of technology in steampunk worlds as well but you never find steam technology in clockpunk.

Gaslight Fantasy combines the Victorian era(or a world that resembles it) with both steam technology and magic or mythological beings. Some definitions also include aliens/anything not created by humans themselves. How the magic works and how much of it there is varies greatly from story to story. Gaslight fantasy is perhaps the fastest growing subgenre in the realm of steampunk. As a total fantasy nerd, it is also the one I’m most excited about(if you have a gaslight fantasy novel PLEASE send it to me).

Dieselpunk is actually set in a later time period than steampunk, focusing on the period between the world wars all the way through to the 1950s. It combines the time period with advanced technology based on diesel as well as steam and clock power. Most of these stories take place between the wars but there are also many dieselpunk narratives during World War II. Dieselpunk also tends to be more pessimistic whereas steampunk is usually optimistic.

Valvepunk comes a little bit later than dieselpunk, although the line here is very often blurred, and most advanced technology is based on valves. Wondering what kind of tech used valves in real life? High quality radios and early televisions used valve technology. This is obviously a lot of fun to play with.

The technology in each subgenre may be different but at their hearts they all have the same themes: how our world would have been different if we had certain tech sooner, how rapid change is, how people can change their world(usually for the better). They’re also all part of the same massive community.

How do you define steampunk? Do you agree with my list of subgenres? Think I’ve missed one? Let me know in the comments section below!