Defining Steampunk

Image taken from free image library Pixabay( 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!

11 thoughts on “Defining Steampunk”

  1. It will! There’s actually a gaslight fantasy musical playing in my city right now, featuring an actor from Game of Thrones. Sadly I can’t quite afford the tickets because it looks like a lot of fun.

  2. Gothpunk is probably my favorite subgenre of steampunk. If you are looking for gaslight fantasy, have you tried the A Study in Silks series? I believe that is billed as gaslight fantasy. I haven’t read it myself.

    1. Ohhh Gothpunk. I think in my head goth and steampunk are so connected I didn’t think there would be an actual subgenre.

  3. Oh, and for gaslight fantasy, how about His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik? I just finished reading it. I didn’t care for it myself, but it seems that if one loves dragons, then one will love this book.

    1. Ohhh! Dragons are totally my thing(I’ll have to show you my shelf full of dragons sometime) so this is one book I simply must look up.

  4. Okay, and how about Lumiere by Jacqueline Garlick? I may not have spelled her name right. It’s YA gaslight fantasy. I couldn’t finish it, but only because it wasn’t to my taste. It was well-written, however, as I recall.

      1. Ha. That’s funny. I feel like I have a hard time finding steampunk that is not YA. If you’re looking for some, I’d suggest searching “#steampunk #ya” on Twitter. It’ll return a lot of options.

  5. Admittedly, I haven’t super actively looked for YA steampunk. Considering the size of my already existing TBR list and the authors I’m friends with I find myself often not looking for books at all. Add to that the problem that I can’t walk past a bookstore without going inside, and… Reading happens by accident a lot.

    1. I hear you about the TBR list. I don’t seek out YA steampunk myself, but I come across it from time to time. If I see anything that stands out, I’ll flag your attention.

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