Putting the punk back in steampunk

This is a guest post by Steven R. Southard. Want YOUR article featured here? Submit a guest post!


For many, steampunk is all gears and corsets, airships and goggles. It’s all about a time when technology was new and anything seemed possible, the optimism of an age of discovery and stylish machinery. That may be steam, but it ain’t punk.


For steampunk fashionistas, those who dress like quasi-Victorians, or those who tinker around making Jules Verne-style watches, guns, furniture, computers, etc.—for all of them, that positive, cheery view of steampunk is fine. They can have their steampunk entirely free of punk.


But if you write steampunk, then to be true to the genre, you really should punk it. Once I get done telling you what that means, you’ll probably want to anyway.


The ‘punk’ part means the story has a rebel who’s opposed to the existing socio-political order. At least one character needs to strive against the prevailing norms of the time. You’re writing a story, so you’re going to need conflict anyway. This clash between your rebellious character and the world can be the main conflict or a minor one in the background; it can be an external conflict or a conflict inside the character’s head; but it should be there.


If your story is set in a quasi-Victorian setting or a Wild West setting, these societies had plenty of norms a character could oppose—antisemitism, chauvinism, child labor, classism, colonialism, economic inequality, ethnocentrism, glorification of war, imperialism, monarchism, racism, sectarianism, sexism, snobbery, xenophobia—the list goes on and on. Of course, our modern society is not entirely free from all of these attributes. Not yet. That means your story, though set in an entirely different society from ours, can have relevance to contemporary readers.


For example, there’s a punk element in my short story, “The Commeteers.” It’s set in 1897 and a planet-destroying comet is on a collision course with Earth. There are no space shuttles or nuclear bombs available in the 19th Century, just steampunk technology. No single nation can afford the price of the planet-saving mission, so numerous countries insist on participating. The hero has to overcome his xenophobic distrust of foreigners (and other obstacles) to succeed.

Ripper’s Ring” is my mix of an ancient Greek legend with Jack the Ripper. I punked it by contrasting the rich and poor neighborhoods of London, as well as juxtaposing nobles with commoners. The story’s Scotland Yard detective sets aside societal norms and pursues Jack out of a sense of justice alone.

As a final example, “After the Martians,” is my examination of how World War I might have ensued using weapon technology left over after H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion. The story’s young protagonist begins with an unrealistic, glorified notion of war, a common sentiment in pre-World War I times.

Maybe you didn’t like the sound of that ‘punk’ syllable at first, but I’ll bet you’re warming to it now. I got those creative lubricants flowing through the gear meshes, didn’t I? Whether you’re writing a short story, novel, or screenplay, when you write steampunk, please don’t leave out the punk.


Submariner, engineer, and Jules Verne enthusiast, Steven R. Southard pens stories that showcase people as toolmakers, gadget-masters, dreamers and tinkerers, creators of devices and victims of them. He’s written ten published steampunk short stories, some for single sale and others as part of anthologies, including Avast, Ye Airships! He’s also crafted tales in the clockpunk and dieselpunk genres. Learn about Steve by visiting his website, following him on Twitter, or visiting his page on Facebook , Goodreads, or Amazon.


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