Explaining Steampunk, by Caitlin Kittredge


Caitlin Kittredge has been an unrepentant geek since the age of twelve, when she first saw “Star Wars.” When she’s not writing about super-powered dystopias, she blogs, goes to the movies, reads books and comics voraciously, collects vintage clothes, and turns her music up too loud. She lives in Olympia, Washington, with a garage full of comics and two pushy cats. Today, she stops by Unbound Worlds to give us a lesson on Steampunk. Catch her Wednesday on The Compulsive Reader.

Steampunk. Everyone has heard of it, but when it comes up, I get a lot of puzzled looks. What is that? Is that like The Golden Compass? Doesn’t everybody who’s into steampunk just wear goggles on their heads?

Well, no. Not really. To describe steampunk in a single phrase, I have to borrow one from my friend Cherie Priest (author of the bestselling steampunk novel Boneshaker): Steampunk is the science fiction of a future that never happened.

Jules Verne had no way of knowing that some day, people would walk on the moon. He couldn’t have known that someday, submarines would be commonplace, and journeys under the polar icecaps would be possible. Today, steampunk authors often put themselves in the shoes of an author like Verne or Welles, and ask, what if? What if rather than fixed-wing travel, dirigibles became the dominant method? What if rather than atomic power, the Manhattan Project discovered an entirely new element that negated the need for the Atomic Age to ever exist? (That last one was the central conciet of The Iron Thorn, my steampunk novel, which is set just after a World War II won by steam power and magic, rather than science and atomic energy.)

That’s steampunk literature, comics, movies. They’re set in different time periods (and no, contrary to some purists, steampunk doesn’t have to be set in Victorian England or even in the Victorian era at all). They usually ask a what-if question, spur off history at some point, and take that simple question in fantastical directions. Then there’s steampunk as an aesthetic movement – costumes, homemade ray guns, even modifications to things like laptops and flat-screen televisions to make them appear steam-powered. (Or, to borrow another, slightly more humorous quote from historian and writer Jess Nevins, steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown.) Goggles are prevalent, yes, but the aesthetics of steampunk largely reduce to functionality. When you look at a ray gun, you can tell it’s a ray gun. Goggles protect the eyes from the grit and dirt kicked up by airships. The dress can be Victorian, but it’s usually subverted in some way. Corsets are worn on the outside. Victorian ladies dress like Victorian gentlemen.

The point is, that when somebody asks you what steampunk is, you can throw out those two quotes. You can explain the philosophy behind writing alternate history. You can show them seminal steampunk works such as The Golden Compass, Boneshaker, or The Warlord of the Air. Heck, you can sit them down in front of the surprisingly gritty Disney movie that they made out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and explain how Verne’s vision in large part shaped the genre as it is today. You can try to explain the sub-genres, like dieselpunk (the combustion engine plays a part) or clockpunk (even more gears than usual!), but really, all you have to say is that steampunk is the literature of ideas. It’s the genre that dares to ask what if? and then imagine the greatest of possibilities.