Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Today I’m pleased to welcome Lena Corazon as part of the Literary Genres Blog Series. Lena’s giving us an insider’s view into Steampunk. I know I’ve been curious about this genre for quite some time.
I won’t lie – it was the aesthetics that drew me in. I’ve loved the 19th century for as long as I can remember, and the Victorian era (especially its fashions) have always had a special place in my heart. But I quickly learned that steampunk is more than a revisiting of pretty clothes from a bygone era; rather, it is a broader aesthetic, one that influences a wide range of artistic fields, from fashion and film to art, jewelry-making, music, and much more.
This short, 5-minute clip from PBS’s recent documentary on steampunk captures the breadth of the field:
As a literary genre, steampunk can be described as a form of alternate history, one that asks the question, “What would society look like if it had developed steam technology in the late nineteenth century?” Traditionally, it is set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras, during the height of the industrial revolution (or just thereafter). It is a “retro-futuristic” world, where technological and scientific advances are integrated in an imagined time gone by.
Historically, steampunk is partly rooted in the science fiction of the late 19th century, starting with the work of authors like Jules Verne and HG Wells, and continuing into popular tropes found in early 20th century pulp fiction.
K.W. Jeter is credited with coining the actual term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus Magazine in 1987, where he used it to describe his “gonzo-historical…Victorian fantasies.” The name stuck, and the definition of the genre – Victorian fantasy with advanced steam- and natural gas-powered technology – has remained mostly the same… until recently, that is.
One of the consequences of steampunk’s growing popularity is that the label is getting slapped on anything and everything. As Professor Elemental sings, “Just glue some gears on it and call it steampunk” has become the reigning ethos of the day.
Steampunk, then, is a bit of a contested genre at the moment; its parameters are under debate, with some saying that steampunk can be “whatever you want it to be” and others calling for more stringent definitions. I personally prefer Cherie Priest’s (author of the incredibly popular BONESHAKER series) idea – that steampunk should be seen as a spectrum, a continuum where books are “more or less steampunk,” rather than “steampunk or not.”
It’s the flexibility inherent in this genre that I love, and while it can cause problems like the ones detailed above, it also provides space where incredibly unique and creative work can flourish. Steampunk can be infused into other genres with ease, resulting in some wonderfully diverse novels. They can include science fiction, romance, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, horror, and countless other permutations. Cindy Stewart Pape’s STEAM & SORCERY, for example, is a paranormal romance with vampires and werewolves, while Priest’s BONE SHAKER includes zombies and a killer plague. My work-in-progress, TELL ME NO LIES, is part-romance, part-murder mystery.
Going along with the idea that steampunk is a spectrum, I think it’s safe to say that there’s no single “right” way to write a steampunk novel. However, here are some popular elements that you may encounter:
Technology: In many ways, it’s technology that sets steampunk apart from a work of historical or even alternate historical fiction. Devices large and small are usually constructed from Victorian-era materials, so you’ll find brass automatons, flying airships and zeppelins, and steam-powered devices of all types. You can find a more detailed list of popular gadgets over at STEAMED!
Of course, technology isn’t all fun and games. As we know, given today’s rapid rate of change, it can both help and hinder our lives. With that in mind, it can serve as the source of conflict within a story.
“The Pretty”: Admittedly, this is one of my favorite elements of the genre, because I’m more than a little obsessed with Victorian fashion and furnishings. You’ll find bustles and cravats, ball gowns and frock coats in these books. For those of you looking for a little inspiration, I highly recommend checking out Clockwork Couture and Retroscope Fashions, two of my favorite online purveyors of steampunky goodness.
Politics, Revolution, and Social Change: While this isn’t a “required” element of steampunk, it’s one that resonates with my own interests, especially given my training as a sociologist. While social change can be found in any world, there is a particularly gritty underside to the period of the Industrial Revolution – child labor, agitation and demonstrations for workers’ rights, and larger instances of class, racial, and cultural conflict. While steampunk isn’t characterized by dystopia or revolution in the same way that, say, cyberpunk is, there can be a darker side. This can be an overt element of the plot, or it can become part of the larger backdrop.
World-Building: Although Victorian England is one of the more popular settings, they can take place anywhere (Beyond Victoriana is an excellent resource for steampunk with a global and multicultural influence). For example, Lindsay Buroker’s FLASH GOLD series is set in the Yukon Territory during the Gold Rush, and Ekaterina Sedia’s HEART OF IRON takes place in 19th century Russia. They can also be set in completely fictional worlds, albeit ones that incorporate a Victorian aesthetic. The amount of historical realism and accuracy that is invoked is up to the author – “alternate history” is definitely the key here.
In TELL ME NO LIES, I pull from actual historical events that occurred in San Francisco circa 1895 (the setting and time period for the novel). I add a few twists of my own, however, like a major earthquake that shatters the city in 1875, and allows it to be rebuilt using advanced steam technology.
At the heart of all steampunk novels, however, is a larger sense of atmosphere, as Brooke Johnson has argued in her post on steampunk. She writes:
To me, steampunk is more than gears and steam-power. It’s more than Victorian age society, more than corsets and bustles, more than a skin, as some people would put it. More than a layer of science, airships, corsets, goggles, and gears, Steampunk is an atmosphere. It’s a feeling. Steampunk, true steampunk, penetrates the very layers of the world within a story. It makes up the building blocks of the story, the setting, the characters, the society, and the action. It is its own sort of magic that lives and breathes within a story, not something that’s thrown in for spits and wiggles.
G.D. Falksen echoes similar sentiments in his guest post over at STEAMED!, which leads me to believe that the task of world-building isn’t too different from the work that’s done when crafting, say, a fantasy novel. Replace wizardry with science and engineering, dragons and faeries with machinery and semi-sentient automatons, but it’s that sense of internal consistency, the ability to craft a deeper connection between the characters and the world in which they dwell, that is important.
Steampunk is a wonderfully complex and sprawling world, and I encourage all of you to explore it. If you’re on Twitter, consider participating (or lurking) in the weekly #steampunkchat that occurs every Friday at 6 pm Pacific Time (you can find transcripts of past chats here). STEAMED!, which I’ve linked to a few times above, is another fantastic resource, as are Brass Goggles and Steampunk Scholar.
For those of you looking for recommendations for steampunk books to add to your bookshelves, you can check out Ranting Dragon’s Top 20 Steampunk Books, or the Buzzfeed’s recently-compiled “Best of Steampunk 2011” list.
California-based author, Lena Corazon, writes speculative fiction with a focus on fantasy and steampunk. She builds worlds filled with beauty and danger, populated by fierce women, dashing men, and delightfully evil antagonists.
When Lena isn’t writing novels or wrestling with the beast known as Academia, she can be found gabbing with friends over cocktails, relaxing on her favorite beach, swooning over BBC-produced period dramas and blogging at Flights of Fancy.
Thanks so much Lena! I find the steampunk aesthetic intriguing and somehow dark.
Are you writing in steampunk? What are you’re thoughts on this unique genre?
See the schedule of the upcoming guest posts and genres for the rest of this blog series, in this post.