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What in the World is Steampunk?

What in the World is Steampunk?

I recently ran across the term “steampunk” and, although I didn’t know what it meant, I was intrigued and wanted to know more. I discovered that steampunk is a concept I’m much drawn to, without knowing what it was called.

Simply stated, steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and speculative fiction. There is a strong element of fantasy in steampunk, and steampunk works are often set in a time or place where steam power is widely used (frequently in Victorian or Edwardian England), with prominent elements of science fiction and fantasy. Steampunk is influenced by and often adopts the style of the 19th century scientific romances of Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Mary Shelley.

The science fiction writer K. W. Jeter is believed to have coined the term “steampunk” in the late 1980s when he was trying to come up with a general term for works by himself (Morlock Night, 1979 and Infernal Devices, 1987) and by Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates, 1983) and James Blaylock (Homunculus, 1986). These works take place in a 19th century (usually Victorian) setting and imitate fictional technological inventions used in Victorian speculative fiction (such as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine) or real technological developments (such as computers, dirigibles, or airplanes) occurring in an earlier age.

While most of the original steampunk works had a historical setting, later works would often place steampunk elements in a fantasy world with little relation to any specific historical era. Historical steampunk tends to be more oriented toward science fiction, offering a “path not taken” or “alternative history” with real locales or historical personages with different technology. Fantasy-world steampunk, on the other hand, presents a completely imaginary fantasy realm in which legendary creatures coexist with steam-era or anachronistic technologies.  

A couple of early examples of steampunk fiction (before steampunk had a name) are Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake (1959) and Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1973) by Harry Harrison. The first use of the word “steampunk” in the title was Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo in 1995. Other steampunk works include Android Karenina (a steampunk retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) and The Difference Engine (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. An anthology of steampunk fiction entitled Steampunk was released in 2008 by Tachyon Publications.

Let’s see…I believe I’ll start my steampunk reading list with Android Karenina.

Copyright © 2010 by Allen Kopp

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