Steampunk: An Explanation Part 2 – Steampunk Tropes

Every so often, I throw out the term “steampunk” to my parents. I’m so used to the term that I expect others to know what it means as well, and no matter my explanation, my parents never fully understand what it is. That’s why I started Steampunk: An Explanation for my Parents, a three-part series outlining the basics of the steampunk genre.

Part 2 – Steampunk Traits

I think I said before that “steampunk” is a very general and vague term. Steampunk can talk about the low-brow living conditions of a Charles Dickins-esque neighborhood or the high-brow drama of life at the Victorian court. I, however, enjoy steampunk about an adventurer across the world (Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, anyone?) Steampunk doesn’t always have to take place during the actual Victorian era, such as with the book Fitzpatrick’s War that actually takes place sometime in the 25th or 26th century AD. Steampunk can be all about the gears and the inventions and mad science, or it can be about the adventure and the mystery and the supernatural. So what all goes into steampunk? Well, a combination of everything I mentioned. Here are the most common traits for steampunk that I can think of, and not everything has to be present:

  • steam-powered technology
  • gears and/or clocks
  • science and/or mad science
  • inventors and inventions
  • action and adventure
  • romance
  • mystery
  • thriller
  • the supernatural (steampunk zombies have been popular lately)
  • alternate history
  • 1800s setting
  • Victorian era dress and social etiquette

A steampunk story doesn’t even have to take place in Europe or England! Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is set in Civil War Seattle, WA. The third book of the Temeraire chronicles travels all the way to China. I even hear rumor that the new The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra is considered steampunk, and that’s not even our world!

Steampunk also caters to literary or stylistic choices of the Victorian era. Last year at Geek.kon, there was a steampunk mystery game involving time travel. Geek.kon also has a steampunk tea party based around a game of Clue, which is always a really fun time. The aforementioned Fitzpatrick’s War by Theodore Judson is written in memoir format, but it is littered with footnotes from an editor in the future remarking on actions that the narrator doesn’t consider scandalous.

Steampunk didn’t come out of nowhere. It is a genre that has slowly developed over the past few decades, and the major influences are the old science fiction stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells that talk about the Future That Never Was. Other influences include popular literature at the time, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series of stories and Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure stories. For a larger list of steampunk influences and titles, visit this Wikipedia Page.

I feel as if I can’t give a very accurate account on what steampunk is, mostly because it is a vague concept by design, and also because my steampunk education has been limited. But I can say that the term “steampunk” is like the term “science fiction” in that both are used to describe a specific genre but that genre is so vast, it is hard to pin down an exact definition.

Comment Question: How would you define steampunk to someone who doesn’t know what it is?

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