Summer of Steampunk

Blame Jon del Arroz. I attended the steampunk panel at LibertyCon, and Jon announced that 1) he’s got the next two books in the steampunk series coming out in August and September and 2) he’s trying to revive steampunk as a genre, and is starting a #SummerofSteampunk campaign. (Scroll down toward the bottom of the post.)

I don’t tweet, twit, Gab, or whatever they are calling it this week, but I agree with Jon, and not just because I have a steampunk novel and novella available for sale.

Some of you may recall my frustration when I went hunting for cover art for “In the Vliets” and found a lot of covers that struck me as more Victorian Paranormal Romance than steampunk. As in, not so many gears and goggles and too many gals in leather corsets and crinolines. When the only women in the story are both proper Victorian ladies who don’t run around showing their shoulders over leather, well, the art might hurt sales by promising what the story doesn’t deliver.

To me, that says that steampunk as a sub-genre of fantasy or sci-fi has hit a bit of a marketing barrier. At 1600 CDT on Wednesday of this past week, only four of the top 20 best-selling steampunk books on Amazon had actual steampunk elements, and one of those books was Lovecraftian horror with some steampunk blended in by virtue of when it was set. That’s cool, but where’s my Jules Verne, William Gibson, and other “steampunk” stories? It appears there’s a problem, especially because the #1, #5 and #6 are space opera with (apparently) a few steampunk elements tacked on. Once past #20 things improve and you find the Parasol Protectorate series among others.

Granted, Amazon is not a perfect source, but if the top 20 steampunk books have fewer than 20 titles that are obviously steampunk, either the genre needs a little re-defining or people are not reading “pure” steampunk*, assuming such a thing exists aside from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

I suspect that steampunk has been folded into too many sub-sub-genres, and has been diluted by the other messages being imposed on some of those genres. To me, steampunk has the sense-of-wonder that the originals included, Verne and those Victorian and Edwardian penny-dreadful story tellers who explored their world and its technologies. Think of the original Wild Wild West TV show, but with more air ships and experimental technology. Weird West can include steampunk, but also encompasses a wider time-frame.

Steampunk is in many ways as much an aesthetic as a genre, as the song “Stick Some Gears on It” points out. It is more than “Goths in brown with goggles,” however. To me, it has to be set 1) before much electricity was in use, 2) in a steam and hydraulics world, 3) with adventure and a sense of wonder, 4) and have a neat story. I’m flexible about the first three to an extent, but you have to tell me a cracking good story, like H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne did.


*Or people are gaming the keywords to bump their ranking, which is a whole ‘nother mess entirely.

18 thoughts on “Summer of Steampunk

  1. Thanks so much for talking about this. The more posts we make about why we love steampunk, the more the public will see it and hopefully catch interest again. There’s something so cool about the victorian fashion and googles and airships, it’s an awesome look if nothing else. And we can add so much more to culture under the banner. Cheers!

    • Just a word about airships, as opposed to Montgolfier balloons rendered more baroque. This demands at least pockets of industrial electricity, for logistics. Hydrogen production for a lifting gas takes either huge amounts of acid, or industrial DC to eelxtrolyze water. Practical frames call for a wood composite with strong glues and light, strong wood, or more industrial DC to electrolyze aluminum and magnesium from ores. Engines for airscrew propellers can be external combustion, more likely kerosene or coal oil than coal. Small boilers and turbines or Stirling engines. Possible with 1860s tech, but not earlier. Lift, drive, cargo capacity, hull and fittings weight, strength to face storms – add a large room of men with slide rules, Napier tables, and mechanical aids. Computer was a job title, long before it was a device.

      • Back in the day in the 1632 discussions, a guy found a process for aluminum that was much cheaper than the traditional one. IIRC, it was discovered after Grantville would have gone back in time.

        So if you wanted to do them in an original world, there are some possibilities for alternatives. Like perhaps a magic crystal that accumulates helium, can be mined, and will release the helium when heated. But you need a fairly wealthy economy to support airships anyway, because hydrogen and helium will both leak through just about anything you put them in, meaning you need a a rapid amount of production to keep the ships filled. (Or magic or force fields to keep the lift gases contained.)

        • An earlier discovery of helium, or having it found in larger quantities/concentrations, or additional sources of helium, etc. might make a difference in advancing practical airships a bit, timeline-wise. Structurally, you’re not going to get large rigid airships without either aluminum or good wood glues, but non-rigid or semi-rigid airships are a definite possibility. Germany’s Schütte-Lanz airships were mostly wood-framed, which for the German Navy’s Schütte-Lanz units became a problem thanks to the humid North Sea air.

          Another headache early on was propulsion. Much of the basis for an airship existed by the middle of the 19th century, but the combination of powerplant weight, and the chance of a spark igniting hydrogen lifting gas, prevented major advancement until the 1890’s. Several experimenters of the second half of the 19th century created semi-successful designs that were either underpowered, lacked useful endurance, or exploded when a spark ignited leaking hydrogen gas.

      • Steampunk is technology-defined subset of SF. But almost all of it is just fantasy with “steam” instead of magic.

        I walled one particularly bad example after a character pulled a steam-powered Babbage engine out of his pocket to select a new song off his playlist… if it had been done for the yuks it would have been one thing, but from all that had gone before, it was clear anything from levers to fission was all magic to the author…

        • That’s… OK, I feel better about my lack of technical knowledge, because even I wouldn’t do something that bad. I wonder if the author was thinking of that silly car commercial where everything from computers to iPods was powered by gasoline engines.

  2. Hrmm.. so steampunk might described as an alternate history where there might be the very beginnings of things electriCAL but nothing truly electRONIC (maybe, *maybe* a relay[1], but that way lies the telegraph or vice versa) and Maxwell or equivalent has NOT assembled the Great Equations and all but said, “Here, have some keys to an electromagnetic future!”

    [1] As I recall, in our timeline that was 1835. Imagine someone thinking of ‘relay logic’ right off and the strange early elect{-rical,-ronic} computing machinery that would have happened in the early-mid 19th century! Of course, nobody had made the leap of using binary/Boolean logic thus until about 1935…

    • I’ve been putting together an outline based on some anime vids I watched on youtube late at night. It’s a Japanese style fantasy that is supposed to evoke a cyberpunk aesthetic. Electricity but no electronics, and internal combustion without conventional aviation were some of the design choices I made. (Photography is not wide spread. They have the chemistry and probably the optics, but they mostly went down a different developmental path, essentially developing TV from magic mirrors. IC automobiles are available, but steam locomotives are better for distance travel due to reasons of infrastructure.)

  3. I like steampunk.
    But it’s a slippery genre.
    Is Neil Stevenson’s “System of the World” series steampunk? It features punks, in the world of steam, but do the aesthetic and underlying themes really support including it in the genre?
    Is Butcher’s “Aeronauts Windlass” steampunk? It doesn’t really feature punks, and the tech is fantasy crystal based, but it really seems to have the vibe.

    • Most people I’ve read and talked to count Butcher as steampunk, because you are allowed a fair amount of handwavium in terms of fantasy or sci-fi, and he gets the “beats” of the aesthetic. “Girl Genius” uses fantasy elements as well as Victorian technology. In contrast, Dave Freer’s _Cuttlefish_ is pure Victorian science, with some atmospheric (as in climatology and atmospheric chemistry and physics) extrapolation tossed in.

  4. “Imagine someone thinking of ‘relay logic’ right off and the strange early elect{-rical,-ronic} computing machinery that would have happened in the early-mid 19th century!” I believe one of Babbage’s main problems in trying to create the Analytical Engine was the hideous complexity of doing all those interconnections purely mechanically. Seems like it could have been done much more easily with electrical connections…binary actually not necessary, could have used decimal stepping switches like the Harvard/IBM Mark I (mid-1940s) and the earlier punched card machinery. The whole thing still could have been powered with a steam engine.

    • Something that might be well suited to steampunk would be fluidics. That way, electricity could be sidestepped. It also adds a whole new meaning to the term bit bucket. 🙂

  5. Okay, Goths in brown with goggles has me mentally transposing Vampire The Masquerade into a slightly different aesthetic.

  6. Interesting take, and probably correct. I don’t read/write in that genre, so I really haven’t done a deep dive, and I missed Jon’s panel… sigh

  7. Steampunk…
    How about *airships *a jet-pack *at least one robot *a wheeled armored-car to rob a bank…
    Sound familiar?
    Online graphic novel… set in 1920s San Francisco…
    Pepperpot Piper (
    Started out looking almost conventional, then took a hard left turn into a decidedly Steampunk setting!

    Another Steampunk:
    “Brass,” by Battleground Productions: audio, video, and live performances. In an Alternate 1885 England.

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