I was brought to Steampunk a little late to the game, probably by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Hellboy (which might not be Steampunk…). I really wish I could say books, or music, or even the fashion brought me into the fold, but I was really not aware of Steampunk until it went mainstream enough to have movies. But that look is so cool, I incorporated the sci-fi element into my ghost tour uniform (a black skirt, corset, cape, and top hat) pretty quickly.
My top five Steampunk influences are:
The DIY fashionistas. I regularly google steampunk just to see the new retrofuture stuff that exists on the internet.
H.G. Wells, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s speculative fiction (particularly Doyle’s illustrations).
Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.
Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, Neverwhere. I know, it’s not really steampunk, but damn it, it feels like it to me.
The Legend of Korra which also… might not count, but I don’t care about your labels!
The official (i.e., Wikipedia) definition is a science fiction/fantasy work which uses 19th-century designs and technology like steam and clockwork, but for me, Steam-punk is a chance to talk about the modern-day issues by making them relevant to our history. Only without all the limits of actual history (you know, like not having instant communication, or gay rights, or laser guns).
I’ll also add that I’ve always had a somewhat tenuous grasp of history. I was convinced Italians still wore togas until I was in middle school. Part of the problem was that I grew up near the Amish and a Native American reservation. My mom used to watch a lot of Anne of Avonlea, and Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman and something Victorian that I suspect was the BBC. I was utterly unable to differentiate them from the modern day, so I assumed that Canadians, Coloradans, and the British actually acted and dressed that way. I realized this wasn’t true by the time I started reading Robert Lewis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t get on a plane and step out and explore Victorian London. Steampunk was a natural fit for my skewed understanding of history and time periods.
I think it appeals particularly to female readers. There’s a very exciting genre of adventure/exploration stories that girls kinda got left out of. Steampunk, which always seems to very extremely cool female leads, lets women particulate in that era of progress as changers and not just spectators.
Steampunk is also really interesting because it lives in a positive time period that precedes one of the most violent and destructive eras in history. So, no matter what advancements a writer creates in a Victorian London, the reader has this background feeling that in a few years WWI is going to happen and be made all the more horrific for these advancements. I think, the era of progress appeals to people who want to write utopias and that might be why so many good Steampunk plots stem from trying to prevent WWI (and I think in our modern minds preventing WW2 and the Holocaust). Personally, I always found it kind of cheating when a single villainous mastermind orchestrates something as complicated as “The War to End All War,” but then again it started as a seemingly random assignation…
But thinking about WWI and progress and classism, and that bright-eyed Utopian ideal in Steampunk, really got my cogs turning for The Scribbling Windhund. I’m not writing about the past in my story in The Fantasist, so I sort of cheated as a steampunk writer. My story takes place in a future where climate change destroyed our current globalized world and forced us into segregated environmental domes where all counties had to reform their old pre-industrial identities. So, Germany becomes Prussia and again reflects the ideals of Fredrick the Great: service to the state, near worship of art and culture, but also a very heavy reliance on its military. Prussia is a very safe sector, where artists and craftsmen are the most highly prized citizens, and over half the population acts as the military/police force supervising the community to keep them from engaging in harmful behaviors.
You know, like being too gay.
The main character, Otto Lang, is pretty comfortable in this utopic state until he’s asked to interview a terrorist who’s been imprisoned for fourteen years for kidnapping the last Prussian princess. Throughout their interviews, Otto begins to question everything he believes about his sector, and his government, and his life. Eventually, well, I won’t spoil it because you can read it for free here.
The Fantasist is a quarterly online magazine that publishes three original Fantasy novellas on the third Thursday of every third month.
And this month, while they celebrate Steampunk, one of them is mine!