Thursday, June 9, 2011

What is Steampunk?

Having just released my Steampunk Role-Playing-Game at Comicpalooza (shameless plug -, people came up to my booth all day asking, "What exactly is Steampunk?"

Good question.

If you see someone asked that question on TV, or read quick definitions online, you usually get something to the tune of "fiction in a 19th Century setting" and then something like, "with all the imaginary technology that never-was" or "with retro futuristic technology" or "if the Communications Revolution happened 100 years earlier" etc. Then they go on to describe devices like Nemo's Nautilus, or armored airships and zeppelins filling the skies, steam-powered robots, gear-powered prosthetic limbs, goggles with specially advanced lenses, or artificially intelligent Babbage engines (analog computers) as big as a room with contacts made from brass.

I say they are half right. They have the technology part down, but saying Steampunk is only about the technology is like saying cyberpunk is only about the technology.

Here's how I define it in my game.

Steam = “Steam” in this case sets up the technology of the world, and to some respect, the historical context of that technology. The two simple rules of thumb are

1) If it is mechanical in any way, it can run off steam or gears, and
2) Any scientific theory can be considered reality if it sounds convincing enough in a drawing room over a snifter of brandy.

I then go into all the wild scientific theories that go with that. For example, The earth is hollow, iron clad automatons and robots are possible, cloning and other weird bio-science is possible (don't forget Frankenstein), it is easy to modify people using steam or gear operated mechanical devices, there is air on all planets and moons, the space between all things is the Aether, time travel is possible, Babbage Engines can do anything, and anything (no matter how big or heavy) can be made to fly or swim.

I further expand that with "Steam" comes the sensibilities and aesthetic of the 19th Century, usually, but not always like Victorian London. While a Steampunk story could take place in 1800s England, it could also take place in the United States (especially the Wild Wild West), or other countries, or in alternate timelines, or in completely different worlds altogether.

Regardless of where or when it takes place, there are still some common themes to keep within the Steampunk aesthetic.

1) There are significant and radical differences between the classes, the genders, and in some cases, the races (whether or not we are talking about ‘race’ in a colloquial sense of different ethnicities, or actual different species of creatures like tiger-people, or aliens, or fairies). Most protagonists will tend to be Egalitarians, above such trivial distinctions.
2) New advances in food production and medicine mean massive overcrowded cities. These cities will almost always have at least one set of slums.
3) Expect that prostitutes, scientists, alcoholics and orphans will play a significant part in any setting.
4) Likewise, expect factories, mines, mills, secret societies and guilds to play a significant part in any setting.
5) There may or may not be factions of people (sometimes referred to as Luddites) who violently oppose technological advances, fearing they will lose their jobs to it.
6) Any technology you would see made of out plastic today, would in a Steampunk setting be crafted from hand-carved wood (Mahogany and Rosewood are favorite choices), brass, copper or iron.
7) The dress, architecture, and manner of speech of a Steampunk world will be guided at least in some respect by those from historical Victorian times.

Punk = In most cases, “punk” refers to people striving for individual freedoms in a world where such things are generally oppressed or otherwise put down. The setting will define how oppressive the government and the society are. The characters will have their own ways for how they personally “rebel” against whatever travesty it is they choose to rebel against. Long story short, the more emphasis on the “Punk” part of the world, the less pleasant a place it is to be. Gritty, dark, and entirely free of happy endings might be a good way to think of it.

When you see people in Steampunk attire, they aren't always just wearing Victorian suits or dresses and goggles (although some do). They have tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair as part of the outfit, none of which would have probably happened in 19th Century London. They dress with leather bracers, they carry large impossible guns, they have insignia with skulls and wings - in short, air pirates are very popular. These all hint at the "rebellion" or "punk" aspect of the genre. It is about fighting for or against something bigger than oneself.

In fiction, you'll see things like,

1) Women might wear men’s clothing, or they might wear comfortable or practical clothing, and actually participate in science and adventuring.
2) People carrying weapons all the time
3) People modifying themselves for appearance or function with mechanical alternations such as artificial limbs or eyes.
4) Displaying gadgetry and inventions on their person, such as powered gauntlets, mechanical wings, or technologically enhanced goggles.

Some common things for Steampunk characters to rebel against
1) Capitalism
2) Nationalism
3) Non-Representative governments
4) All politics or government, or simply the taxes which pay them.
5) Abuse of human rights
6) Abuse of rights of privacy
7) Classism
8) The unequal distribution of wealth
9) The celebration of debauchery and self-indulgence, particularly by the wealthy.
10) The “ideals” or “morals” of society
11) Exploitation of any group
12) Racism
13) Sexism
14) Technology
15) Secret Societies
16) Wars or misuse of military


There are three core Steampunk world views:
1) STEAMpunk (heavy on technology, light on punk)
2) steamPUNK (focuses on the oppression and darkness of the world)
3) Fantasy Steampunk (incorporating fantastic races and creatures such as fairies and goblins, along with magic mixing with technology).

When choosing a world view, feel free to mix and match between the options. For example, to an aristocrat who has never left the "good” side of town, the entire world might seem more in line with STEAMpunk until that day a mysterious messenger leads them into the city slums, or they lose their entire fortune in a series of bad investments and learn the hard way the brutal living conditions of the lower classes. Likewise, a Fantasy Steampunk campaign could have roots in a utopian society just as easily as a dystopian one.

A STEAMpunk world is one where not only has technology progressed faster than the historic pace, but it has done so to the benefit of society in general. While there might still be a significant economic difference between the classes, food is plentiful, and cities relatively clean. A lot of the Japanese animated Steampunk movies fall in this category.

  • The People – The lower classes would still be poor, but not oppressed physically or mentally, and they might still have access to at least some health care. While always present, criminals would be obvious and not particularly effective, and relegated to the expected parts of the city. Prostitutes, beggars and orphans would be friendly and helpful, as would most members of the slums provided you treated them with respect.

  • The Technology – Mass transit methods such as Omnibus rail systems, passenger zeppelins, public submersibles, and subterranean tube systems might be possible, while individuals zip about on smaller propeller-driven dirigibles, on automatonic horses, or with spinning blades from steam-powered backpacks. Most personal body modifications would be for self-improvement or repair (replacing a lost limb, better eyesight, etc.) or possibly to aid in distant expeditions to far off dangerous places.

  • The Government – The government, or at least many of the aristocrats, would take an active part in pushing for more human rights, and it would not be uncommon to see celebrations concerning the discoveries of adventurers and explorers, or celebrating social reforms or new technology.

  • Secret Societies – They would be rational and calculated, moving with subtle motions in the background to bend things to their will. They might acknowledge defeat in a respectable fashion before retreating off to make their plans for another day.

  • Guilds – Guilds would manage their crafts and the people who perform them. Some rival guilds would compete economically, of course, and competition to join a guild might be fierce, but other than that they would simply serve as nodes of power within the framework of the city or country.

  • Fuel – In this world, whatever powers steam-engines is a clean source of energy, or it simply isn't discussed. Pollution would be at a minimum, and automatons would be available for any number of manual or unpleasant tasks.

  • Enemies -- Here the real enemy would usually come from the Outside. The most common enemies may be threats to society from the Aether, or from other worlds (either above it or below it), or from good-intentioned science experiments gone awry, or from natural disasters. Other options include exploring fringe locations or distant regions which haven’t yet risen to the standards of modern civilization.

  • steamPUNK More of the written fiction falls in this 'darker' category. A steamPUNK world is one where the technological advances primarily benefit the upper classes, the government, or the military, many times at the expense of the lower classes. The economic difference between the classes is harsh and cruel. Take anything positive from the STEAMpunk list above and add the phrase “only for the upper class,” to the end.

  • The People – The lower classes would include the extremely destitute, and all desperate to latch onto any opportunity, no matter how seedy, to improve their station. Four or five families might live in a single room, the ones furthest from the door having to pay toll to the others in order to leave or go to the privies. Beggars might be intentionally deformed by their parents to encourage more donations, and factories could be filled with lost souls literally shackled to their workstations. Criminals may exist in far greater numbers, or have organized into gangs or possibly even guilds. Orphans would constantly fear for their lives and react accordingly whenever approached. Slums would be death sentences to outsiders, and Opium dens would not be unusual to find in the city.

  • The Technology – Mass transit methods would still exist, but separated into the “common” unsafe types, both filthy and prone to fatal accidents, and the upper class extravagant versions with their own team of servants. Individual transportation would be technologically based for the wealthy, but would still be based on beast of burden for the lower to middle classes. Body modification could be just for spite, or for criminal activity, or self-protection. Hidden weapons, secret compartments, devices that confound security measures, spying tools, and just overt displays of strength might all be incorporated into steam powered limbs or body replacements. Scientific experiments on the poor might also be common, testing new medical theories or gadgets on the living for the promise of a few coins.

  • The Government – Here the government, and particularly the aristocrats, would primarily focus on what benefits them and keeps them in power. Laws would be written to maintain the status quo, and to prevent any groups from rising above their current station in life. Celebrations might still be common, but for things the upper classes cheer for while the lower classes curse at or actively protest them.

  • Secret Societies – They might rival the governments for power, or be the only hope against real change in the government. While the core leadership might be fairly rational, they might have hordes of minions to do their bidding, all to be discarded when their tasks are done.

  • Guilds – Guilds would take on the role of the megacorporations of their time, which just as much power and contempt for the people who serve them. They would maintain their own guards, or militias, or possibly even armies to fight in distant wars over resources. For the smaller guilds who couldn’t afford to keep a staff of ruffians for protection, fighting, thieving, spying and assassinating, there would be a guild of special mercenaries to rent them out. Guilds would have an uneasy alliance with the government, neither able to easily overthrow the other, although they would constantly watch for any possible opportunity to do so. On the streets, guild law and city law would be kept separate wherever possible, the guilds free to run things how they wish so long as it doesn’t disturb the upper classes or the grand order of things.

  • Fuel – In this world, steam-powered engines all come with a side-effect, filling the cities with smoke and smog. People would make cheaper workers than automatons, and with less required maintenance. Masks are a part of many a Steampunk costume for a reason.

  • Enemies -- Here there are as many enemies within the city as outside it. Conflicts between two guilds could result in their executives drinking tea and watching their lackeys fight to the death to decide the outcome of the ‘negotiations.’ Automatons could go crazy, or band together to overthrow the ‘organic menace.’ Luddites might make repeated attempt to sabotage technology, no matter what the effects on the general population. Simply bumping the wrong member of the upper class could result in a death warrant. The shadows would be filled with the unspeakable activities of organized crime and secret societies. The simplest of ‘for hire’ jobs could be part of a larger plan filled with layers of deception and unseen dangers as nobles, guilds, secret organizations, and criminals constantly war against each other with commoners as their pawns.

    Fantasy Steampunk While putting “Fantasy” in front of Steampunk may seem redundant, in this case it is used to incorporate a specific element not common in most Steampunk literature. Given the popularity of the belief in fairies during the 19th Century, it isn’t a giant leap to add such creatures of the imagination into a Steampunk world. Also, the 19th Century was a time of incredible scientific advances happening quicker than most people could grasp them. There was no reason not to believe that if an armored zeppelin could fly, why couldn't a little girl on a broom? Since advanced technology is essentially "magic" to people who don't understand even the fundamentals behind it, the idea of actual arcane magic existing beside new technological marvels seems to make sense.

    Besides, orks with cannons for arms? Female elves in Steampunk garb with blaster pistols and pointed ears? Fairies (or their skeletons) on display in jars? Using a gear-powered box to predict the future or speak with the dead? 19th Century zombies and vampires? That's just cool stuff...

    Here is a (very small) list of some sample Steampunk books...

    • Steampunk (Collection of short stories edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer)
    • Steampunk’d (Collection of short stories edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg)
    • Extraordinary Engines (Collection of short stories edited by Nick Gevers)
    • The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer with S. J. Chambers
    • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Steampunk AND zombies…)
    • The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
    • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
    • The Girl Genius series by Phil and Kaja Foglio

    And Movies/TV Shows with at least a Steampunk theme

    • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
    • 9
    • Howl’s Moving Castle
    • The Castle in the Sky: Laputa
    • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
    • Sherlock Holmes
    • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
    • The Wild Wild West
    • The Island of Dr. Moreau
    • The Time Machine
    • The City of Lost Children
    • Warehouse 13


      1. Great post, Steve. At last I understand the Steampunk genre! Very written!

      2. I think a person could plot at least 3 trilogies from all this info! Thanks for taking the time to go into steampunk at this depth, Steve.

      3. I meant to say well written, not very written. I'm a dork. I admit it.

      4. All I ever wanted to know about Steampunk (and much more). I have to admit I knew very little before now. Now I am enlightened. Thanks!

      5. Wow, thanks for the detailed descriptions. Whole worlds await their authors. And there are so many themes to explore.

      6. Very interesting--I did not know a lot of this. I have a friend who wrote a steampunk novel called THE NIGHT WATCHMEN'S EXPRESS that is doing very well. I'm waiting for it in print, but will know a lot more about what to expect now--thanks!

      7. Steve has been trying to post, but Blogger won't let him into his own blog! He wants to thank everyone who stopped by for commenting (the ones who could get in) and say, "Excellent, glad I could help!"

      8. very informative, especially when dealing with a diverse illiterate like me n mine~

      9. Steampunk has been my love but it didn't have a name! Im in love with it!