How important is steampunk? Is it a literary genre? A film aesthetic? Or just a subculture that has co-opted bits and pieces of Victorian dress and mixed it with a wry twist of sci-fi?
The term steampunk is not as old as the literature that inspired it. A term coined in the 1980s as a tounge-in-cheek reference to the rise of cyberpunk, it was originally a shorthand for the work of three authors in the 1980s: KW Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock. While these authors were the first to consciously use the term, the work that inspired theirs is late Victorian and the rise of steampunk as a cohesive genre began in the 1960s and 70s, solidifying in the 80s. A key example of 1980s steampunk is Elementary BASIC – Learning to Program Your Computer in BASIC with Sherlock Holmes by Henry Singer and Andrew Ledgar. This may have been the first fictional work to co-opt Charles Babbage‘s Analytical Engine in an adventure story: Victorian meshed with the 80s in an educational adventure book.
The first influences of steampunk literature can be found in the scientific romances of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and HG Wells, the precursors to the now extensive and complicated genre of science fiction. These experimental writers introduced the concepts of an alternative history where steam power had triggered a golden, mechanical age (or sometimes a post-apocalyptic dystopia caused by these wondrous machines). Steam punk is, essentially, a mash of alternative history, futurist thinking and mechanical aesthetic. Some call it speculative fiction, others retro-futuristic, and maybe even straightforward imaginative fantasy. In movies, it is adopted as an aesthetic, mostly as a Rule of Cool, but sometimes as a tidy hand wave to support plots that require certain tech in an age unlikely to have it. It can, however, imbue a movie with the freedom to speculate and create a sandbox for the director to play in.
While not as mainstream as many other literary genres (most people probably can’t name a steam punk author as quickly as an American crime writer) it has nonetheless influenced genres outside its own. Consider the area of punk clothing: metal meets lace and cogs meet corsets. There are websites dedicated to such clothing, (Blue Banana, Kate’s Clothing and famously Alchemy Gothic) though it is expensive and often its adherents become adept at making their own clothing.
But most people can recognise steam punk when they see it: movies such as The Prestige, The Golden Compass, Hellboy, Hugo, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events have a clear steampunk aesthetic. I would argue that Twelve Monkeys has an element of steampunk. The first movie to showcase it was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, and Terry Gillam’s Brazil in 1985 continued building on the tradition. There’s a blend of steam punk and the wild West, made famous in the movie Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. It has also been seen recently in Doctor Who season 7 in the episode “A Town Called Mercy”, though only in a relatively minor capacity.
Ultimately, my take on steampunk is that it is more of a tool and aesthetic more than a cohesive way of seeing the world. Steampunk means many things to many people: this article itself was germinated by an argument over whether the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies could be seen as steampunk. Considering that Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote some of the seminal scientific romances (the Professor Challenger series), it isn’t too many steps removed to see that Ritchie may have referenced this in the Sherlock Holmes movies in very small aesthetic details. (I still don’t think it is nearly enough to be considered steampunk). But, steampunk can be whatever the author or reader want it to be: like science fiction, it is at heart a speculative genre, and that frees up the author to write in a splendid, challenging fashion. While the fashion can be a bit staid, it can still manifest in jewelery as beautiful as traction farthing pendants and the Nevermore Fob Watch. It is a remarkable genre, though often buried under disdain for the perceived geekiness of it.
Your reading list:
Steampunk – Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer
1,000 Steampunk Creations by Grymm and John
Steampunk Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos
Steampunk! The Bestselling Anthology (Young Adult)
Steampunk Prime by Mike Ashley
The Art of Steampunk by Art Donovan
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk by Sean Wallace
Steampunk Poe by Megan Byrant
Corsets and Clockwork by Trisha Telep
Steampunk Holmes by PC Martin
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Steampunk Version by Zdenko Basic
2 thoughts on “The Steampunk Aesthetic and Ideal in Literature and Film: A Primer”
I’m currently reading the Lemony Snicket series and it immediately sprung to mind as I read your first paragraph – a suspicion you confirmed later in the article. Thanks for this, I really needed a Steampunk 101 – and in about ten minutes reading time!
Hey there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!