Gears, Steam and Goggles: Steampunk – what is it and why it’s awesome!

I have been reading Steampunk for so long that I just wander around assuming everyone loves it … or at least knows what it is. But this weekend, when I made some comment about the Goodyear blimp that was flying over LA being a dirigible (which Dear attempted to “correct” with technicalities), I realized one of the people I was with had no idea what I was talking about, and furthermore, had no idea what was meant when I said I was a Steampunk nut.

Well, my world was blown.

And as such, I decided to do a post all about one of my absolute favourite genres (which is unfortunately usually shelved in sci fi, fantasy or romance. I am not sure why) and promote the heck out of it!

So … what is Steampunk?

noun: steampunk; noun: steam-punk
  1. a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.

Right … So … maybe some more info?

I do love Castle. Love. Nathan Fillion forever.

Anyway, if that doesn’t help, perchance a few images:

Now that you have the feel, here’s the rundown: Steampunk is essentially an alternative history, primarily set in the Victorian period (though it’s not a hardline) that imagines that steam was the primary power of the age, as opposed to the advances we’re used to – like gasoline-powered engines. It generally  takes the magic of the era – the new science technologies, royal societies, urban legends and mythos and superstitions – and couples them with gears, theoretical machinery and forward-thinking fashionistas in order to create a world that is altogether a little of the same and a little different – enough so that you have an endless world of possibilities.

I think that’s what is attractive to authors, artists and others – the steampunk world is one of reinvention. With a few rules, it is mostly a hodge-podge of different elements that can be fused together to make something truly unique. That is what first attracted me to it – it’s reading a Victorian world with female heroines who make their own stories and star in their own adventures!

I was drawn into steampunk so long ago that I can’t even remember the specific book or movie or fashionable poster that drew me in. But over the years, I have managed to collect items of Steampunk that I keep running back to:

Cherie Priest – anything Cherie Priest.

Cherie Priest is an author that writes these epic steampunk novels, called Clockwork Century. She sets her novels in the US, the first I read was in Seattle, and they take place in a very different American Civil War than I remember in my history books. The stories all have high stakes and all have epic story lines, the characters are hard and brittle sometimes, but they’re very much their own characters – never bleeding into each other or fading.

I always go back to the first in the series, Boneshaker – it remains my favourite for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because the world is uilt up, so strong and so magical – it feels real, and it feels adventurous.

The Parasol Protectorate and various spinoffs, also, Gail Carriger in general.

I read the first book in the Parasol Protectorate series after my second year winter exams in law school. I laughed so hard and I got so excited – it’s a paranormal, steampunk, romantic romp through a much changed Victorian England with much mannerisms and social constructs held intact. The main heroine, Alexia, is pretty darned awesome, and all the characters she interacts with are deep and usually very funny. And sometimes very much over the top, ahem, especially where it concerns a certain vampire …

The Parasol Protectorate is a finished series (I will get around to reviewing that last book eventually …) but from the same vein spawned the Finishing School series, and the Abroad series.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Graphic Novels

Sometimes I don’t like Alan Moore’s subject matter (seriously, the Invisible Man raping girls!? Seriously?), but the art and the steampunk elements are brilliant. Mina Murray is my favourite character – the movie adaptation does her a great injustice – and not only because of her awesome dresses. There are airships, there are steam-powered doo-hickeys and a submarine with very telling steampunk looks.

So, get into it for the world, not so much for the story. But I still love the graphics. I don’t like the new ones so much though …

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

The original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exist smack in the middle of what would be considered part of the steampunk timeline, being at once very Victorian and just slightly off. A genius observer in London solving crimes just so he can stave off boredom seems right up there with the ivory tower pursuits of a lot of steampunk characters, and the sheer amount of manouverability within the Holmes world makes it ideal for a steampunk adaptation.

Now, the movie is very light steampunk. It’s not full of dirigibles and goggle-wearing female captains and tall-hatted spies with mustaches. But the film definitely got the steampunk treatment. Even the advertisements and posters that hung around everything at the time were very reminiscent of steampunk – the circular glasses (that always remind me of the French Revolution), the emphasis on trains and technology.

That being said – this is not a steampunk movie, just a movie with steampunk elements.

Murdoch Mysteries (CBC)

One of my favourite television shows and a lot of fun to watch – Murdoch Mysteries is based on the books by Maureen Jennings, about a Toronto detective at the turn of the 19th century who solves his crimes using his keen sense of observation as well as new technologies he finagles – like thumbprint markings, video cameras and other things we would recognize on CSI today. Added to that, the television show takes on elements of supernatural stories like the Loch Ness monster, and is set in some old limestone buildings – also, there are a lot of Victorian elements, Toronto having been very much a British city in terms of mannerisms and law until far after the television series is set.

The hero, Murdoch, is unfailingly progressive with his scientific leanings and endeavours, and he is aided by female doctors (yay!), a wonderful constable sidekick and a surly old captain. It’s truly a brilliant television show and I highly recommend it, but like with Sherlock above, it is very much a show with steampunk elements, not a steampunk show.

Sanctuary (Syfy)

Probably the most steampunk of the television shows on actual television (I am excepting Riese because it was shown online only), it deals directly with two time periods: Victorian and Modern times. Why? Because our kick-ass heroine, the venerable Dr. Helen Magnus (played by the always awesome Amanda Tapping) became immortal after she and her friends dabbled in something forbidden in their university days – making her forever the stalwart guardian of all things weird. The sanctuary that Sanctuary gets its name from is basically a facility Dr. Magnus built in order to safely house a whole host of strange creatures – both for the pursuit of greater learning and also for their own preservation. We’re talking mermaids, Sasquatch, little adorable furry things and loads more.

The flashbacks to Dr. Magnus’ youth, her origins and her motivation are very obviously steampunk and in the most fashionable and delightful ways. The various weapons, tools and vehicles are nothing to laugh at either.

Riese (Syfy)

The most steampunk visual media on my list – this is a series that is steeped in the world of steampunk and all of its glory. It’s short and moves fast, so I don’t want to risk spoiling anything – but suffice it to say, if you’re already intrigued by the steampunk world as I have attempted to lay it out – Riese is definitely on your watch list!





Other movies and Books:

Wild Wild West (1999)

Author, G.D. Falksen

Anything Jules Verne, including adaptations of his books

Levianhan series by Scott Westerfield

The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

Van Helsing (2004)

For More information on your pursuit:

World of Steam – a web series

Steampunk on Facebook

Off Book: Steampunk on PBS


Anything to add?

Welcome to the world of Steam!



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