What is Steampunk?

Steampunk Computer

Steampunk PC
Image by Pashasha

“Steampunk” is one of those phrases you hear very rarely, but you’ve probably encountered it in one form or another. Wikipedia defines Steampunk like this:

Steampunk is a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of “the path not taken” of such technology as dirigibles or analog computers; these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or a presumption of functionality.

So there you go, question answered :) But here’s the thing: I think steampunk is absolutely fascinating. It gives rise to some brilliantly insane situations like art-deco cities under the sea (Bioshock), the Nautilus… Captain Nemo’s submarine (Jules Verne – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – named after an 1800-designed submarine also called the Nautilus), or the idea of launching a capsule to the moon via a huge cannon (Jules Verne – From the Earth to the Moon). Or perhaps you saw the episodes of Doctor Who that re-introduced the Cybermen, but air travel was via zeppelin rather than aeroplane? That would be an example of taking an alternative timeline that simply didn’t move away from airships.

Why is all this so fascinating? Because it’s so different from normal sci-fi! Normally, science fiction looks ahead at how the future will be, but it’s great to imagine what would have happened if the world didn’t quite follow the same path as the one we know. It’s great to see how modern inventions would have been built long ago. It’s great to see a “dirty” version of the clean and clinical sci-fi we’ve got used to. I mean, it’s fine for the Enterprise to be powered by massive computers, but it’s far more interesting to see those computers powered by bellows and cogs. And imagine if Scotty had needed to shovel coal into the ship’s boilers to reach warp speed :)

For some great examples of steampunk, have an explore of these links:

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  1. I do enjoy the odd bit of steampunk, in fact there are some fantastic RPG settings that are “steampunk” to various degrees, quite often with the added story hook that magic is dying being replaced by technology (for example is the wargame/rpg/etc Warmachine by Privateer Press)

  2. Do you like steam engines? Please use the link below to view my slide show (with audio) entitled “Steam without Steampunk.”


    Laurel Anne Hill
    Author of “Heroes Arise”

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