What exactly makes a 'steampunk' book?

by Katz

Steampunk Inventor

Steampunk Inventor

Question: I was just wondering. In the reviews I've read, both Scott Westerfeld's "Leviathan" and Cassandra Clare's "Clockwork Angel" were described as 'steampunk' or 'steampunk-y', which got me wondering, what exactly IS steampunk anyway?


Answer: Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction with certain distinguishing traits.

1. Neo-Victorianism. Steampunk is set in a world that resembles the 19th century, with technology that appears to be based on the technology of that era (e,g, steam power). Often it is set in what appears to be the former British Empire, but it can be set anywhere in the 19th century world, or in a fantasy world that resembles the 19th century.

2. Techno-Fantasy. Even though the technology resembles actual 19th century tech, it is far more advanced. For instance, you might have a steam-powered time machine or an airship with futuristic weapons. Often it relies on "fantasy" technologies that are not scientifically explained.

3. Retro-Futurism. Steampunk resembles the science fiction written in the Victorian era, ala H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. It looks like how people in the 19th century might have imagined the future.

4. Celebration of the individual inventor. In the steampunk world, advanced technology can be designed, made, and repaired by a solitary inventor (similar to people like Tesla, Bell, or Edison). It is quite unlike today's technology that is designed by one team of people, manufactured by a different team, and repaired by no one. For instance, no one can fix a broken or defective microchip today. All you can do is replace it.

5. Exposing the inner workings of things. This can include women wearing corsets on the outside or showing their bloomers, machines cut away to expose the gears and pulleys inside, or exposing the inner workings of society.

6. Wearable technology or scientific gear is also a common element, though one that is shared with other forms of science fiction.

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