What is Steampunk?!

I realized recently, much to my chagrin, that I’ve never written a dedicated post about what “Steampunk” actually is. I get asked about it all the time; even though steampunk has grown a lot in recent years, it’s still a lesser-known genre that leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. Part of the confusion comes from simple unfamiliarity, but part comes from the fact that “steampunk” can be difficult to define.

So, first, I’ll try to explain steampunk in a few succinct ways. Then I’ll elaborate more on the history of the term and where it seems to be going as we move into the future.

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Art by Rowena Wang

The Short Answer

In short, steampunk can be described as:

  • Retro-futuristic, Victorian science fiction
  • Alternative history, wherein the technology of the Victorian era advanced much more quickly
  • Any fiction wherein steam is the primary source of power
  • Fiction set in an alternate universe that features anachronistic technology and/or Victorian aesthetics

There are some common elements to these descriptions: influence of the Victorian era and a focus on technology.

Here are some steampunk examples you may be familiar with:

  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (comic and movie)
  • The Difference Engine (book)
  • Infernal Devices (book)
  • Wild Wild West (movie)
  • Van Helsing (movie)
  • Castle in the Sky (movie)
  • The Golden Compass (book and movie)
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Art by Vadim Voitekhovitch

The Long Answer

To better understand what steampunk is, you need to look at its history and influences. The term itself, “steampunk” originated in the 1980s as a variant of “cyberpunk”. As defined by Wikipedia, “cyberpunk” is “a subgenre of science fiction in a future setting that tends to focus on society as ‘high tech low life’ featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order”.

That’s a complicated definition, but you’re probably pretty familiar with cyberpunk. Examples include Blade Runner and The Matrix.

Steampunk takes the genre of cyberpunk and, instead of using the setting of the near-future, uses the setting of the 19th century. Steampunk draws from actual Victorian influences such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, and Mary Shelley. The genre also goes well beyond book or movie genres. It extends into fashion, DIY crafts, music, home decor, etc!

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Steampunk fashion is easily identifiable, as it combines Victorian fashion with gadgets and the “punk” aesthetic. Common elements of steampunk fashion include corsets, bustles, waistcoats, top hats, spats, goggles, parasols, mechanical limbs, and post-apocalyptic elements.

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Steampunk crafts often center around taking mundane, every-day items (a phone, a light switch, a table) and transforming them into steampunk gadgets. This often involves elements such as leather, brass, copper, gears, levers, and patina. The craft and maker aspect of steampunk has helped transform it from a genre to a subculture.

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Abney Park

Steampunk music can take a variety of forms. Influences include Victorian music (e.g. pieces by Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff), industrial dance, world music, rock and punk, opera, and more. Overall, steampunk music combines elements of the “old” with the “new”.

Part of the issue with defining steampunk is that it’s a very new genre. As such, with each passing year it grows and evolves within the community of writers, artists, makers, musicians, filmmakers, and fans. I think that’s one of the reasons steampunk is so appealing: everyone involved can make their mark on the genre.

Hopefully that helps explain the genre to anyone who was less familiar with it. Feel free to leave questions for me in the comments! What’s your favorite part of steampunk?

Music That Influenced My Novel: Grigory’s Gadget

Music has a place in pretty much every aspect of my life. I listen to music in the car, I often listen to music at work, I’m a dancer…even if I’m not actively listening to music, I’m probably singing along to something-or-other in my head. I also frequently experience musical frisson – that rush of chills you get when music gets AWESOME.

So, of course, music has a place in my writing as well.

I touched on this topic a bit back in December, but that was before Grigory’s Gadget was published, so I wanted to revisit it.

The music I listen to while actively writing is often instrumental. If there are words to a song, I’ll just wind up listening to those words instead of my story’s. Usually this music consists of soundtracks. While writing Grigory’s Gadget, I tended to listen to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks, along with a little Lord of the Rings,Game of Thrones, and Lindsey Stirling.

Along the way, I also discovered a new favorite genre of music: electro-swing! This genre takes jazz and swing songs and remixes them. This blend of old and new fits wonderfully with steampunk! My favorite album was Jazz Goes Steampunk! Electro Swing Invasion. It does break my rule about instrumental-only music while writing, but it didn’t seem to be too much of a problem. Now, if we want to be technical, the fact that most of these songs are from the 1930s would suggest they’re more appropriate for dieselpunk, not steampunk. Grigory’s Gadget already blurs those lines, what with all the communist and fascist dystopian undertones, so I still consider it appropriate!

SPOILERS AHEAD! You’ve been warned!

Grigory’s Gadget was also influenced by music when I wasn’t actively writing. Songs I hear on the radio often influence plot or characterization. For example, the song “From Finner” by Of Monsters and Men helped set the tone of the story. The chorus of the song –

We are far, far from home, but we’re so happy;
Far from home, all alone, but we’re so happy

– became a sort of mantra for my characters. The juxtaposition of the forboding sound of the song with the smattering of hopeful lyrics set the tone as well.

The song “Gangway” by Guster influenced Anya’s characterization: she’s energized by being at sea, and quickly took a liking to being a pirate.

If I could make a wish, if I could right a wrong,
If I could plot a twist we wouldn’t be here long,
I’d lean in to each turn, seeking evermotion.
Soon, the walls, the house, the sky starts shaking,
The clouds, the land, the sea,
Gangway!

By far the most influential song I listened to while writing Grigory’s Gadget was “Hero” by Family of the Year. This song actually caused me to make some characterization adjustments and major changes to the climax of the story. Namely, this is the song that led to Demyan being killed.

Let me go
I don’t wanna be your hero
I don’t wanna be a big man
Just wanna fight with everyone else

This song actually led to my discovery of foreshadowing I hadn’t realized I had planted. At the beginning of the story, the friends play a card game called Durak (Russian translation: fool) and Demyan loses. Throughout the story, Demyan is the one who is the least adaptable to their situation (getting seasick, getting frustrated by their situation, etc.). He also lacks the rebellious streak of his friends, preferring to keep his head down and do as he’s told. He doesn’t want to be a hero.

The original ending of Grigory’s Gadget saw Demyan live, and he felt like a dead weight (pun intended, sorry). I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was until I heard “Hero”. That song resonated with Demyan’s character so much. Then it clicked: I had been foreshadowing Demyan’s death this entire time! And of course, his death was an act of bravery and heroism: he helped Zoya start to come back to herself at the cost of his own life. He wasn’t a dead weight character anymore. He had done something; he saved the woman he loves and their friends.

Moral of the story – don’t underestimate the power of music! It can be lethal…

Music and the Muse

This is a topic that comes up a lot in writing circles, and there are no right (or wrong) answers: What music do you listen to while you write?

There’s a range of possibilities here, from classical to hard rock to good-old-fashioned silence. My own answer to this question ranges pretty widely too. Different types of music inspire me in different ways, and at different points in the process.

When I’m brainstorming/daydreaming/etc. about my story, there’s a huge variety of music that inspires me. Dramatic scenes, more often than not, are inspired by movie soundtracks, especially ones by Hans Zimmer. Character development and character-relationship development is often inspired by the music I listen to day-to-day, namely alternative rock.

When I’m in the throws of writing (not revising or editing) I tend to find that silence works best. It allows me to get lost in my mind as I write, to better connect to the characters and the scene.

When I’m editing and revising, I go back to movie soundtracks and other instrumental music. I find it keeps me focused and inspired.

Here’s the music I listened to during the process of writing and revising Grigory’s Gadget:

  • All of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks
  • The Sherlock Holmes (the ones with Robert Downey, Jr.) soundtracks
  • The”Jazz Goes Steampunk! Electro Swing Invasion” album
  • “Steampunk Fantasy Rock” by Ian Cecil Scott
  • the “My Head Is An Animal” album by Of Monsters and Men
  • Lots of songs by my favorite band, Guster, especially their newest album Evermotion
  • “Hero” by Family of the Year inspired a particular plot change (sorry, no spoilers!)

So there’s my take on music and writing!