Writing Frontiers: Steampunk

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

About three years ago during NaNoWriMo, I noticed a sub-genre popping up that I’d never heard of—steampunk. I read through the posts, which could be found in the forums under Genre Lounges and then Other Genres, and came away a little confused, but wanting to know more. I researched a little bit and found it was something I was interested in but that I wasn’t aware had a name or a culture.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction where the focus is steam-powered devices and Victorian-like settings and themes. Steampunk asks what could happen in a world where imagination, possibility and science combine. The term is thought to have been coined by the author K.W. Jeter in a letter printed in the 1987 issue of the science fiction magazine Locus.

Steampunk has been growing in popularity over the past few years. For the cosplay inclined (dressing up or role-playing) there are many fashion sites, like Stormcrow’s Arcane Objects and jewelry sites like 19 Moons. There are YouTube serials like the League of Steam where you can watch cosplay in action. At Comic Con 2010 there was the “World’s Largest Steampunk Photo” which was documented for entry into Guinness World Records 2011. There will be conventions, including Steamcon II in Seattle, Washington, happening November 19–21, 2010 and Anomaly Con which is being held in Denver, Colorado in March 2011. In October, steampunk was featured in the Castle episode, “Punked,” in the comic strip Luann, and the SyFy online series Riese: Kingdom Falling.

Why is steampunk growing so quickly? What about it interests readers and writers?

One theory is that as a people in the twenty-first century, we’ve become too hands-off. Today, most of us do not know, or care to know, how our devices work. We replace them when they break. In the Victorian age, we were learning how things work and how to make them work. We were interested in creating and exploring every inch of what we used and handled. We couldn’t afford to have it repaired or replaced, so we learned everything we could about it to fix it ourselves.

Another theory is that the age was more romantic and interesting. Alli Martin, a steampunk author, explained, “It’s about a feeling of limitless possibilities. That’s one reason I think it appeals to so many people; in a time when the economy is bad, we’re facing problems with overpopulation and pollution, and we feel downtrodden, we’re looking for something to bring us hope. Steampunk offers that hope as it’s looking back to a time of high adventure, innovation, and discovery.”

The pendulum of steampunk swings from historical fiction to speculative fiction and back again. There are many sub-genres, or perhaps co-genres, like clockpunk, dieselpunk, and cyberpunk. Clockpunk is set in the Baroque period when clockwork mechanics were being developed. Dieselpunk is set around World War I or World War II and uses diesel-type engines and war themes. Cyberpunk is set in a futuristic world and uses advanced science like robots and computers while focusing on political themes.

One thing I noticed is that “normal” is not a word in the steampunk dictionary. The characters, both good and evil, are larger than life—they can do anything and aren’t afraid to try anything. Impossible machines work and monsters are around every corner. Situations are dire and only the hero can save the day. Still, they’re driven by what any novel is—good writing, an interesting situation, and emotional conflict.

Where can I learn more?

Steampunk is still being formed as a genre and it was hard for me to find a lot of resources that focused on the how-to of writing it. There was one helpful article, “SteamPunk: A List of Themes,” at Writing.com that focused on steampunk themes and covered a wide variety of topics. Another, “Tips for Writing Steampunk,” at Ripping Ozzy Reads, had basic writing tips that point new authors down the steampunk path.

I did find one writing community, The Steampunk Writers Guild, but it is in its infancy, so there weren’t many posts or information there—yet! The host is happy to welcome new and curious writers—and lurkers—to the fold and joining was free and easy. They will be holding Twitter chats once a week starting in December and will post the transcripts for all to read and enjoy at their site, Steampunk Chat.

Weird Tales, a magazine founded in 1923 and featuring stories of gothic fantasy, horror and sci-fi, will publish steampunk stories. They are currently closed to submissions, but will be taking them again in January 2011. SteamPunk Magazine is not currently taking submissions, but has a host of back issues where you can find both fiction and non-fiction articles about any topic steampunk in nature. Steampunk Tales offers a pulp-adventure magazine available through downloads to most smartphones and devices, as well as PDF documents, for a small charge. Authors are paid a percent of the sales and the submission guidelines are specific, so be sure to read them all.

Amazon.com carries quite a few novels and more are being published as the genre becomes more mainstream.

It can be interesting to discover a genre that’s just beginning to set rules and parameters. Authors right now have the opportunity to help mold and shape steampunk simply by writing and sharing their stories. What is being written now will someday be the benchmark that other authors use to write theirs.

So if you’re looking to write something a little different, yet is very familiar, you might don a hat and some goggles and give steampunk a try. You might find what you’ve been looking for.

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Final Poll Results

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