Why Steampunk is the Little Black Dress of Speculative Fiction

Steampunk is a weird, niche little genre, when you think about it. Merriam-Webster defines it as “science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.”

That’s pretty darn specific. It’s not like the post-apocalyptic subgenre restricts its stories to the 23rd century, or space opera specifies the power source that spaceships have to use.

The boundaries of steampunk seem pretty restrictive at first glance, so it’s not surprising many authors bend and break the rules. Steampunk has branched out and evolved as creators and fans innovate, which brings me to the strength of the genre:

Steampunk goes well with anything.

Like a little black dress that, with the right accessories, could be worn to the office, a wedding, or a night on the town, steampunk fits perfectly with any genre.

The best accessories are, of course, a corset and a top hat.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s hard to find a book that’s pure steampunk these days. Most of the ones I read, at least, have paranormal elements. Soulless by Gail Carriger, which you’ll find near the top of almost every list of steampunk fiction, is set in an alternate Victorian London with dirigibles and clockwork devices—as well as vampires and werewolves.

God Save the Queen CoverGod Save the Queen by Kate Locke is essentially a steampunk vampire novel, the present-day setting having Victorian influences because the immortal, vampiric ruling class doesn’t change with the times.  The Falconer by Elizabeth May mixes steampunk with fairies. Whether your paranormal catnip is witches, werewolves, demons, or ghosts, there’s a steampunk novel for that.

I think paranormal monsters are so at home in steampunk because classic horror stories like Dracula and Frankenstein were written in the Victorian Era. We’re used to seeing dark creatures stalk the foggy streets of London and fantastical, steampunk-esque machines create undead monsters. Plus, the Victorians themselves were fans of the supernatural. Seances were the big thing back in the day, and Victorians had their own paranormal novels with vampires and mummies.

The Emperor's Edge CoverBut Steampunk mixes just as well with epic fantasy as paranormal. The Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker, set in the fictional Turgonian Empire, features political conspiracy, deadly magical creatures, spell-casting shamans, and steam-powered technology. It’s a massive, fast-paced fantasy adventure, but it’s not strictly epic fantasy. Rather than swords and horses, the technology of this world has trains, airships, and rifles, making the books perfectly at home in the steampunk genre.

World-building is key in any epic fantasy, and it just takes a little tweaking to remove steampunk technology from its roots in Victorian England and incorporate it into a rich, secondary world fantasy setting.

So there’s tons of steampunk fantasy out there, but don’t worry, science fiction gets in on the fun, too.  Soldier of Fortune by Kathleen McClure is set in the far future on a planet where human refugees from a ruined Earth have rebuilt a society with a distinctly steampunk flare. I’d even argue that “pure” steampunk, a story with no speculative elements other than the prevalence of steam-powered technology, is a subgenre of science fiction rather than fantasy.

Kilts and Kraken CoverSteampunk romance is another example of how the genre goes with anything. My personal favorite is Kilts & Kraken by Cindy Spencer Pape, which delivers exactly what the title promises. Zoe Archer also writes a bunch of good ones.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of steampunk romance. You can have a heroine in a gorgeous period gown trade Jane Austen-style repartee with a well-dressed gentleman and then board an airship to fight sky pirates. What’s not to like about that?

You’ll find steampunk fairytales and literary mashups, from Steampunk Darcy to Curiouser and Curiouser, a steampunk Alice in Wonderland retelling. There are steampunk zombie novels and steampunk westerns. You can even find steampunk superhero fiction (Yay!) like The Society of Steam books by Andrew P. Mayer.

I have a special place in my heart for gothic steampunk. Gothic fiction was popular in the Victorian Era with authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Lord Byron, so it’s a perfect match for Victorian-inspired steampunk. The Gothic Librarian has a great post on the similarities between the two genres, including the settings and speculative elements.

The Ghost Machine CoverThe creeping dread, haunted locations, and dark secrets of the gothic genre are what I took inspiration from when writing The Ghost Machine, which I even subtitled “A Gothic Steampunk Novel” to make the subgenre perfectly clear.

There’s no shortage of fun genre mashups out there, from space westerns to horror comedies to fantasy police procedurals. I’d argue that steampunk mashups are some of the best—but that’s completely subjective. What’s your favorite genre mashup? Favorite steampunk novel? Let me know in the comments!

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Kristen Brand

Kristen Brand writes speculative fiction with lots of action, witty banter, and a bit of romance. She loves comic books and all kinds of superhero media, and she's probably drinking tea right now.

4 thoughts on “Why Steampunk is the Little Black Dress of Speculative Fiction”

  1. Steampunk doesn’t get enough love these days. Even steampunk life and fashion in meatspace is looked upon with such derision you’d think you were back in Victorian times and someone had spilled their tea in the drawing room. I feel like part of the reason why is because of how closely tied technology and “Progress” are. If you turn the clock back, then necessarily you also have to adopt the ignorance and social limitations of the time as well for some reason. But steampunk technology is more robust, ecologically friendly (stay away from coal though) and looks so cool! It would definitely last longer than the planned obsolescence gadgets we all use these days. I guess I’m saying we should all adopt a steampunk lifestyle. #steampunklife

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are great points about steampunk tech being ecologically friendly and lasting longer! There’s some creative people out there inventing really cool-looking stuff. And I totally agree that the genre doesn’t get enough love.

      Liked by 1 person

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