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Steampunk’s Chemistry

By Zoe Hinis for The Times

What exactly is steampunk? Is it a literary genre? A film aesthetic? Or a subculture that’s co-opted bits and pieces of Victorian dress and steam machinery and mixed them with sci-fi?

Essentially Steampunk is a “fractured look back at what might have been if only….” according to The It is a movement of nostalgia-buffs who mix the old and current into some picturesque hybrid form. It is a science fiction subgenre set in the Victorian era in which steam-powered technology prevails. Some call it speculative fiction . Others say it’s retro-futuristic or imaginative fantasy.

In cinema, it’s an aesthetic that’s been adopted as a “Rule of Cool” – used in an attempt to dispel arguments among fans about the implausibility of a plot and the suspension of disbelief. Sometimes it’s a tidy solution to a plot that requires particular technologies in an age in which they were unlikely to have existed. It can also imbue a film with the freedom to speculate, creating a sandbox for the director to play in.

The work of authors Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and HG Wells inspired what became known in the 1980s as steampunk, then a cousin of cyberpunk.

These experimental writers introduced the concept of an alternative history in which steam power had triggered a golden mechanical age, or sometimes a post-apocalyptic dystopia caused by these wondrous machines.

Steampunk became shorthand for the work of three authors: KW Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock.

In Blaylock’s Homunculus, written in 1986, there is a parallel world of aliens, heroic tobacconists and inventors who can raise the dead. It is set in the late 19th-century when the terrible secrets of a mysterious orbitting airship are sought by the Royal Society, a fraudulent evangelist, an evil millionaire and an assorted group led by the scientist and explorer Professor Langdon St Ives.

One of the first cinematic progenitors of steampunk was Fritz Lang’s 1927 German Expressionist film, Metropolis.

Set in the year 2026, Metropolis takes place in a dystopian society of wealthy industrialists who live in tower complexes, high above the repressed workers.

Terry Gillam’s 1985 movie Brazil is also set in a dystopian world, one in which the characters are over-reliant on whimsical machines.

In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, several famous heroes of 19th-century fiction – such as Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo and Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – unite against Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis.

Like science fiction, steampunk is at heart a speculative genre that frees the author to write in a highly creative, imaginative and challenging way .

Ultimately, it is more of a tool for creating fantastical fiction and a cohesive aesthetic than a way of viewing the world. It’s an intriguing genre, often incorrectly disdained as geeky.

This article first appeared on


Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
1000 Steampunk Creations by Grymm and John
Steampunk Prime by Mike Ashley
The Art of Steampunk by Art Donovan
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk by Sean Wallace
Steampunk Poe by Megan Byrant
Corsets and Clockwork by Trisha Telep
Steampunk Holmes by PC Martin
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Steampunk Version by Zdenko Basic

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