What Makes Steampunk steampunk?

Dirigibles, brass goggles, automata, submarines, and other steampun genre tropes

Jules VerneJules Verne



It’s quite clear to me that dirigibles and brass goggles do not a steampunk story make. But sometimes when I read other people’s comments it seems that I am alone in that opinion. If you’ve been reading this blog then you already know I’m writing a steampunk western romance (working title: The Separation of the Senses) and I occasionally blog on things steampunk. For example, I did a guest blog on whether the recent movie version of Sherlock Holmes is steampunk or not. The discussion after the blog is quite interesting.





Recently John Klima posted a list on Library Journal of the 20 must-read steampunk works.

His selections differ slightly from this sci-fi list

Goodreads has a much longer list, a list that includes more female heroes (why do they get cut out of the shorter lists?) such as Girl Genius.

Steampunk TrilogySteampunk Trilogy

I have my own ongoing list of steampunk movies, TV shows and computer games (check it out and tell me if I missed anything, or if there is something you think I should remove).

When I discover books or movies on these lists that I have never heard of I immediately try to get my hands on it and read it or watch it. Or sometimes I re-discover a steampunk work that I loved before I thought of it as steampunk.







For example, I recently re-discovered the Jacques Tardi graphic novels featuring the steampunk heroine Adèle Blanc Sec.  I keep a separate a blog on everything that pertains to Alice Guy Blaché, the first woman filmmaker, which includes anything of interest to the invention of photography and cinema in Belle Epoque Paris, Victorian England, and 19th Century America. Luc Besson has just directed a movie about Adèle Blanc Sec, the investigative journalist heroine fighting villains and monsters just before the outbreak of WWI. The movie trailers promise us a steampunk movie, but until that comes out, we have to hold our breaths. You can read the blog, see some of Tardi’s images and trailers for the film here.

Tardi - Adele Blanc SecTardi - Adele Blanc Sec

 Working my way through these lists of steampunk works got me  thinking about recurring steampunk emblems – not just brass goggles and dirigibles, but also automata and submarines, monsters both horrific and paranormal, historical characters behaving anti-or preter-historically, and of course, mechanical and steam driven inventions. I started keeping a mental chart, and wrote up some initial thoughts on steampunk world building, a discussion I will return to.

Then realized that I needed to do something more systematic, if only to hold my own at the next Big Brass Ball.

Therefore I have come up with an Evil Plan: for the next few months I am going to read and review books from this list. My goal is to come up with an assessment of the genre tropes for steampunk. There is a real need for this because many writers are jumping on the steampunk wagon, and there is already a danger of the genre getting swamped with by an exceedingly limited number of cliché’s. 

H. G. WellsH. G. Wells














I’ll be re-reading classics such as Wells and Verne, authors from the 1980s  and 1990s such as Blaylock and Di Filippo, “hot” stuff like Nathalie Gray’s Mechanical Rose, and new, more contested work such as Windup Girl. I’ll also throw in works that aren’t avowedly steampunk but which contain steampunk elements, such as some of Steven Millhauser’s stories or stories by Joan Connor.

My explorations will not be limited to reviewing books. I will also write about graphic novels, movies, TV shows, games, and invite guest bloggers to write about same. If you have a particularly burning desire to write about a certain steampunk work, let me know.



My goal is to answer such questions as: does a steampunk story have to have a dirigible, brass goggles, or an inventor hero to be steampunk? How much paranormal can be folded into the story and it still be steampunk? What about the status and complexities of women and steampunk – as authors and as characters? Is steampunk a baby genre or a matured genre, and if the latter, what would the elements of a transcendent steampunk work comprise?

If this sort of thing interests you, come back every week and see what we’re up to.