The Mighty, and classy, Steampunk Genre
Steampunk. Perhaps one of the most beloved genres of science-fiction in the modern age, Steampunk is classed as a subgenre of Cyberpunk but the roots of Steampunk do stretch back as far back to 1844 with The Aerial Burglar by Percival Leigh. Since then many great minds have influenced the Steampunk genre, most notably the great H.G. Wells and the fantastic Jules Verne.
On the surface, Steampunk may appear to be little more than brass coated, gear adorned and Victorian styling infused science-fiction but the genre is so much deeper than mere aesthetics. Steampunk embodies a set of principles and a genuinely optimistic outlook of life.
The Victorian age was a marvellous and bewildering time. Creative and inventive genius forever changed the world. The British Empire stood as the dominate world power, unifying 1/3 of the globe under a single monarch, whether they liked it or not. While the common man was trampled underfoot by the nobility of Western Europe, eyes were constantly looking forward to a brighter time, a happier time and, more importantly, a more industrious and efficient time.
A constantly naïve optimism happily plagued Victorian sensibilities of the time as each new mechanical marvel seemed to improve their lives tenfold and would seem to continue to do so. Technology was the answer to all problems: war, hungry, industry, air travel, tying shoe laces. The power of the coal steam engine and the generating of electricity would see the Victorian Europe through to the ends of time.
And that’s what Steampunk is for me. The optimism, the joy of invention, the clean and efficient future that this technology could bring are all the aspects of Steampunk that should be most prevalent in the genre.
But by no means should that preclude other aspects from appearing constantly: the poverty and destitution that became common struggle for the working class, the dangerous reliance on untested technology, the lustful love affair between the nobility and automata which had carried over from the centuries before. These are also aspects that should be explored within the genre.
The manufacturing of automata is a personal favourite of mine to be explored. The idea that a worker, requiring no rest or food, did jobs without question was a dream not only of the manufacturing industry of the time (and today) but to the military. Fearless soldiers marching into battle, plated in armour and pushed around the theatres of war like toys, these weapons had the ability to reshape the entire globe, had they existed.
Imagine a world where no jobs are available because machines have taken your place, wars endless roll on as row after row of emotionless robots march into battle. The revolutions that swept Europe during the 1800s and 1900s, the uprising of the common people, made every stronger by the lust for revenge against the machine.
Then imagine a world were these machine gain sentience. Are the human? They think, feel and talk like us but are made by mortal hands. Imagine the life of an automaton as it is confined to live out its set number of years before it ceases to exist and only being able to carry out the work it is assigned. Or the soldiers made suddenly aware of who they were, ceasing the fight on the front as they try to discover who they are.
But thankfully, automata were confined to wonders only to be seen by the privileged few and their stacks of cams in the innards never gave them life.
My favourite stories that deals with this is Final Fantasy IX, a genuinely gorgeous world of Steampunk and fantasy that delves even into true, out of space science fiction by the end. This game really kicked started my love affair with Steampunk when I was 7 or 8. And my attraction to automata was really cemented in my heart by the documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams. I would suggest both of these if you are seeking inspiration.
But Steampunk has become a wide a varied genre and even worlds like the futuristic dystopian Midgar of Final Fantasy VII could arguably be Steampunk, though it might slip more easily into Dieselpunk. From the hardcore Steampunk of Jules Verne to the magical His Dark Materials of Philip Pullman to the post-apocalyptic Mortal Engines of Philip Reeve (all of which I highly recommend), all fit into the Steampunk genre. Be it coupled with magic or not, delving into Edwardian culture or staying clear, realistic or fantastical, Steampunk is a glorious genre whatever the aspects you wish to pull from it.
Top image is “Steampunk Landscape” by Vladimir Petkovic.