The Meaning of Steampunk

I was watching the eddies of conversation collide today on twitter, as you do, and I spotted a mini steampunk discussion. Given that I’ll be involved in a podcast on the subject this Saturday at Alt.Fiction, it caught my eye and now has me contemplating the actual meaning of the term “steampunk”.

            Adam Christopher (also podcasting on goggles and airships this weekend) mentioned that he couldn’t see how The Anubis Gates was a steampunk book, as there are no steam-based technologies in the story. In fact, the catalyst behind what is, quite frankly, a fantastic book is ancient Egyptian magic and time travel (also magical) that has nothing to do with Victorian steam-tech at all.

            This is a fair point. The reason it’s interesting to point this out with The Anubis Gates in particular is that Tim Powers is one of those mentioned in the famous letter to Locus magazine that coined the phrase in the first place.

…Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…

—K.W. Jeter


So if The Anubis Gates isn’t steampunk, then what is? What does it actually mean? Personally I like to think of the sub-genre as Historical Science Fantasy, but even that is a bit wobbly if we want it to cover TAG. Where is the science, really? This got me thinking though- do we really take the “steam” in steampunk to refer only to outlandish steam powered technology, such as Abraham Lincoln robots or flying machines? Or is steam actually a shorthand way of referring to a certain period of history, namely the Victorian era? (Whether or not we uproot that era and place it elsewhere, I think that’s really the heart of the genre). In other words, is steam actually just referring to the time of the industrial revolution, regardless of how much unlikely tech you’ve got in your Victorian Fantasy?


I’d love to know what you all think! So put on your best automated top hat, fire up the steampowered abacus and tell me what you think the term steampunk actually means.

4 thoughts on “The Meaning of Steampunk

  1. I suppose it’s “alternate history”. I prefer to see it more as an aesthetic than a genre, and one that doesn’t even have to be tied into a specific alt-Victorian setting. China Mieville’s Bas Lag books are laden with Victoriana and steam-tech, which makes them in a sense Steampunk (or at least Steampunk-tinged) but they’re not Difference Engine ripoffs. Same goes for The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. I think Steampunk is worst used as a genre in which to churn out endless samey Victorian adventure novels with steam-powered or clockwork gadgets in them and best used as a stylistic influence for creating new settings to counter all the horribly tired and cliched cod-medieval crap that has saturated Fantasy fiction for decades.

  2. I tend to think of Steampunk as more representative of the Age of Steam than of a specific technology. Folks like to put, for example, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea into the Steampunk category, but in that book all of the strange, new technology is powered by electricity. I have no problem with that since I think it has more to do with extensions of ideas that were popular in the Victorian Era than with steam, itself.Of course, when someone goes further back in time, doing things with clockwork or da Vinci machines I start to get confused about what to call it – Gearpunk? Wigpunk? Who knows? đŸ˜‰

  3. I remember reading Gates of Anubis and thinking ‘its gone a bit steampunk’, doesn’t the clown character first appear with some kind of clunky clockwork contraption? However the whole sorcery thing is more fantasy in Victorian clothes, it reminded me more of Alistair Crowley’s various seedy wondering around Egyptian deserts. The tech/science is, fore me, what qualifies the genre as being something other than period fantasy, but as the previous comments mention, the steam goes hand in hand with clockwork, zeppelins and other industrial revolution technologies. It is the other extreme of sci-fi to space opera, whereas space opera is interested in the farthest reaches of imaginable tech – universe hopping space ships and drones, steampunk concerns itself with the roots of modernity/technology. Interestingly the shortening of distances (rail road, steam boat, flight) was a herald for the modern age space opera too is about the possibilities of faster than light travel – very transport led is sci-fi (wait if fantasy is largely about walking ala LOTR, does that make sci-fi about non-pedestrian transport? maybe that wasn’t so interesting)I also think steampunk is very much an aesthetic thing too, the ‘punk’ bit, which is a means you can lump Verne, Steamboy, Morcock, Difference Engine, Boneshaker etc etc all together and call them a genre. Personally I love the Pat Mills/Brian Talbot steampunky Nemesis story – which was my first brush with Victoriana Sci-fi.

  4. The Bas-Lag books are an interesting example, as that’s exactly how I like to see steampunk used. It’s secondary world fantasy so there’s no alternate history vibe to it but the steam-tech is a weird mishmash of science and magic, giving China Mieville’s world a very unique flavour.

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