HOW DO I WRITE A STEAMPUNK STORY?
by Dru Pagliassotti
Steampunk fiction consists of two elements-the
steam, or gaslamp aesthetic, iconography specific to the genre — and the
punk, a critical ideology or political stance that satirizes, challenges, or subverts societal trends.
Each element is a necessary but not sufficient condition for labeling a story steampunk: steampunk needs both the aesthetic and the critique. Much fiction is labeled
steampunk that is all steam and no punk; these works are more accurately called
steampulp. So, how do you write steampunk?
steam refers to technology that runs on steam power, of course, since classic steampunk is based or draws upon 19th century culture. Steampunk has been extended in both historical directions, however, and as often as not it mixes several historical periods in a single work, such as a 19th-century England that includes both practicing alchemists and rigid airships. Writers have the freedom to choose which technologies and settings they want to use, although the farther the historical setting is from a 19th century equivalent, the more fantastic and complicated the technologies will have to become to capture the spirit of the genre.
Steampunk’s gaslamp aesthetic reclaims the future that 19th century writers dreamed we would be living today but that never came about — a bright, shiny, elegant future of fine craftsmanship and exquisite sensibility powered by awe-inspiring, world-improving technologies. (Never mind the fact that, in the 19th century, this world wouldn’t have been meant for everybody; we’ll get to that in the
punk part of this essay.)
Thus the classic 19th century gaslamp aesthetic, from A to Z, might look something like this: Airships, brass goggles, canes-corsets-cravats-chronometers, difference engines, electromagnetism, factories, gaslights, hired help, iron men, juggernauts, keypunch machines, lords and ladies, military service, newspapers, orientalism, poverty, queens, railroads, society affairs, tea, urbanization, velocipedes, workhouses, xenophobia, young anarchists, and zeppelins.
Writers can find a longer list of iconic elements at Writing.Com. Victorian technologies are overviewed in an occasional but useful series at Free the Princess and here at The Age of Steam. Descriptions of character archetypes can also be found at those two websites, Free the Princess offering lengthy discussions of each and The Age of Steam offering a more succinct list.
The challenge is that a number of these elements have become clichés — the airship pirate sporting brass goggles and long leather coat, for example; the mad scientist sporting a nifty prosthetic or two who is about to commit an act of technological or chemical mayhem; upper-class items such as watches and umbrellas that mechanically morph into lifesaving or lifetaking gadgets; the use of real people as supporting cast, such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Charles Babbage, and Queen Victoria; and England, especially London, used as a setting. I have also seen enough vampires, werewolves, and faery in steampunk settings to dub them clichés, as well.
So while I’m sure it would be pathetically easy to sell a story in which H. G. Wells has been turned into a vampire and travels around the world in an airship as a spy for Queen Victoria … please, don’t.
One way to avoid clichés is to start by thinking about what the
punk in the story will be, and then work backward to decide which
steam elements best frame that punk.
The ’70s punk rock movement embraced individualism, anarchy, and rebellion. Disaffected youth defied the ‘truths’ drilled into them by society, distressed and repurposed material objects as a form of anti-consumerism, and created satirical, angry, and subversive works of art ranging from poetry to music to film.
This spirit became attached to the -punk suffix and applied to genres such as cyberpunk and splatterpunk. It is the same spirit that should lie at the core of the superficially more genteel and polished steampunk genre. Steampunk fiction embodies this spirit by presenting the sort of sharp, politically astute contrasts one finds between the worlds of the Eloi and Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ protosteampunk work The Time Traveller. It acts like a beautiful mahogany-and-brass screen that reflects, in its high gloss, the social failings and human weaknesses it was intended to hide.
Steampunk presents the aesthetic of a bright, shiny, elegant future of fine craftsmanship and exquisite sensibility powered by awe-inspiring, world-improving technologies … and then subverts it with the cynicism of the 20th and 21st centuries, pointing out the cracks and flaws in the Victorian dream that parallel the cracks and flaws in society today. Steampunk identifies racism, sexism, and other prejudices embedded in much scientific discourse; it describes the devastation caused by technological development carried out without a sensitivity to the environment or the indigenous culture; it highlights the problem of
progress that is really a form of cultural imperialism. Even that most optimistic of steampunk genres, the steampunk romance, often presents sexual, racial, class, or religious prejudices as the obstacle the couple must overcome to achieve a happily ever after.
Steampunk writers should consider what rebellion or defiance lies at the core of their plot. In general, two types of problems are found in most steampunk fiction: (1) A material, external environmental problem caused by or solved by a technology, or (2) an ideological, internal social problem that is being strengthened by or that can be circumvented by technology. The involvement of technology is key (
steam), although it can play a central or peripheral role, depending on the type of story being told.
Typical steampunk plots include the following, each of which offers an opportunity for social critique:
- invention, in which Our Hero/ine is involved in creating or trying to prevent the creation of some new technology;
- exploration, in which OH is using technology such as an airship or other mechanical, vehicle to explore new countries, lands, or worlds;
- international warfare, usually involving an attempt to stop the infernal machines that threaten to wreak havoc on OH’s country;
- anarchy or revolution, in which case OH is either pitted against the terrorists or working with the freedom fighters and uses or opposes technology to do so; and
- social rebellion, in which OH is enabled by a technology to throw off cultural or social restrictions related to race, class, religion, gender, disability, sexual propriety, and the like.
Many steampunk writers situate their stories in the same places much Victorian fiction was situated — versions of London, primarily, or New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. That makes writing a little easier, because the shelves are full of writers’ guides to those cities. However, it also makes the fiction a little more predictable.
In recent years, the U.S. frontier and Australian colonies have received some attention, as have various colonial outposts in India and China. Note, however, that most of these stories are still told from the colonizers’ point of view — relatively little steampunk has been written from viewpoint of the colonized or enslaved. Yet technology did not just affect upper-class white Europeans and Americans in the 19th century. What stories haven’t been told yet? How might technologies have advantaged or disadvantaged those other groups, had history gone a little differently? If steampunk is largely set in 19th century England, what crumbling at the edges of the British Empire might reflect crumbling at the edges of today’s great economic empires? Writers seeking to extend the genre’s social critique might want to start looking at different countries, cultures, and ideologies for inspiration.
What if you don’t want to offer social criticism with your fiction? No problem — steampulp combines the gaslamp aesthetic with pulp fictionÕs over-the-top, fast-paced adventure and excitement. It may offer occasional cultural critique, but its emphasis is on entertainment, and as often as not itÕs categorized with steampunk, anyway.
In the end, the important thing is to tell the story you want to tell. Leave it to the critics, reviewers, and academics sort out the genre’s details — your job is to write!