Steampunk is an intriguing hybrid genre blending the Victorian aesthetics of the late 1800s with the science fiction tropes of a borderline-dystopian future. In many ways, it exists in its own paradoxical universe that takes a good dose of imagination to properly grasp. But in other ways, it mixes the best parts of two seemingly oppositional ideas. Never in my life had I thought frilly hoop skirts would pair so well with ray guns and mad-scientist goggles. But here they are. And it’s glorious.
Visually, steampunk stories are often populated by gritty, rusty, and uncomfortably human-like robots with hidden agendas. Or, as seen in probably the best steampunk book I’ve ever read – a terrifying mechanical carnivorous sea monster. The protagonist is a female fighter jet pilot trained to fend off said sea monster. Seriously, it’s wild, and it’s called The Perilous In-Between by Cortney Pearson. I’d highly recommend it as a great first jump into the steam punk genre. It’s equal parts elegant and chilling, with shocking plot twists that will leave your jaw unhinged.
So what is it besides the quirky aesthetics and mish-mash of odd genres that makes steampunk so much fun to read? I’ve outlined the biggest elements below that make this one of my favorite genres of all time.
Expectations are obliterated.
Oh, you thought that robot was dead after you shot it through the fuse box with your pre-war rifle? That’s cute – turns out, it has an immortal heartbeat encased inside an unbreakable human skull. See what I mean? It’s just incredibly weird in the best way, and you literally will never know what to expect. Because it’s a hybrid sub-genre, it has a broader range of rules it ascribes to. This affords much more plot and concept flexibility, like questioning the cyborg vs. human debate – for example. Bonus points if there’s time travel thrown in there too, just for the heck of it. So tap into what your reader might be expecting, and then take a sharp left turn. Your story will come off as thrilling and frightening in the best way. For more help with writing suspense, read this recent article to keep your readers hooked. Another book I really loved that did this well was Cogling by Jordan Elizabeth.
Aesthetics are uncanny.
As previously mentioned, elegant multi-layered petticoats paired with muskets, gears, and advanced technology? Yes please! I love how steampunk situates itself in a reality that is almost something we connect with (by thinking of the 19th century), but then deviates from that sense of familiarity. Freud really put it best with his concept of “the uncanny” (thank you, American Gothic class). It basically suggests that we find familiar things that are just slightly off to be scary. Add in the contradiction of high-tech with more primitive, rusty gears, factories, cobblestone villages, and smoking pipes – and you’ve got something totally new.
Temptation to vacation there is strong.
I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I suddenly get the urge to live in these books – likely because of the above point about them feeling so familiar. But in the exact same vein, they’re also… not. The point I’m trying to make, is that if done well, steampunk produces a vivid image of a place you think you’ve been but haven’t. So reading books in this genre brings about a unique brand of déjà vu and nostalgia for a memory you never experienced. It’s a magical sort of contradiction that floats off the page and into your subconscious.
We all want to escape somewhere, and since that hasn’t been an option for a while now, books are such an effective way to scratch that itch. Steampunk offers all of that and more. You can be a duchess in a castle, wearing a wig that always gets stuck on the low-hanging crystal chandelier in your summer mansion. But then you can battle mechanized sea monsters or robots with a blowtorch or machete when they invade your courtyard. It all sounds too crazy to even be a genre at all, but I’d argue that’s the beauty of it – and the core of punk’s refusal to fit into any one box.
So grab your hoop skirt, machete, and goggles – it’s time to stick it to the man. And in this case, “the man” refers to limitations imposed by genre snobs who can’t see the beauty in the bizarre.