#SteamPunkMonth: Recovering a Genre that Never Existed by Jon Del Arroz

Thursday , 15, June 2017 28 Comments

Steampunk is more than just cosplay. The concept of it was brought into the public zeitgeist by people cosplaying in 2010-2012, which created a lot of hype about the concept of Steampunk. All that was clear at the time was that Steampunk had a Victorian theme, but also one that was vaguely dystopian. The Victorian outfits are often adorned by goggles that one would see on early aviators or motorcyclists, gas masks, and other metallic bits. Clockwork plays a central theme as well with the costumes and props.

It looked cool. It was very enticing to see these quasi-Victorian costumes, from military uniforms to women in tight corsets, there was a reason it took off in the costuming world. It provided a more adult sense of cosplay for folk who wanted to express themselves through creativity rather than throw on yet another Deadpool or Harley Quinn costume. The concept of making something your own is engrained in the community, and that passion and creativity caught like wildfire.

Many of us thought that this would translate over to the literary community. After all, the Steampunk fans seemed to be part of the sci-fi and fantasy crowd. They’d often talk about Jules Verne or William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, where the term Steampunk was coined from Gibson’s prominence in the cyberpunk world. Steampunk literature looked like it’d bring about this whole wave of retro-futurism – a futuristic fantasy that drew from our more recent past, with alchemy and airships more than sword and sorcery. We did see a few of these books, and a slight resurgence in terms of alt-history content, often in the Victorian vein.

But most of what we saw was the romance genre stamping its foot down and appropriating everything from the cosplay. Like we see in a lot of the top of category for Amazon in Fantasy and Science Fiction, the books for Steampunk mostly had the concepts in name only. Books came out that vividly described what the characters were wearing like a Mary Sue cosplay adventure of what the author wanted their costume to be. We ended up with a lot of books in a Victorian setting that happened to have a gear here or there, and had plots featuring a inappropriate (especially for the time period) sexual trysts with werewolves and vampires. It’s not the first subgenre to be coopted by this form of paranormal romance, and won’t be the last, but Steampunk had another problem to it – there wasn’t much in terms of other options.

YA romance readers latched onto this, of course.  Cassandra Clare is probably the most notable of these books, with her Infernal Devices series, prequels to an urban paranormal romance that became a popular movie. The publisher’s synopsis really says it all “her only allies are demon-slaying Shadowhunters—Including Will and Jem, the mysterious boys she is attracted to.” What’s important is the love triangle and the attraction, not the Steampunk elements, despite the title.  It took place in Victorian times, but I didn’t feel that the theme of “infernal devices” were developed much in the story.

Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate has a similar theme. Though, with her series title being a little more tongue-in-cheek, I didn’t expect quite as much focus on the heavier fantasy concepts. The publisher’s description here speaks of a hunt for vampires, but takes a heavy focus on attire and appearances. This is really the pinnacle of the cosplay-as-novel concept that exemplified the burgeoning of the genre.

Both of these books are fine. I’ve read them and thought they were well-written for what they are. They’re not my cup of tea, but I’m also not the target audience who is young teenage girls interested in Victorian cosplay, tea parties and romance books. What they didn’t do adequately is provide the sense of adventure that was promised by the concept of Steampunk. They and other books in the genre missed out on wild airship adventures, strange alchemic brews creating super-soldiers and monsters, the swashbuckling of firing cannons and rifles, and clockwork war contraptions that brought about devastation.  All these things are promised in those cosplay glimpses, but the authors chose to focus on something else entirely.

Subsequently, we saw a fad in the romance genre, followed by a quick decline in the interest of Steampunk. A few years later, readers  barely hear about Steampunk anymore. There’s a few mid-list authors to add to the ranks, most of whom are firmly in the romance genres with a splash of the theme, but we really don’t see the vast imagination that we all hoped to find in these concepts.

The good news is, that Steampunk has such a wealth of landscape still available to it that other subgenres of fantasy don’t have, because those other subgenres are saturated with product.  Outside of Hayao Miyazaki films and Final Fantasy, we haven’t really seen all that many incarnations of retro-futuristic airships. I still get excited when I see one on a cover. I also think the quasi-Victorian sense of streets with gaslamps and new horseless carriages bouncing on gravel roads feels like an interesting setting point. Vehicles running off steam do make for cool props, and can be used as plot points. The more holistic alchemic form of medicine, with doctor’s in-home visits provides even more of an elegant story backdrop.

And so Steampunk is still a wide-open setting to provide amazing adventure stories. It almost gives more freedom than direct sword and sorcery fantasy because it gives you access to create your own cool gadgets.  It’s a playing field that many other fantasy authors haven’t discovered, and is ripe for the picking for the Pulp Revolution.

When writing For Steam And Country I hoped to capture all the adventure elements that I listed above and then some, and show a path for what a Steampunk fantasy world could be. My goal was to create an adventure story that fulfills the promises of the term Steampunk. With luck, it will revitalize the genre (and of course the cosplay!) and give people something to latch onto and take interest in.

Jon Del Arroz began his writing career in high school, providing book reviews and the occasional article for a local news magazine. From there, he went on to write the weekly web comic, Flying Sparks, which has been hailed by Comic Book Resources as “the kind of stuff that made me fall in love with early Marvel comics.” He has several published short stories, and has worked in gaming providing fiction for AEG’s weird west card game, Doomtown Reloaded, as well as providing settings for various RPGs. His debut novel, Star Realms: Rescue Run went on to become a top-10 bestselling Amazon space opera. For Steam And Country marks his first foray into fantasy.  

You can find him on Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, Gab, and his blog.

 

28 Comments
  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Quite a good article; I hadn’t thought about the “more adult sense of cosplay” concept before, but it makes sense in retrospect.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Jon
    An interesting observation. Another possibility is that steam punk could be the genre that finally gets boys to read. You got riproaring adventures, build your own cool stuff, save the pretty damsal, intrigue! Nefarious villain! Absentminded professors!

    Also as I pointed out you’re not stuck with by Victorian London or Paris. Writers can do steam punk Carlista wars, Italian unification, Meji Japan etc etc.
    So good writers can choose to do a straight up steam punk adventure stories like Boy’s life magazine.
    Gives me ideas that I’d like to mash up.

    xavier

    • Yes Xavier. I totally agree with that. It’s possible. I hope lots more people expand upon this genre now that I’ve pushed it a little further into the Fantasy adventure realm.

    • Nathan says:

      The Sakura Taisen/Sakura Wars franchise comes to mind. 1920s steampunk-onmyo-mecha fantasy, but not yet going to the contemporary settings of dieselpunk or New Pulp.

  • H.P. says:

    I agree that steampunk isn’t a mature subgenre. It seems like these days that the more interesting works are getting published in steampunk-adjacent subgenres like flintlock fantasy (Novik’s Temeraire books, McClellan’s Powder Mage books) or mannerpunk (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Kowal’s Glamourist Histories).

    By the way, that cover is fabulous. I wish more indy pubs got that kind of treatment.

    • Xavier Basora says:

      Hp

      In Catalan there’a steampunk Roman empire series (2 books so far) from the reviews i’ve read it appears to be a well researched blast.

      I’m a bit irritated that they’re only avaible as books and not ebooks sigh!

      Perhaps steampunk will be an accessory to a main genre or part of a mashup

      xavier

  • Salamandyr says:

    Never been a fan of steampunk…largely because I find the name terribly misapplied. I like “Girl Genius” which used the more appropriate ‘Gaslight Fantasy’.

    But my wife was entranced by it, based on the costuming, and then found the same thing Jon mentioned, that the burgeoning genre was largely overtaken by romance writers. That seems to be changing (now it seems like everyone has to write a steampunk story), but she’d already lost interest. Going to pass this essay to her; she’ll find it interesting.

  • Phantasmic says:

    Butcher’s Cinder Spires got me interested in steampunk but then I was extremely disappointed to find a dearth of quality entries in the genre.

    Just from the short excerpt on Jon’s site, I’ll definitely be picking this one up.

  • Stephen says:

    I’ve never been into Steampunk, but For Steam and Country may just change all of that. It’s really got the potential to bring steampunk to a mainstream audience.

  • deuce says:

    I never understood why steampunk didn’t start kicking butt immediately, since Space: 1889 provided an incredibly fertile and stealable template for adventure authors. Thousands of stories could be told within that basic matrix. How can Haggard + Burroughs + Doyle + Brackett go wrong? All of the elements for incredible adventure are there, as well as many opportunities to introduce genuinely superversive themes.

    I guess this is a kind of parable for what happens when “Romance” and cosplay take over a genre.

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    I saw a TV show once about the restoration of an antique steam-powered automobile. It was impressive, but completely impractical. As I understand it, external combustion is more efficient than internal combustion, but the engineering challenges are insurmountable. You can make it work for a locomotive, which travels at a constant speed in a straight line, but not for an automobile.

    And zeppelins? There’s a reason they went extinct. Hydrogen is too flammable, helium is too expensive, they can’t handle storms or strong winds, they have to be twice the length of a jet liner to carry half the cargo load, and they’re slooooowwwwww.

    It’s really the civilized social mores and the 19th-century sense of optimism that makes steampunk attractive. Unless you’re prepared to come up with alternative physical laws to explain the presence of all the cool retro stuff, I think it’s better to emulate the SPIRIT of the 19th century instead of imitating the superficial trappings.

    This is coming from a guy who records music on analog tape machines and vintage tube equipment on a regular basis. I’m a big fan of old tech.

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    I almost forgot about TREASURE PLANET. It was one of the last traditionally animated films from Disney. Sailing ships in outer space, visual references to Ringworld, and great character designs, especially the cyborg John Silver. It works because it makes no attempt at realism and it’s all about the visuals.

    • deuce says:

      I keep hearing good things about TREASURE PLANET. I need to check it out.

      • Alex says:

        I will second this; it was a cruelly underappreciated movie. It’s also one of the few adaptations of Treasure Island that really captures the complex relationship between Jim and John Silver in a moving and meaningful way.

  • The Mixed GM says:

    I purchased the book today. I sincerely hope that “For Steam and Country” is the piece of Steampunk media that makes the genre more than fetish material.

  • Chrome dynamo says:

    This may be off the topic a bit, but I watched a russkie movie (dubbed) called “Frankenstein’s Army” which was IMHO very steam punkish. I was there for the Mosins, but the clockwork nazis were fun. Very gory.
    It shows up on cable once in awhile, or thru Amazon Prime.

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    Um, the term Steampunk predates The Difference Engine.

  • Steampunk seems to be alive and well–or at least not dead–on cable TV and even some movies. The Wonder Woman movie had many steampunk elements in it, Ripper Street emphasizes a lot of for-the-time emerging technology, and then there’s Penny Dreadful, Murdoch Mysteries, and a few other series that seem to feature Steampunk elements. Wild Wild West (the Will Smith version) and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies were quite steampunky, as was V for Vendetta in its odd sort of way, and then there was League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that glorious near-miss.

    What we don’t see, unfortunately, are many movies, series or well-known books that bring all the tropes together. Maybe Victorian/Steampunk is forever doomed to be a bridesmaid and never a bride?

    Or perhaps it will come back around, as these things tend to.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      The TV bersion of THE WILD WILD WEST was steampunk before it was cool. A cowboy-age James Bond using clockpunk Q-branch gimmicks against steampunk Blofelds, from his train that was more gadgeteered than an Aston Martin.

      The movie was about what I expected–a CGI-fest full of nasty jokes that completely missed the point of the original.

      • Fenris Wulf says:

        Wow, I didn’t know it was a TV series! It was canceled despite high ratings because of pressure from Congress about violence on TV.

        • Terry Sanders says:

          If you can find it, WATCH IT.

          Robert Conrad is Connery-cool. Ross Martin never lets the sidekick sink to sidekickdom. The plots are frequently clever as well as suspenseful–and occasionally surreal.

          And Michael Dunn’s Dr. Loveless will make you understand why I despise the movie so.

  • Vlad James says:

    When you mentioned the genre, I immediately thought of Gail Carriger and her first novel “Soulless” as well. Utterly different than what I’m looking to read in the genre, but then again, it’s written solely with women in mind.

    The same being equally true of the urban fantasy genre.

    I will buy your book, but I do think there are unique challenges to steampunk in literary form. Which don’t exist for steampunk in either movies, television, or video games, where it’s a cool style/aesthetic and often little else.

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