Steampunk has been described as “Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasies.” As a genre, it offers a new perspective to the Victorian era. Its main goal is to show how different society would be if the advancements of the 19th century had occurred differently.[1] The traditional definition of steampunk explains that steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction, set in a historical setting (usually the industrialized Victorian era) with steam-powered machinery in place of electronic technology.[2]

Steam refers to one of the defining characteristics of the genre. Combined with the Victorian setting, the steam-powered technology is the component that readers use to identify the genre. The punk aspect comes into play when steampunk provides a gritty and romanticized setting for the genre.[3]


The term steampunk was never actually used until 1987 (at least, according to the Oxford English Dictionary). K.W. Jeter, in an article about his book,Infernal Devices, said, “Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing . . . something based on the appropriate technology of the era: like ‘steampunk’ perhaps.” So, Jeter has explained the origin of the first part of the compound word steampunk: steam. That is the alternate technology to the more modern electricity featured in 21st century society. Punk originates from the term cyberpunk, already used to refer to futuristic fiction. Jeter was using the term in a tongue-in-cheek manner, so he was surprised when it actually caught on.

Science Fiction and Steampunk

Because steampunk is a defined as a subgenre of science fiction, the two genres are closely related.[4] Science fiction is often set in the future and features highly-technological advances; whereas, steampunk is set in the past with less-advanced steam-powered technology. [5] [6]

Steampunk became a subgenre of science fiction when modern writers took ideas and techniques from previous science fiction novels and transformed them to create their own unique genre. Science fiction works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were influential to the original writers of steampunk. Although Verne and Wells weren’t writing what is now defined as steampunk, their books about scientific advancement utilized in new ways heavily influenced the creation of the steampunk genre.[7]

Integration into YA Literature

While steampunk was present even in 1967 (with Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb), it continued to be a mostly adult-read genre until 1995, when Philip Pullman published The Golden Compass – a book set in a futuristic sort of steampunk alternate reality,where most technological advances are made with steam-powered energy, yet they had technology beyond the Victorian era’s understanding. The integration of steampunk elements into young adult literature did not really gain popularity until the 21st century. However, Philip Pullman was certainly the author that proved that this new genre is attractive to young adult readers, with the continued success of His Dark Materials and the subsequent movie, The Golden Compass, which visually included elements of steampunk.

In 2001, Philip Reeve published the Mortal Engines Quartet, marking the second attempt at young adult literature in Steampunk fashion. While less popular than The Golden Compass, the Mortal Engines certainly marked the second book in the young adult genre and cemented the fact that steampunk has a place in marketing young adult literature.

Other notable young adult authors that have published steampunk books include:

  • Cassandra Clare (Clockwork Angel series)
    • In Victorian England, Tessa Gray arrives from New York City to London and discovers an entirely new world of “Downworlders,” – people who include werewolves, vampires, and warlocks – and is surprised to discover that she, too, may be a Downworlder.
  • Scott Westerfield (Leviathan series)
    • In World War I, between the Darwinist nations that favor fabricated animals as weaponry and the Clanker nations that rely on steam-powered industrial weaponry, a commoner girl has dreams of joining the Royal Air Force when women are not permitted to serve in the armed forces.
  • Cherie Priest (Boneshaker)
    • Before the beginning of the American Civil War, American inventor Leviticus Blue creates the “Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine,” meant to drill through Alaska’s ice. However, when it destroys several blocks of Seattle instead and releases a gas that kills anyone who breathes it and turns some into “Rotters,” Blue’s wife and son must learn to live in the new environment of Seattle.
  • Gail Carriger (Soulless)
    • Set in an alternate reality of Victorian England, werewolves and vampires are accepted members of society. Alexia Tarabotti is known for being “soulless” – meaning, as long as she is touching someone, she will turn them human. When vampires and werewolves begin to go missing, Alexia is the prime suspect.

Steampunk in Other Contexts

Steampunk has just recently been picking up traction in culture, but this is not just limited to literature. Steampunk is also found in architecture, art, and fashion. One notable example of architectural steampunk is found in the Paris Metro station, called Arts et Metiere – which is designed in a steampunk style to honor Jules Verne, who wrote one of the original steampunk books. The station closely echoes the interior of a submarine, with portholes that look out into fantastical scenes.[8] Arts et Metiere

An entirely new genre of art has also been formed by the introduction of steampunk. Indeed, steampunk art is so popular that in 2010, the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England, featured the first art gallery featuring entirely steampunk art and sculpture. Interestingly, this exhibit turned out to be the Museum’s most popular and visited, with over 80,000 visitors during the time the attraction was exhibited. Pieces included redesigned practical pieces of technology along with imagined ones.[9] The Museum of the History of Science’s Steampunk Gallery

Steampunk inspired fashion is also a prominent part of the steampunk culture. There are no real set “rules” to steampunk fashion pieces, but the typical definition of steampunk fashion is a Victorian era style accented with technological pieces. Commonly included in steampunk fashion would be items with corsets, gowns, waistcoats, top hats, tailcoats, or military uniforms. Interestingly, high end fashion designers (such as Prada, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Christian Dior) have started incorporating elements of steampunk into their own runway pieces.[10] Alexander McQueen Steampunk shoes

Why Steampunk?

Why are we so fascinated with both the Victorian Era and this alternate form of technology? Steampunk author G.D. Falksen spoke briefly about its wide appeal when he said that steampunk’s success lies in its wide appeal. People may love the Victorian culture. They may love the re-imagining of technology (in order to escape the familiarity of our own tech-saturated world perhaps). K.W. Jeter, in the 2010 forward to his original book, Infernal Devices, explained why he thought steampunk was so popular. Moving beyond the cosplayers stuffed into leather corsets embellished with gears, Jeter thinks that there is an honesty in the aesthetic of steampunk that appeals to a 21st century audience. He compares the over-produced, smoothed out, pristine white appearance of a MacBook to the visible, understandable, relate-able clinking of gears in a machine. Computer chips are so small — how could the common person ever understand how they work? Jeter argues that the same is true for the people — that they are more genuine. More transparent. Victorian culture was set in an age of high moral values. Steampunk heroes go on adventures in a pseudo-sci-fi, pseudo-fantasy world. Somehow, this is comforting for a 21st century audience. Whether Jeter is right, or whether cosplayers simply like the aesthetic of all those gears and top hats is left up to debate. However, to go deeper than Falksen’s and Jeter’s theories, we must ask: why steampunk in fiction? Moreover, why steampunk in YA Fiction? In books like Golden Compass, the steampunk fantasy world allows the author a safe place to discuss otherwise controversial topics with relative freedom (like Phillip Pullman and atheism). It’s pairing with YA Lit doesn’t seem to come from any particular relationship between the two, besides the fact that steampunk and YA are both big money-makers.

Works Cited

  1. Jump up Stanga, Joseph. Steampunk 101: On the Import of Retro-futurism. | A Conversation on Steampunk 101: On the Import of Retro-futurism. | A Conversation on TED Conferences, LLC, Dec. 2011. Web. 14 May 2015.
  2. Jump up “Steampunk.” Def. 1. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 13 May 2015.
  3. Jump up Falksen, G. D. “What Is Steampunk.” What Is Steampunk. Tumblr, n.d. Web. 14 May 2015.
  4. Jump up “Steampunk.” Def. 1. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 13 May 2015.
  5. Jump up “Science Fiction.” Def. 3. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 13 May 2015.
  6. Jump up “Steampunk.” Def. 1. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 13 May 2015.
  7. Jump up Gross, Cory. Steampunk Scholar: A History of Steampunk, by Cory Gross. Steampunk Scholar: A History of Steampunk, by Cory Gross. Blogger, 27 Aug. 2010. Web. 14 May 2015.
  8. Jump up Jackie. “Paris Metro Travel: Full Steam(punk) Ahead at Arts Et Métiers.” Rail Europe Paris Metro Travel Full Steampunk Ahead at Arts Et Mtiers Comments. Rail Europe, Inc, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 May 2015.
  9. Jump up “Steampunk – Museum of the History of Science.” Museum of the History of Science. Museum of the History of Science, n.d. Web. 14 May 2015.
  10. Jump up Skarda, Erin. “Will Steampunk Really Be the Next Big Fashion Trend?” Style Design Will Steampunk Really Be the Next Big Fashion Trend Comments. TIME Inc., 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 14 May 2015.