Everything You Would’ve Asked About Steampunk, Had You Known It Existed

Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that, as the name suggests, comes from the idea that technology never developed beyond steampunk. The science can deviate a bit from there, but that’s generally where it all starts. It’s a look into what could have happened had science and industry taken a different turn, but didn’t.


odd-men-out-steampunk-cover matt-betts-writer-author






Column by Matt Betts, author of the steampunk novel ODD MEN OUT
(August 2013, Raw Dog Screaming Press). In a starred review, Booklist
said, “It’s impossible to say this too strongly: this steampunk-horror-
historical-thriller crossbreed is an amazing book. Word of mouth could
turn this from an under-the-radar debut novel from a little-known imprint
into a genre-busting cult classic. Get on board now.” Connect with Matt
on Twitter or the book’s official site here. Matt is an author and poet
from Lima, Ohio. His short stories appear in a number of anthologies,
magazines and websites.

It can take place in the “modern” year or back when steam power was, in fact, the most important source of energy at the time. Many early steampunk stories were set in Victorian England, which may be the reason for the lasting use of Victorian sensibilities in the stories. More and more of the tales are now set in other countries and even other worlds, with the style of the late 19th century remaining, right down the bowlers, brass fittings and waistcoats.

Author Cherie Priest, whose steampunk novel Boneshaker made it on Publishers Weekly’s best of 2009 list, suggests that one of the tough parts about writing steampunk is keeping that world straight for both yourself and the reader. “Steampunk is almost by necessity (but not exclusively so) an exercise in alternate history, so the question becomes one of which events to tweak, how to present them, and how to extrapolate their consequences,” she says. “It’s a fine line to walk—you want to change history in a credible way that makes sense; but you can’t be afraid to break the timeline and really make a mess of things.”

(What to write in the BIO section of your queries.)


At its core, steampunk uses steam power as the jumping off point to attempt to create some of the advances we have today through various means. Computers, rocket ships and robots have made appearances in their steam-driven or alternative-technology forms at various times and there’s always room for more inspired adaptations.

Some of the literary inspiration for steampunk comes from early authors like Jules Verne and his fabulous tales of the submarine Nautilus, the Time Machine from H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Alan Moore would later take these ideas (and some of the characters) and use them in his graphic novels about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.


They certainly do. Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary says she enjoys steampunk for the ideas it presents: “It’s not just magic with things just appearing out of thin air, but it’s people inventing things—even if these steam-powered/clockwork run machines are ultimately too fantastical to ever actually exist in real life, it feels like…well maybe they really can. That’s probably the kid in me wishing for that, but who cares, right? Stories are supposed to make you feel like anything’s possible!” Volpe says not a lot of the subgenre comes her way.

Agent Sara Megibow of KT Literary says, “Our agency represents Gail Carriger whose SOULLESS is the first in a series of New York Times bestselling steampunk fantasy. So, I know what I’m looking for when it comes to steampunk submissions. I’m actively looking for these submissions – in romance, in fantasy and in young adult manuscripts and yes, I think it is a very hot sub-genre. As with all submissions, though, quality writing trumps all.” (Find Sara on Twitter here.)


Analog Computer: A common example of the “What if” or alternate nature of things that happen in steampunk.
Automotan: Steampunk term for a robot or mechanical man. The word construct can also refer to an automaton.
Clockpunk: A similar subgenre based on the technology that runs watches: springs, gears, cogs, etc.
Corset: Item of clothing that makes frequent appearances in steampunk stories. Usually worn by women.
Cyberpunk: Another subgenre that deals more with the super high-tech world, as opposed to the more low-tech one in steampunk.
Goggles: You’d think they would fog up, what with all the steam, but people wear goggles quite a bit in steampunk stories.
Victorian Era: Common setting and source for steampunk stories.
Zeppelins: Airships or Dirigibles are a staple of steampunk travel..

(Never open your novel with a dream — here’s why.)


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0 thoughts on “Everything You Would’ve Asked About Steampunk, Had You Known It Existed

  1. Matt Betts

    Sherrie – Thanks! I believe you’re right about The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It certainly fits the time frame and setting. Now that you ask, I really can’t name any children’s steampunk. There are a number of young adult titles. The Golden Compass and the others in that series certainly are considered steampunk. I’m reading Scott Westerfield’s YA novel Leviathan right now.

  2. Kathy Matthews

    Great piece. Love the glossary. I’m a fan of the steampunk multiverse, since I have my own peculiar fascinations with such things as clanking machinery, 19th century chemistry, corsets and the proper use of an oyster spoon.

  3. Sherrie Petersen

    Great article, Matt! I’ve been wondering what steampunk was — I see the word crop up every once in a while. Sounds like an interesting subgenre. As you described it I found myself thinking of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Would that be considered steampunk? I really enjoyed that book. Are there any children’s books in this category that you know of?

  4. Matt Betts

    Not to keep talking about Cherie Priest too much, but her site theclockworkcentury.com has some good posts and a nice FAQ, both of which provide some solid steampunk info.

    Some other resources I like include Steampunkmagazine.com and Wikipedia’s entry on steampunk. Tor.com recently had a steampunk month – if you do a search on their site, you’ll get to read all of the great posts from various writers and editors on all things steampunky – including books, stories, movies, fashions and history. It’s a great place to start and has links to tons of other steamy goodness!



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