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.
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.”
Where Did Steampunk Come From?
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.
Do Agents Seek Steampunk?
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.)
Glossary of Common Steampunk Terms
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.