According to recent legend, along with a copy of a letter to Locus Magazine from 1987, reprinted on the Voyages Extraordinaire blog, K.W. Jeter coined the term steampunk to define his fiction. What is steampunk? For some, it’s a rollicking romp through a steamy Victorian era. But it’s not just about lace corsets and parasols, it’s about iron aeronauticals, brass goggles, and steam powered machines.

Steampunk has been defined in many different ways, depending on the resource. However it is defined, and whatever sub-genre of fiction writing it is put into, it shares certain characteristics.

Elements of Steampunk

Steampunk looks to the past for a future that never was, but perhaps could have been. It involves an industrial-technology society based on steam power. Anything imaginable can be steam powered, from flying machines to submarines, from pianos to steampunk computers, from penny arcades to steam powered weaponry and watches.

All of the steampunk technology and steampunk gear have a Victorian edge to them that involves brass, iron, leather, wood and glass. Picturing gadgets and submarines from Jules Verne’s novels, or the time machine in H.G. Wells’ classic literature opens a window onto the steampunk genre.

Steampunk Beginnings in the Classics

The retro-futuristic technology in steampunk fiction revolves around ideas first presented by Verne, Wells, the mathematician Charles Babbage, and even Da Vinci. The steam powered machinery could conceivably been created during the Victorian age around the concepts presented by these great thinkers. Throwing a twist of robotics and modern computing into the technological mix gave birth to this science fiction and fantasy sub-genre.

Steam punk crosses genre lines. It’s not just about the extravagant and inventive steam machinery any more. Housed under the very broad umbrella of science fiction and fantasy, steampunk novels now incorporate adventure, thriller, murder mystery, magic, romance and alternate history. Steampunk has moved into the Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction arena with The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, and Soulless, The Parasol Protectorate, by Gail Carriger.

Steampunk Books to Read

The best way to get a taste of the genre is to read several books. The following books are recommended as good representations of steampunk.

  • Soulless, by Gail Carriger portrays a woman with no soul and the troubles she faces from paranormal creatures.
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest features a powerful female protagonist fighting against zombies.
  • Morlock Night by K. W. Jeter represents one of the first defined steampunk novels.
  • The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling is one of the earliest works.
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers also is considered a definitive steampunk book.

Why Steampunk Fiction Needs Brass Goggles

Because they’re fun. That’s the heart of steampunk. It’s so much fun that the genre has spawned lines of steampunk fashion and clothing, steampunk gear, steampunk interior design, and steampunk conventions.

Plus, whether writing a steampunk novel or reading one, they provide clarity of vision and improve one’s appearance. Really. So strap on a pair of brass goggles and dive into a steampunk novel.