Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Explaining Steampunk: A Practical Guide

If you're a fan of Steampunk, you will be asked what it is.

How do I know this? Because it's happened to me more times than I can count. People find out that I write Steampunk, either through me telling them or something they've seen on Twitter or on an online profile of mine, and they send me a Tweet or an email or comment on my blog to ask for clarification.

Of course, the issue I then run into is how to go about explaining Steampunk to someone who might not be very well-versed in science fiction topics. For those people who are fans of science fiction, I can generally relate it to something they already know a lot about -- my personal favorite is to say "Take cyberpunk and make it steam-powered." Granted, that's not the most exact definition but it more or less gets the point across.

My difficulties in explaining Steampunk to people then sparked an idea: "Other people must have similar problems in describing the genre to the uninitiated. Perhaps I could write something that would make it easier!"

So, without further ado, I submit for your approval "Messer Delman's Step-by-Step Guide to Explaining Steampunk."
  1. Determine how much science fiction knowledge the person has.
    1. Have they read a lot of science-fiction stories?
    2. Do they watch the SyFy channel on occasion?
    3. Do they get Star Wars and Star Trek confused?
  2. What type of person are they?
    1. Movie buff? (Go to number 3)
    2. Read a lot? (Go to number 4)
    3. Play a lot of video games? (Go to number 5)
    4. Watch a lot of anime? (Go to number 6)
    5. Watch a lot of science fiction TV shows? (Go to number 7)
    6. Read a lot of webcomics or graphic novels? (Go to number 8
  3. Movie buff: Have they seen any of the following movies? 
    1. Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954 Disney version)
    2. Back to the Future Part III
    3. Wild Wild West
    4. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
    5. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
    6. Anything on this list?
  4. Reads a lot: Have they read any of the novels that are examples of the genre?
    1. Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
    2. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyl and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
    3. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
    4. Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
    5. Steamed by Kate McAllister
    6. Soulless by Gail Carriger
    7. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
    8. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
    9. Anything on this list?
  5. Gamer: Have they played any of the following?
    1. The Final Fantasy series -- specifically Final Fantasy VI
    2. Wild ARMs
    3. Skies of Arcadia
    4. Steel Empire
    5. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura
    6. Anything else on this list?
  6.  Anime watcher: Have they seen any of the following anime?
    1. Full Metal Alchemist
    2. Steamboy
    3. Last Exile
    4. Robot Carnival
    5. Steam Detectives
    6. Anything mentioned on Adam Heine's guest post a few weeks ago?
  7. TV viewer: Have they seen any of these television shows?
    1. The Adventures of Brisco County Junior
    2. Voyagers!
    3. The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne
    4. The Wild Wild West (1965 TV series)
    5. Anything else on this list?
  8. Webcomic/Graphic novel reader: Have they read any of these webcomics or graphic novels?
    1. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
    2. Girl Genius
    3. Iron West
    4. Steampunk
    5. Virtuoso
I can hear your next question: But Matt, what if they don't read/watch/play anything on your list?

In the case that the person you're explaining Steampunk to doesn't fall into any of my above categories, then here's a simple definition to get your point across without going into too much detail: Imagine a world where computers run on clockwork and cars are powered by steam. That's what Steampunk is.

My other favorite definition, and the one I told my Twitter-friend Alex Keller when asked for help defining Steampunk (his first novel, Haywired, is soon to be published in Britain -- all my friends across the pond ought to run out and buy it post-haste), is thus: Steampunk is 19th-Century science fiction written by 20th and 21st century authors who have the benefit of hindsight.

Both of those definitions, though serviceable, are also lacking in specifics. But specifics aren't what you want when you're explaining Steampunk to someone new to the genre. Otherwise you run the risk of overwhelming them and turning off their interest, which we very much don't want to do.

So that's my guide to explaining Steampunk. Are there any other ways you've had success in defining this genre we're all fans of?


    Monica Marier said...

    I forget who it was who posted it, but this was the funniest quote I've heard about explaining Steampunk.

    "Steampunk is what happened when Goths discovered the colour brown."

    The best reference for the whole genre, however was teh '54 20,000 leagues movie with Sir James Mason. It's Nostalgic Futurism.

    The Daring Novelist said...

    I always just say that it's Victorian science fiction. Yeah, you then have to go on to clarify that you mean it was written by modern authors, but most people seem to get it from there.

    I like the "nostalgic futurism" too.

    The thing is, it's more than a literary genre. I mean there are a lot of people who have never read or seen any of it, who are into the whole Victoriana thing. (Same with Deiselpunk.)

    I'd like to write some "alternate universe" stuff based a little later. (I think of it as "Jazzpunk".)

    Unknown said...

    I didn't know what Steampunk was until I researched the topic and wrote a blog post about it. I still haven't written anything in the genre, but would love to one day.

    One Steampunk novel I enjoyed isn't on your list. It's Larklight, by Phillip Reeve. Great story, geared toward MG/YA audiences. I recommend it to adult readers too!

    Adam Heine said...

    Man, I miss Brisco County. Why do the best shows always get canceled before their stories end?

    Lisa Miles said...

    Thanks for the post. I've always wondered what it meant:)

    Alex Keller said...

    Nice article, Matt.


    Alex Keller said...

    And thanks for plug!

    Much appreciated.

    Matthew Delman said...

    Monica -- I remember seeing that quote too, but I can't recall who said it either. It's right up there with Terry Pratchett calling the New Testament the story of how God found religion as my favorite quote.

    Daring -- Victorian SF is a good descriptor, but that assumes that people have a clear picture of the Victorian Age and don't confuse it with the movies based on Jane Austen's books. "Nostalgic futurism" will also tend to make people scratch their heads on occasion.

    Good point about the Maker culture that surrounds the movement too; although I'd counter that one should explain it based on where one's main interest lies. For me that's literature, movies, and TV shows, and that's generally easier for me to use in the explanation than talking about fashion.

    Nicole -- Did you click on the link at the bottom of the books list? It didn't show up as proper link text for some reason, but I think Larklight is actually on there. Incidentally, have you read The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade? Good-quality MG Steampunk novel. His second book in that series comes out in less than a week.

    Adam -- Because those shows air on Fox. And we've proven that Fox has a habit of canceling high-quality shows before they come into their own. *cough*Firefly*cough*

    Lisa Marie -- You're very welcome.

    Alex -- You're part of my network, therefore you get a plug when it makes sense. Ask Adam Heine or Gary Corby; I've publicized their work to anyone who'll listen. :)

    Susan R. Mills said...

    I think you've always done a brilliant job of explaining Steampunk. I didn't know what it was until about a year ago when I read on an agents blog that they were looking for something in that genre. I had to find out what it was so I researched it. I still didn't have a good grasp on it until I started reading your blog. I find it very interesting and when you are published, I will certainly read with enthusiasm. :)

    Joe said...

    "Steampunk is what happened when Goths discovered the colour brown."

    I think I heard that in an interview with Cherie Priest (author of Boneshaker). But my favourite line from her would be: "Steampunk: if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong."

    Anina B said...

    Cherie also posted a very good steampunk FAQ on her blog last year: http://theclockworkcentury.com/?p=302

    Maybe I'm biased because she mentioned our book (Boilerplate), but I thought she did a fine job of explicating.