Steampunk Fiction, what is it?

Anyone who knows anything about the Steampunk subculture will generally answer the question “What is steampunk?” with words to the effect of “Whatever you want it to be..!”

This is of course an absurdly unhelpful answer.

Luckily, while steampunk’s are often a shrinking violet of introverts (1)(2) they become quite animated and extrovert when they start talking about their collective passions and they will go on to talk about “Victorian technology, meets science fiction and has a bastard step-child that looks a little like a cross between HG Wells and Jules Verne, having gone wild with moustache wax, hats and corsetry.”  

Sidenote 1: there is apparently no collective noun for introverts, so I had to invent one. This does however make sense, as the old joke goes, “Introverts rise up as one and stand in your own houses, then sit down again and get back to soldering tiny cogwheels on to a set of cufflinks…”

Sidenote 2: not all steampunk’s are actually introverts, nor are they all broken in some way, or using steampunk as an outlet against the crushing mundanity of life. This is just a stereotype, most of them are perfectly well rounded individuals without deep-seated emotional problems and/or a tentacle fixation… Probably they are just in it for the hats…

In any event, the question “What is steampunk?” is by its nature far too simple a question for the long complex answers you will get if you ask the wrong man in a top hat in Gloucester. You know who you are, and you’re a delight, don’t ever change… So, the answer “Whatever you want it to be…!” is as it turns out a good summery when it comes down to it. You don’t have to wear a hat, or corsetry, or sport a beard, waistcoats, petticoats, or indeed you can wear any of those even if you’re not of the gender to which any of these items are normally associated, frankly as long as your splendid to everyone else, everyone will be splendid to you.

As a rule, I tend not to worry about it too much…

However, the Harvey Duckman Anthologies with which I am deeply associated have been asked to do a Steampunk only anthology to be released at a Teesside steampunk event in November. While steampunk has always been one of the main genre’s associated with the series we have never planned a single genre book before so this is quite exciting… Luckily for the editorial team there is a  resident ‘expert’ on steampunk on the staff. Unfortunately for me I’m the resident ‘expert’, may the bearded skygod of your choice help us all…  

This had led to me having to ask myself the question “Steampunk Fiction, what is it?”, somehow “Whatever you want it to be” doesn’t strike me as an overly helpful answer… Perhaps I need some bullet points…

Steampunk fiction, what is it? A brief guide :

  • Set from the early 19th century up to the early, pre WWI 20th century or in an equivalent society
  • Societies technology should be primarily based on steam power and/or clockwork
  • The hero’s and heroine’s should be Gentlefolk of a cultured middle class or above
  • The use of course language should be restricted, instead use ‘Gosh, Golly, Blast it man, I say…. etc’
  • There should be no discussion of things below the waistline and above the ankle, frankly ankles should be avoided if at all possible.
  • Hero’s should be dashing, heroines where required plucky.
  • Villains should want to tear down the empire. The preservation of which is the primary concern of the hero/ heroine.

There that’s all nicely sorted out then isn’t it, time for tea and cake, anyone for a slice of Battenberg?  

Except, its not. For one thing, one fairly large fly in the ointment in fact, I am for my sins primarily a steampunk writer. As you can plainly see from the picture above four of my novels and a collection of short stories are set in the same steampunk universe…. Two separate trilogies one set 150 years before the other… So do these rules apply? Well…

Hannibal is not a gentleman, he is a guttersnipe with aspirations. If he is dashing it is normally in the opposite direction to danger if he can help it. He uses coarse language all the time, I mean all the time, indeed he tends to pick up on rather a lot of foreign swear words while he is at it. He is more concerned with preserving himself than the empire, indeed he actively works against the interests of the crown much of the time. As for things above the ankle and below the waistline, well if I was to be polite I would say ‘he is a great admirer of the female form’ as its better than saying he is a lecherous swine. His trilogy is set at the back end of the 20th century and as for technology well Hannibal doesn’t really understand how anything works which is a convenient way to avoiding dull explanations of how the nano-clockwork spider in his eye actually works, what powers the airships, and how the engines work on Jules Verne’s submarine.

So our ‘Steampunk fiction, what is it?’ list basically doesn’t apply to my main steampunk characters series. Oh, and he hardly ever mentions cogwheels… Yet I am, I think it fair to say, pretty much as much a steampunk writer as it is possible to be. Most of my novels are steampunk, and I doubt anyone reading them would disagree with that.

And you know what, I am happy with that, just as I am happy with other people’s visons of steampunk being different from mine. My other series ‘A Ballard of Maybes’ ticks a far more of that list but still steps outside those boundaries. If someone what to write a steampunk story that fits in with that list then more power to them, indeed I look forward to reading it. But as far as the Harvey special is concerned and me in general, I want to be surprised and astounded by as many different visions of steampunk as possible.

Steampunk is a broad church, or sunken temple, or mad cult of star spawn worshiping loonies…

It can be airships on Mars, it can be sinister clockwork mice and druids on steamrollers, it can be a hand-job in Calcutta from a psychopath with great legs and razors for fingers, it can be a Polynesian engineer and the search for the fountain of youth with a walking corpse. It can be nothing above the ankle or below the waist with manners, tea and crumpets. It can in fact be anything, as long as it’s splendid and silly and wonderful. Even when its dark and grim…  

So lets fix that guide a little shall we…

Steampunk fiction, what is it? A brief guide version 2:

  • “It’s whatever you want it to be..!”

So there you go, If you are interested in trying your hand at a short story fro this project consider that your brief… The Harvey Duckman’s Splendiferous Steampunk Special is open for submissions from now until probably September.

Harvey Duckman Anthologies in general, I should add, is always open for submissions…

You can find details of how to submit and the submission rules on the Harvey website. Note, occasionally we don’t actually apply rule 2 but it is there for a reason… probably.   


About Mark Hayes

Writer A messy, complicated sort of entity. Quantum Pagan. Occasional weregoth Knows where his spoon is, do you? #author #steampunk
This entry was posted in amreading, amwriting, books, Canadian steampunk, fiction, Hannibal Smyth, indie, indie novels, indie writers, indiewriter, novels, opinion, reads, steampunk, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Steampunk Fiction, what is it?

  1. Pingback: Steampunk Fiction, what is it? – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. Fun article! It is nearly impossible to define, I quite agree.
    I’m interested in submitting for this anthology. Is there a specific deadline for the Nov. release?

    Liked by 1 person

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