Steampunk or Steaming Pile?

First off, let me preface that this is not going to be an in-depth or well-informed piece about the behemoth that is steampunk. There already exists a tome that does a far better job of that. All this is going to be is one thirtysomething man’s experience and exposure to the sub-genre, and his opinion regarding its proliferation through other media. Are we all clear? Good.


Let us flashback to a simpler, more sepia-toned time known as the mid-90s. I was a wide-eyed lad with a few geeky interests, the predominant of which was anime. At a gathering of like-smelling otaku, I was exposed to a filmmaker’s oeuvre that I hadn’t come across before – director, Hayao Miyazaki. Okay, not entirely true. I did watch (and obsess over) Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, but the rest of his works were a mystery to me.

Laputa: The Castle in the Sky all but changed my life. It was whimsical, thoughtful, epic, funny, and possessed a retro-aesthetic I hadn’t considered creatively. Granted, I’d seen the use of steam-powered devices in other Jules Verne-inspired works, but none of those had the effect that Laputa instilled. I later showed it to my then-snot-nosed little brother, and he was equally floored.

Further proto-Internet digging turned up a whole slew of other steam-inspired wares. There was a veritable sub-genre cooked up around the concept of steamtech and Victorian backgrounds. While Laputa wasn’t strictly within the same vein as these other literary works, it was still the perfect gateway.

In the years hence, the sub-genre has churned, growled, grinded and chugged its way into public prominence. The sci-fi genre is literally glutted with steampunkish stories. But there was something I found lacking in these later additions. The “oh-golly-gee-whiz” whimsy was gone, replaced by a grimy, apocalyptic tone.  At first, I wasn’t quite sure why, but then I observed how the sub-genre splintered into other mediums and came to a Layman understanding.

Allow me to explain.


Alternate histories, retro-future, or pseudo-Victorian fantasy were not new avenues for cinema. What had eluded moviemakers, though, was mainstream success. Steampunk simply wasn’t selling. It was an unwritten rule that if a movie had a dirigible (read: airship) in it, said film was due to fail.

Go ahead, name a successful film with an awesome airship in it. Go on, I dare you. And, no, I’m not just talking about box office success. Critical reception is also key. I’m sure you could name at least one or two, but they’re statistical outliers – damn it. With the exception of animated movies, steampunk hasn’t quite gotten a grip of live-action movie staying power. Part of that might be due to budgetary constraints. Steam is apparently expensive, I…guess.

At the moment, Hollywood (or any other ‘wood, for that matter) is content with including only smatterings of steam in their works. Case in point: Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes. There were clockwork gadgets galore, and both films were moderately successful. However, they weren’t steampunk in the strictest sense. Well, aside from the period setting.

I’m strangely okay with their cautious, if light, touch. Baby steps, Hollywood. Baby steps.


The birth of the steampunk music sub-genre surprised me. Heck, it still surprises me. How a literary genre translated to lyrical works requires further study, and a blog all to itself. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m a total fan of its development.

© Abney Park

I first learned of steampunk bands through accidental exposure to Abney Park – a Seattle-based EBM group with a most interesting sound and stage presence. They fashion themselves as airship pirates, and their music borrows from several different traditions – Mediterranean, Celtic folk, synth-pop and more. However, Abney Park are the exception, not the rule.

While I won’t be rude and name specific examples – for fear of steam-powered reprisal – I will give an analogy. Imagine visiting a home populated by five-year-olds dressed as turn-of-the-century hobos and hookers. They’ve discovered where the pots and pans are kept. In addition to banging kitchenware, they’ve also found some Fisher Price instruments…and began trashing those as well.

That’s my unfair summation of the steampunk music genre…but not as a whole.


It is here where steampunk got its start, and where it seems to be fairing the best. While I’m annoyed at the sheer enormity of steampunk works out there, there are several diamonds in the rough. The most notable example – for me – is the first I ever came across – Gail Carriger‘s The Parasol Protectorate.

She isn’t strictly a steampunk authoress per se, yet she does borrow very heavily from the usual tropes of the sub-genre. At least she has the common decency to weave those elements with some semblance of originality – thusly making them her own. That and her books have something that is sadly lacking in others of her ilk. Whimsy!

I’ll admit that my exposure to steamlit is still in its infancy. There are plenty of other authors/authoresses that should be mentioned in this, here, missive. Some good, some mind-numblingly terrible. For the sake of brevity, though, I’ll say just go read for yourself. Annoying, though the genre prevalence is, there are good works out there.

One thing, though: If you – fair reader – run into a book that features a Brass Jesus and a man falling in love with an ape, run…don’t walk…away. Yes, I’ve read it. No, I won’t speak its name. Just trust me on this.

The Culture

And now to the crux of the issue.

Steampunk – as I mentioned earlier – has emerged as the new “thing” in counterculture. For better or worse, it’s here to stay. I’m still torn on where I stand on the issue. I’ve reflected upon how I feel about it in terms of media, but I have resisted coming to a conclusion about it as a movement.

And, yes, it is a movement. Possibly a bowel movement.

Who’s responsible? Two words: The goths.

This is an oversimplification, but the goth subculture has largely identified itself as quasi-social. Goths like to congregate, but only with other goths. They have stuff they’re into, just like any other group. One of those things “was” vampires. I say “was” because their favorite biters have since been visited by the taint of ‘tween literature. You know what book series I’m talking about – the sparkly kind.

Goths – I suppose – needed something else to latch onto. An aesthetic not too far removed from their former creatures of the night. Luckily, they found solace in a whole new (or old) time period, and they didn’t even have to toss out their pseudo-Victorian wardrobe. Just add goggles!

(A sidenote: Steampunk fashion, keep doing what you’re doing. Seriously. Dayamn.)

© Steampunk Couture

© Steampunk Couture

I suppose that is where the dystopian element I so loathed came from. Once goths embraced The Way of Steam, it was only natural the dark sensibilities came with it – post-apocalyptic drudgery and all. There is hope, though.

Goth culture sometimes intermingles with geek culture. And if there’s one thing the geeks are known for its whimsy. (And, no, I won’t stop italicizing that word.) They, too, have embraced the Victorian vehicle, but have taken it in a different direction – one devoid of dreariness.

I shall give an example – a personal one. I have a half-sister – whom I adore – that is as geek-fueled as I am, if not more. She’s into everything from Harry Potter to Doctor Who, and can even trump me on some of the finer facets of geek culture at large. She fell in love with a musical group called Steam Powered Giraffe. And they are awesome! Whimsy personified. To sum them up: Imagine Dixieland, jazz, and a mime school were put in a steam-powered blender. The result would be Steam Powered Giraffe.

Examples like them give me hope for steampunk’s future – retro or not.

Artwork by Laney Norman

Artwork by Laney Norman

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Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 Musings

10 Comments to Steampunk or Steaming Pile?

  1. Oddly enough I agree that the Steampunk culture seemed to evolve from Goths..I’m not sure why…but it did. I myself was introduced to Steampunk thanks to my LARPing friends who are into all manner of LARP and yes Steampunk is one of their things.

    It must be said that I think Captain Jack Harkness is a little bit Steampunkish. I mean look at what he wears in the 21st Century…and now I’m rambling on…nice!

  2. Courtney on October 24th, 2012
  3. Oh, I totally blame “Twilight” for the “Great Goth Migration” to steampunk. There is no other explanation. Well, I’m sure a more well-versed person can give me specific examples, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

    And I agree with you on Harkness.

  4. Geoffrey F. Norman on October 24th, 2012
  5. Interesting post G! I like goggles and monocles and punk (music) and I really like steam (I even wrote a blog post about steam way back in July of 2009)…. but I’ve never been inspired to actively pursued “steampunk.” I’d probably enjoy some of the lighter stuff that falls into the genre. Case in point, Chap-hop!

  6. Brett on October 24th, 2012
  7. Thanks Brett, and I concur. I’m more prone to a bit of levity in my ‘punk. And that vid was awesome! Banjolele…mind: Blown.

  8. Geoffrey F. Norman on October 24th, 2012
  9. I put the blame on the advent of the Emo crowd first. It is when their shifting first began, once Emo went mainstream and began changing peoples perspective on those who dress in black, dye their hair, and wear bad makeup. Twilight was probably the ” last straw” so to speak.

  10. Aaron on October 24th, 2012
  11. There is a case for that. The advent of emo did coincide with the release of “those books” – albeit a couple of years earlier. So one could say that the emo [bowel] movement was the proto-form, whereas “those books” completed the mangled beast. Final nail in the sparkly coffin, so-to-speak.

  12. Geoffrey F. Norman on October 24th, 2012
  13. So we are dealing with two different phenomenon here – first, we have the dystopian element of steampunk. That is at least as old as your discovery of the form; it’s right there in the “punk” of the title. It traces its roots back to alternate history sci fi loaded with steam technology and strange , dangerous regimes, you can find the aesthetic in films from as far back as the 90’s (City of Lost Children is a good example), and throughout video games from then to now. It’s not new, it’s just not the style you like.

    Second, the goths. Goths have been playing with Victorian fashion, punk, and nerd culture since the late 70’s. The usual joke among goths is that steampunk is just goths who discovered brown; and the truth is that steampunk fashion shares the same roots and draws much inspiration from goth fashion… Steampunk fashion in general looks a lot more like goth fashion than it does actual Victorian or Industrial Age fashion. Abney Park, for that matter, started out in the goth scene. If the scenes mingle, it is because they have a great deal in common.

    Some folks have a different approach than you, and that should be fine – I’m sure there is room for whimsy and dystopia alike.

  14. Devin Jarboe on August 4th, 2015
  15. Hiya, Devin. You are correct. There is room for both whimsy and dystopia alike. I shan’t argue that point. All I’ll say is that this was an opinion peace . . . written three years ago.

    I have since amended aspects of my original conclusion here:

    But I assume you’ve already seen that since you are now JUST discovering this article mere days after that one was posted.

    I will add, though, that – while you are right that dystopian elements within Victorian-inspired alt-history stories have been around since the 70s – the term was used to describe stories in the late-80s directly inspired by H.G. Wells. The king of steam-whimsy. Granted, I haven’t read these late-80s proto-steam stories, but I’ll just go with that conjecture for now.


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