“Steampunk, what is that?”
When our first book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, Phoenix Rising, came out in 2011, my co-writer and husband Tee Morris and I had to answer that question quite often. These days it seems to be coming into the general public’s awareness more and more. Although we still don’t mind answering that question.
“It is a genre…and yet also seems to defy genre.”
This sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy has actually been lurking in the shadows for over two decades, but in the last few years seems to have flowed over into the bookshelves of romance, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. It is a genre…and yet also seems to defy genre.
Steampunk, if you wish it to be, can be a commentary of the real Victorian Era, certainly, or a reflection of today’s modern problems told via 19th Century allegory. But the “punk” is also a commentary in itself. A deeper look into the punk culture is not all about going against convention and “polite” society, but about accomplishing things that are deemed impossible by the standards imposed around us. Personally I think this going against the grain is one of the delights of writing steampunk.
So being punk also embraces the “do-it-yourself” mentality—achieving what should not be achieved because “you didn’t study music” or “you aren’t a physicist.” Steampunk gets its “punk” not in its dystopian view of the world or even in its gritty edge, but from going against convention that, through creativity and declaration of one’s individuality be it through style, gadgets, or attitude, sets one apart.
In our own work, the “punk” is embodied in Eliza D. Braun, an agent from New Zealand. Coming from the farthest reaches of the Empire where women have the right to vote and “natives” co-exist with the “savages,” Eliza goes against the standard norms at the home office in London, England, liberally applying ordinance in place of protocol.
In light of this, she is paired up with Wellington Thornhill Books, Esquire, an archivist more content with the scent of his Earl Grey than with the smell of gunpowder. She is everything he is not, and vice versa; and it is their chemistry and unorthodox approach to peculiar occurrences that make them unique within a society based on conformity. And while Wellington might not wish to admit it, together they become a pair of punks set on righting wrongs with cases that the Ministry have deemed as unsolvable.
The steam part of steampunk equation is steam power. During the 19th century steam power was all the rage, and a symbol of the arrival of the industrial revolution.
So in steampunk you will find all sorts of gadgets run on steam power. Some you would recognize from our Victorian era, like trains, tractors, and even cars, while others are pure imagination. Our Ministry has an R&D department who are always coming up with fun and explosive gadgets for our steam-powered secret agents.
So with the steam and the punk aspect covered, where does it fit as a genre?
“Steampunk doesn’t care if you are in this world or another—Victorians imagined traveling to the Moon and to Mars after all.”
The answer is…everywhere. Above all, steampunk is flexible.
If you want to include vampires and werewolves, then you can. The gothic nature of the Victorian Era is quite accommodating in that respect.
If you want to set your novel in another world, but with steam power, then you can do that too. Steampunk doesn’t care if you are in this world or another—Victorians imagined traveling to the Moon and to Mars after all.
If you want to have something historically based, but with a twist, then you like your steampunk as alternative history, and that’s perfectly fine.
It is this flexibility that allows steampunk books be shelved in romance, urban fantasy, horror and science fiction. In the Goodreads Reader Choice Awards, The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences hit the top 10 in science fiction in 2011, and I’m totally delighted with that.
Some might think that writing steampunk is hard when it is such a bendy, twisty genre, but I find it completely wonderful to write. When working on the Ministry with Tee, I enjoy plucking pieces from history and blending them together with expressions of our own imagination. We can even spice it up with a dash of magic or the supernatural if we feel like it.
To my mind steampunk is a blanket, a feeling, an aesthetic, and a way to look at history. It may sometimes be hard to pin down, but like love, you know when you see it.