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Steampunk: An Introduction

"Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we come up with a fitting collective term... Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like 'steampunks,' perhaps..." ~ K. W. Jeter, 1987

Goggles, top hats, steam valves, gears, lace parasols, time machines, underwater cities, and tea parties aboard giant airships - these are only a handful of images that may come to mind when thinking of the genre of "steampunk." While still a new genre to many, the history of steampunk actually extends back through the Victorian era (c. 1820-1914). As the mission of the Plainsman Museum includes part of the Victorian era, we thought it would be fun to take a "flight-of-history-inspired-fantasy" and explore this increasingly popular sub-genre of historical science fiction. So fasten your seat belts, don those goggles, and join us on another special "journey through yesterday" as we look into the weird and whimsical world of steampunk!

The Definition of "Steampunk"
In its simplest form, "steampunk" is Victorian Era science fiction - using technologies, socio-political conditions, aesthetics and philosophies of the steam-powered era as inspiration to tell a fantastical story.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "steampunk" is "science fiction dealing with 19th-century [1800's] societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology." Thus, the "steam-" in "steampunk" refers to the steam-powered technology that heavily influenced the Victorian era, and the "-punk" refers to the unconventional edge that the sci-fi genre brings into the setting. In its simplest form, "steampunk" is Victorian era science fiction - using technologies, socio-political conditions, aesthetics and philosophies of the steam-powered era as inspiration to tell a fantastical story.

However, limiting the genre to this definition is tricky, as it has evolved over the years to include additional elements from other genres (ex. biopunk - science fiction focusing on biotechnology), aesthetics (such as the Art Deco movement of the 1920's and 30's) and time periods (especially when time travel is involved). While classic steampunk almost exclusively drew inspiration from Victorian England and the United States, the genre has expanded in recent decades to include cultural aspects from other regions outside of the Anglo-sphere (ex. Japan, where steampunk has gained notable interest). While steampunk has a general core time period and aesthetic that it draws from, the genre is also flexible, and may accommodate various modern sensibilities and fantasy tropes in its storytelling and aesthetics.

Everything from romance to espionage, from vampires to time-lost wizards, from gadget-wielding cowboys to gravity-defying sky pirates - many different tropes have been able to find a niche underneath the steampunk umbrella (or parasol, if we're feeling fancy). While there is still debate on what elements may or may not fit into the steampunk purview (ex. cyberpunk - a science fiction genre that focuses on computer technology from the 1980's onward), there is no denying that steampunk is a genre meant to evoke a nostalgic sense of "a world that never was" - a time both familiar and unfamiliar, vintage and futuristic, industrial and elegant, historical yet imaginative.

The Beginnings of Steampunk
While using a backdrop familiar to their age, [the writers of steampunk] also brought various fantastical ideas into their storytelling. Some of these works looked upon the advancement of technology with hope and optimism, while others became cautionary tales about the dangers of abusing scientific methods. Some evoked feelings of adventure, while others evoked feelings of horror.

While the term "steampunk" was first coined in the 1980's by author K. W. Jeter, the genre of steampunk goes as far back as the Victorian era itself. Many would argue that steampunk (and even the science fiction genre as a whole) began with one work in particular - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818. With the novel's dive into questions regarding scientific experimentation and human life, the book set a precedent for countless other sci-fi stories for generations to come.

'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' by Jules Verne, first published 1870

Other Victorian era works that helped begin the steampunk genre were:

- Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) by Jules Verne

- Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll

- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson

- The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897) and War of the Worlds (1898) by H. G. Wells

- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker

- The writings of Edgar Allen Poe (first published from 1832-1849)

These classic works explored the world of their time in imaginative ways. While using a backdrop familiar to their age, they also brought various fantastical ideas into their storytelling. Some of these works looked upon the advancement of technology with hope and optimism, while others became cautionary tales about the dangers of abusing scientific methods. Some evoked feelings of adventure, while others evoked feelings of horror. Some stayed strictly in the sci-fi realm, while others brought in elements of fantasy and the supernatural. Whatever the case, these and similar pieces of literature formed the basis from which steampunk would continue to develop into the 20th (1900's) and 21st (2000's) centuries.

The Evolution of Steampunk

While the foundations for steampunk may reside back in the Victorian era, this hasn't stopped the genre from continuing to evolve into the 20th and 21st centuries. Ever since 1818, it's been "full steam ahead" for the steampunk train!


Of course, one of the ways that steampunk has continued to evolve is where it all began - in literature. Steampunk stories continued to be written throughout the 20th century, and despite our leisure culture in the 21st century being dominated by screens, books still remain popular to this day (with many being read on screens, or listened to via audiobook).

'The Difference Engine' by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, 1990

Some notable post-1910's works that have included steampunk elements are:

- The Space Trilogy (a.k.a. The Ransom Trilogy) (1938-1945) by C. S. Lewis

- Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987) by K. W. Jeter

- The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers

- The Digging Leviathan (1984), Homunculus (1986) and Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992) by James P. Blaylock

- The Difference Engine (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

- The His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000) by Phillip Pullman

- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series (1999-2019) by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

- Mortal Engines (2001) by Philip Reeve

- Boneshaker (2009) by Cherie Priest

- The Leviathan trilogy (2009-2011) by Scott Westerfeld

- The Parasol Protectorate series (2009-2012) by Gail Carriger

Film & TV

As film and TV became bigger and bigger storytelling mediums in the 20th and 21st centuries, steampunk also entered the visual entertainment scene - on the silver screen, on home TV sets, and eventually onto present-day streaming services.

Some notable works of steampunk film and TV include:

'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' United Artists,1968

- Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (Georges Méliès, 1902)

- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Walt Disney Pictures, 1954)

- The Wild Wild West series (CBS, 1965-1969), plus subsequent film adaptations

- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (United Artists, 1968)

- Back to the Future Part III (Universal Pictures, 1990)

- The City of Lost Children (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1995)

- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Walt Disney Pictures, 2001)

- Van Helsing (Universal Pictures, 2004)

- Japanese anime (animated films and TV shows made in Japan)

* Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Studio Ghibli, 1984)

* Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli, 1986)

* Howl's Moving Castle (Studio Ghibli, 2004)

* Steamboy (Sunrise Studio / Bandai Namco Filmworks, Inc., 2004)

* Fullmetal Alchemist (Bones Inc., 2003-2010)

* Princess Principal (Studio 3Hz, 2017-present)

* Violet Evergarden (Kyoto Animation, 2018-2020)

'Castle in the Sky,' Studio Ghibli, 1986

Video Games

Official artwork for 'BioShock Infinite' by 2K Games / Irrational Games

The steampunk genre has also made an impression on the gaming scene, with video game developers taking inspiration from steampunk tropes and integrating them into the storytelling and gameplay of their creations. From cute and colorful, to dark and gritty, steampunk in gaming has quite the range in tone indeed.

Some notable video games that include steampunk elements are:

- The Final Fantasy series (Square Enix, 1987-present)

- Skies of Arcadia (Sega, 2000)

- The BioShock series (Irrational Games / 2K Games, 2007-2013), especially BioShock Infinite (2013)

- The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, 2009)

- Machinarium (Amanita Design, 2009)

- The Dishonored series (Bethesda Softworks, 2012-2017)

- Assassin's Creed Syndicate (Ubisoft, 2015)

- The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures (Capcom, 2015)

Various other casual and independent gaming apps have also drawn inspiration from steampunk into their storytelling, gameplay and aesthetics. Modding (i.e. the process of making modifications to an already existing work) is also a very popular hobby with gamers, and many have created steampunk mods for titles of various genres; rather in-keeping with the crossover and inter-dimensional spirit of the steampunk genre.

Steampunk Aesthetics - Fashion, Art, Performance & Music

While steampunk may have its foundations in literature, the aesthetics of it may be the most wide-reaching aspect of the genre.

The aesthetics of steampunk are generally a combination of industrial and elegant, with lots of ornamentation, mechanics, patterns and materials that were popular during the Second Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries. While steampunk may have its foundations in literature, the aesthetics of it may be the most wide-reaching aspect of the genre. Even if someone has never read The Difference Engine or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, they may still find the aesthetics of steampunk to be accessible to them through fashion, art, design, performance and music. Those who create steampunk works are known as "makers."


In addition to the goggles, top hats, corsets, frilly skirts and waistcoats that have become all but synonymous with the genre, steampunk fashion has run the gambit from historical Victorian attire, to mechanical-clad adventurers, to clockwork goth ensembles. Whether simple or over-the-top, there is a broad range for what makes a prudent steampunk outfit. If you just want to wear a traditional Victorian dress and blouse with a cameo pin, go for it! Want to hike up those skirts with a couple leather straps so you can leap across the rooftops of London with ease as you spread the wings on your mechanical jet pack? No scandal here! Want to stick a working music box into your top hat just for fun? Do it! How about making a clockwork gauntlet that holds your smartwatch to keep track of your steps throughout the day? Genius!

Whether strictly historical, or adding some fantastical whimsy to modern accessories, there's a lot of room for creativity in steampunk fashion! Whether you're designing your next costume for a pop culture convention, gearing up to go to a Renaissance Faire, or just adding a classic waistcoat and pocket watch to your Sunday best, there are a myriad of occasions for which steampunk may be integrated into your wardrobe.

Art & Design

In addition to fashion, there are also a lot of gadgets and artwork out there that have the steampunk aesthetic. From entire steampunk cafés to clockwork computer cases, from indie animations to kinetic sculptures, from photography to giant marionettes - SO much artwork in just about every medium has been inspired by steampunk!

For a good resource on steampunk art & design, visit the "Steampunk Tendencies" online art archive by clicking the link below.

Music & Performance

From books, to film, to art galleries, to music albums and even onto the stage! Whether music and performance groups base all of their pieces around the steampunk genre (ex. Abney Park and Steam Powered Giraffe), or they venture into it for a hit single (ex. "Roundtable Rival" by Lindsey Stirling and "The Ballad of Mona Lisa" by Panic! At The Disco), steampunk has also made its presence known on the music and live entertainment scenes.

In-keeping with the spirit of steampunk being an integrative genre, steampunk music may include elements from a wide range of music genres. From ragtime, to jazz, to rock, to county and western - there's a lot of room for creativity in making steampunk music. When it comes to live entertainment, steampunk entertainers have run the gambit from stage play thespians, to role-players at events, to storytellers and beyond. Some have even expanded into being entertainers on platforms like YouTube, or creating podcasts to tell their stories to a wider online audience.

Some notable steampunk musicians, music groups and entertainers have included:

- Abney Park

- The Cog is Dead

- Steam Powered Giraffe

- Professor Elemental

- The League of S.T.E.A.M.

The League of S.T.E.A.M.


Now, as the time machine pulls back into the station, we hope you all enjoyed this fun little detour into the world of steampunk! We also hope this has inspired you to take a historical journey of your own, and get a glimpse into the world of the past that inspired such fantastical works. If you wish to view the Victorian era history we have at the Plainsman Museum, be sure to visit us on location at - 210 16th Street, Aurora, NE 68818.

Cheers! And we hope you feel inspired to take your own "journey through yesterday" - today and everyday!


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