Steampunk: Where Historical Meets the Fantastic

By Catherine Stein

What is Steampunk?

Perhaps the most common question I get when I tell people I write steampunk romance is, “What is steampunk?” I usually give this brief answer: stories, art, etc. that combine a Victorian-era aesthetic with scientifically impossible or futuristic technologies.

The term steampunk was coined by science fiction author K. W. Jeter to describe his 1987 book Infernal Devices and similar works by himself and other science-fiction authors. Since then, steampunk has grown and expanded to include a wide variety of books, movies, art, dress, and music that employ similar retro-futuristic styles and influences.

The genre is heavily influenced by 19th century speculative fiction, such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, where visions of the future imagined technologies and discoveries based on the science of the time. In modern steampunk, steam engines, clockwork, and alchemical potions are used to replicate or mimic current technology or create tech beyond the realm of our own science. Airships, steam-powered cars, self-propelled automata, and computing devices abound.

The look of steampunk is also inspired by 19th and early 20th century fashions. Women dress in bustle skirts and corsets. Men favor top hats and cravats. 19th century fashions from Japan, China, and the American West also frequently appear. Accessories and decor might draw from Victorian fads, such as those for ancient Egyptian artifacts, orchids, or ferns. Add in gears, goggles, and mechanical contraptions, and you have a full steampunk costume.

Despite being a speculative genre, steampunk is often deeply rooted in real history. Many authors explore underrepresented elements of history, including issues of race, class, and gender. Women frequently run around in trousers or hold professions. Characters of many cultures and races play main or important roles. The ramifications of colonialism are discussed. Real historical places, people, and events combine with science-fiction and fantasy elements to create worlds that are both magical and grounded in reality.

Steampunk Romance and its Many Varieties

One of the fun things about steampunk is how hugely varied the genre is. You can play with alternative histories, magic, science, and more to create vastly different worlds, settings, and tones. I’ve chosen a handful of different examples, but I’m always finding more. Whether you like funny, angsty, modern, or vintage, there is probably a steampunk book to fit your sensibilities.

Alternative History: The Iron Seas by Meljean Brook

This world imagines a different history on an epic scale, with complex political elements, intricate technologies, and settings that span the globe. Brook’s tales fully immerse you in her dark, gritty world. Angst is high, so check reviews for content warnings.

Dark Paranormal: London Steampunk by Bec McMaster

If you like vampires and shifters and dark, spooky atmospheres, this series might be for you. McMaster combines a unique take on vampires with steampunk technologies and compelling characters.

Light/Funny Paranormal: The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger

Carriger describes her books as “comedy of manners,” full of wise-cracking, tea-quaffing, unique, and quirky characters. Also combining vampires and shifters with steampunk tech, these books are fast and fun. They are marketed in the fantasy genre, so read a whole series for an HEA or look for the stand-alone romances. Great LGBTQ+ rep.

Dieselpunk: Shadows of Asphodel by Karen Kincy 

Dieselpunk is a slightly more modern variation on steampunk that moves into the early 20th century and brings in later technologies such as the internal combustion engine. Set in 1913, this series combines diesel technologies with necromancy and a sword-wielding, mercenary heroine.

Gaslamp Fantasy: Potions and Passions by Catherine Stein

Gaslamp Fantasy is the magical side of steampunk. In my Potions and Passions world, magic potions fuel technology the way steam engines and clockwork do in more sci-fi inspired steampunk. This series is another lighter/funnier steampunk world with lots of action/adventure.

Non-London/Europe settings:

Much of steampunk is set in Europe, especially London, so here are a few that break that mold.

Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin – #ownvoices steampunk set in China
Auckland Steampunk by Barbara Russell – set in New Zealand with paranormal and modern sensibilities
Eden’s Voice by Catherine Stein – set in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan with mechanical creatures and sports

For a longer list of steampunk romance, you can check out this Goodreads list below. I hope you’ll give the genre a try and enjoy the melding of history, science, and fantasy that is steampunk.

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