SteamU; The Steampunk University Lecture Series Orientation


Dear Students,

Welcome to SteamU; The Steampunk University Lecture Series Orientation

What is steampunk? How do we define the movement? Is it a literary movement? As such, is it fantasy, science fiction, Gothic, or historical fiction? Is steampunk a science? Is it an artistic movement or simply aesthetic? Is it necessary to define steampunk?
Over the coming months, this series will feature lectures by steampunk writers, artists, tinkers, and thinkers from every aspect of the steampunk movement. While we consider the nature of steampunk, our goal is not necessarily to develop a definition. Instead, by examining the works of all of the fabulous people active in the steampunk community, we will begin to glean meaning. 
Every Friday this blog will feature a SteamU lecture. Steampunk experts will provide readers with fascinating lectures, interviews, profiles, and features. Writers such as Megan Curd and Helena Harker, artists like Aimee Smith, steampunk organizations like the Indian River Lagoon Steampunk Consortium, and many other fabulous writers, artists, thinkers, and steampunk enthusiasts will put on the professorial robes of SteamU and share their steampunk philosophies and creations.
As we consider the nature of the steampunk movement, perhaps we should not be asking "what is steampunk?" Maybe we should really be asking "why is steampunk?" Steampunk is a movement that continues to gain international interest. Why?

 Why a Steampunk Revolution?

Why is the steampunk aesthetic generating such wide appeal? What is it about gaslamp environments, rule-defying heroines, ruthless air pirates, tea-drinking submarine captains, adventures to exotic locations, bustles, and goggles (there must always be goggles, they are like the perfunctory sword in sword and sorcery) that makes steampunk so darned popular?

I believe the why can be discovered by examining four themes prevalent in steampunk. Of course, there are other themes we can consider, but let's start here:

  • Steampunk recaptures mystery and the spirit of adventure. Before ancient alien theories, the great pyramids held real mystery. Steampunk allows us to escape into an adventure Phileas Fogg style with the gusto of Indian Jones by transporting us to exotic locations that are now commercialized, inaccessible, or commonplace. Can you imagine the excitement of exploring the pyramids for the first time? Steampunk takes us back to a period when we were first rediscovering our ancient world. The mysteries of our past were still that: mysterious. Now we flop down on the TV and watch a National Geographic special on mummies because there is nothing better on TV. Steampunk puts the allure of discovery and adventure back into a world where most mysteries have been tapped-out.

  • Steampunk promotes beauty and uniqueness. There is something beautiful about steampunk. From the clothing to the graceful airships, steampunk envisions a world that is beautiful. In terms of clothing, steampunk attire ranges from silk gowns with bustles to short-shorts with bodices, from top hats and canes to mad-scientist lab coats and goggles. The material used to make steampunk clothing, silk, lace, and leather, are textiles that we don't regularly employ (save our sneakers) in our everyday lives. Much of what we wear is mass-produced. We have no idea where our jeans and t-shirts come from or under what conditions they were made. Steampunk clothing is often made by the wearer themselves. The use of rich textiles over mass-produced polyester appeals to our tactile and visual senses. 

  • Steampunk environments embrace fog over smog. We are sick of our environment, and our environment is making us sick. Why do we envision worlds powered by something other than fossil fuels? Regret. Steampunk allows us to envision worlds where we do not make poor choices that will cause permanent damage to our environment. In the case of dystopian greenpunk, we often see the return to the green world after the collapse of our fossil-fueled environment. Steampunk allows us to acknowledge wrong turns and encourages us to imagine a historical "do over."

  • Steampunk is smart and brazen. Steampunk encourages us to be our better selves. It encourages the Lovelaces and Babbages of the world to carry on with genius ideas ahead of their time. It encourages Victorian (or Georgian, or Edwardian, or American Western) heroines to slip on a pair of trousers and defy every norm of the era--because those norms were silly. And so doing, it makes us question our own societal values. Steampunk encourages readers (and writers, tinkers, thinkers, etc.) to consider what might have worked better. What if we had designed x with y instead of z? Steampunk makes us smarter, and the "punk" of steampunk encourages us to question historical norms in light of modern values.

These are some of the main values promoted by steampunk: mystery, adventure, beauty, uniqueness, environmentalism, intellectualism, and moxie. It's no wonder steampunk is increasingly popular. It's not all goggles and gadgets. As anyone in the steampunk movement can tell you, there is a reason behind all those cogs. Steampunk says something important about how we feel about our world. Maybe re-envisioning the past or creating a new vision of the future sheds light on today's social problems. All art teaches us about life. What does steampunk teach you?

For homework:

Students, don't forget your homework!

Before we meet again for class next Friday, please be sure to acquire one Steampunk classic read.

Here are some links for a freebie:

The Time Machine by HG Wells

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

And a Gothic classic, The Vampyre by John Polidori

Class Dismissed!



  1. I have to disagree with you on something, Melanie - could you imagine a world where steampunk technology had never been replaced with the internal combustion engine? Every motor, whether on the road, on rails, in the air, on or beneath the sea, all powered by coal.

    As dirty as the internal combustion engine is, coal-burning on every street would be many, many times worse. The air pollution of the Victorian-era was terrible, London Pea-soupers could kill ( ) and the Peppered Moth went from being white to black, the better to blend in with the soot-encrusted trees and walls of Manchester ( ).

    Most of my steampunk is written in a dystopian setting - as most of the world was in fact living in a dystopia. The poor of the 19th century were living in terrible conditions, whether in New York or London or any large city. Slumlords and consumption, children working 12 hour days in factories…there's a reason we talk of 'Dickensian' poverty.

    Maybe I’ll have to write a Steampunk U post about it…

  2. I agree with your disagreement, Chris! (BTW, Chris is one of the amazing writers who will be featured in the series quite soon!). I was in a greenpunk frame of mine when I considered the issue of environment, but dieselpunk and a focus on coal would certainly create unfriendly environmental conditions. Great point.

    I like that you expressed a focus on the darker side of the era. In fact, my own work features a protagonist that might have been dubbed a "gutter snipe." Dickens is a great reference. As you rightly suggest, we do need to recall that the living environment of the period was very difficult for most. There is a reason swans didn't glide down the Thames in flocks anymore. Perhaps our revisiting and re-imagining of this period has something to reveal about these same social ills we see in our contemporary world. It is important and relevant to consider the lower classes and their living conditions when we revisit Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian environments.

    There is a moving BBC series on the children in particular. It can be found here:

    I love that you talked about it being a dystopia. When you read a definition of the term, it makes for an intriguing point. Is it your sense that the industrial revolution created the dystopian environment? In your point of view, did we ever recover?

    This is what I love about steampunk . . . we run the gambit from elfpunk green environments to darker, dieselpunk and coal environments, from tea rooms to factories filled with 8-year old Parrish "apprentices." And no matter where something falls on the spectrum, it all, ultimately, reflects back on us today.

    For sure, please write a SteamU post on it, Chris! One should never forget the dark side of the force.

    Thanks for the comment!