Is that a tentacle, or are you just happy to say hello?
When asked about the appeal of steampunk, it’s hard to give a serious answer. We’re talking about a group of ingenious folk who adore squids and octopi and parade around with their underwear on display, possibly wearing birdcages on their heads. I love steampunk and everything about it, but I don’t like overanalyzing the phenomenon or its participants. My head might combust.
Not that steampunk can’t be serious, but it’s enormously difficult to define beyond the standard answer of: it’s alternate history (typically Victorian) plus unusual technology (typically steam), often with themes of rebellion (which is where the punk comes in). To try and narrow it down any more than that wouldn’t be wise.
It’s that difficulty of definition that makes steampunk appealing to me. It is whatever you want it to be, and though it got its start in literature (classic authors include Jules Verne), it’s become an endeavor that spans everything from music to furniture making to fashion to iPhone apps. I maintain steampunk is an aesthetic, not a genre, but people tend to roll their eyes and tell me I’m talking like a professor.
So I can only tell you why steampunk appeals to me and let others speak for themselves. First and foremost, it’s cool. I’ve had a wardrobe of semi-Victorian clothing since I was in university and discovered Folkwear patterns (they’re still around at www.folkwear.com). I also absolutely love the fact that so many in the steampunk community are reviving old craft techniques and making just about everything by hand. In a world of shopping malls and throw-away goods, I value quality, unique items made by a person I can name. Call it a rebellion against mass-market culture if you like, but I’m content thinking of it as nifty. I’m also very much in favor of the revived interest in good manners—let’s hope that one spreads!
But back to the storytelling side of things. I’ve steeped in history and literature pretty much since my parents gave me my first book to chew, so writing historical fiction feels like I’ve finally come home. I also love the fact that most steampunk stories are packed with adventurers, pirates, and mad scientists. I live for edge-of-the-chair stories with derring-do and heroism, and here I have the scope to write that. My books have adventure, magic and romance—and my heroine, Evelina Cooper, is Sherlock Holmes’s niece. Of course there is mystery, too!
If the word “steampunk” didn’t exist, I’d call the Baskerville Affair trilogy Victorian fantasy with an ensemble cast. My books are long, but I have four important character arcs to see through by the end of the series, and I don’t cheat readers out of the full ride. In A Study in Silks, my characters start out in the elegance of London’s Mayfair and end up by the time A Study in Ashes comes along as players in a war of magic and machines that tears the Empire apart. Along the way, they have to face the darker sides of their natures and decide just how much they’re willing to risk for the futures—and the people—they desire.
So what’s the appeal of steampunk books? In many ways, they are the same as any other books. There might be flying machines and automatons, historical settings and tea, but all excellent tales are about good and evil and the complexity of the human heart. If you’ve got that, and a few good chase scenes—romantic or by dirigible—what’s not to like?
(originally posted at Books ‘n Kisses)