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Basic Information

Steampunk is a fictional genre, taking its theme from cyberpunk but its setting from the late C19. The steam aspect of the setting draws on high Victorian adventure and pulp - Rider-Haggard style travels in darkest Africa, Conan-Doyle style adventures in the metropoli of the Old World or even cowboy stories from the frontiers of the new - and stirs in the early sci-fi of Wells and Verne. Expect heroic daring-do in airships, steam powered automata and all manner of excitement, including such phlebotinums as liftwood and cavorite popping up to work around awkward physics and thus ensure that your actual frontier might be on Mars or Venus.

This is also the era in which chemistry starts to take off, but is still loosely organised enough that alchemy might have a foothold amongst it - allowing things like Dr Jekyll's potion of transformation. Likewise with medicine - without rigorous scientific understanding there might well be space for magic left there as well, with alchemical miracle drugs and mysteriously effective grafts and surgeries (as per Wells' Dr Moreau). Even the automata may turn out to be subtle forms of golem.

And then there's the punk bit … because it wouldn't be a punk genre without subversion. This is where the grittier aspects of the industrial revolution come in - the rise of jingoistic nationalism, poverty and inequality and a society based on the labour of large numbers of people on starvation wages with little in the way of civil rights. Not only that, but the less praiseworthy aspects of the colonial era can be showcased … those motor-gun armed automata are almost certainly to be found adding to the great piles of natives slaughtered in the name of civilising the primitive parts of the world. Modern sensibilities can also be played upon with values dissonance around issues like gender equality and the drugs trade … this being the era of the opium wars and the unfettered consumption of what are today tightly controlled substances.

In precessionary terms, steampunk falls between clockpunk and either dieselpunk or rocketpunk as it can very easily be extended into 1940s equivalent areas. Real world era should be about 1850 to 1940 but can easily be extended in alternate universes.


  • Try China Miellville's Bas-Lag books - starting with Perdido Street Station. Despite the occasional rancid whiff of the author's politics, the books manage to present a very dystopic urban fantasy (with a generous helping of fantasy) at a roughly steam tech level.
  • For a less "punk" and more two-fisted approach, the Foglios' graphic novel series Girl Genius is excellent - high adventure with the horror kept very much at the fridge level.
  • As noted, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells deserve their honours, even given that it was actually sci-fi when they wrote it…
    • To which Edgar Rice-Burroughs (and similar authors) could well be added.

See Also

1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Steampunk can be run perfectly well without the "punk" aspects if required.
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