Steam because these stories take place the age of steam-powered machines and industrialization. Most often this is strictly defined as the rein of Queen Victoria on Earth. It can and usually is an alternate history Earth, but some stories take place on fictional worlds, as in the case of Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone or Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge novels. Some purists would call the latter “gaslamp fantasy” because they don’t meet the criteria of taking place in some variation of Earth. But there’s the rub. Steampunk is an evolving genre, and most of us agree to disagree on many particulars when the story is entertaining.
Although a steampunk story may or may not include magic, a point of divergence from real-world history, monsters or other such fictional constructs, in order to truly fit the genre it should employ a few steam-powered apparatus to turn the pages. In classic science-fiction style, many steampunk plots are technology-driven (such as Japan’s 2004 animated film, Steamboy) while other stories are character-driven (said characters drive steam-powered machines!)
Punk because the protagonist is usually an anti-hero under-dog that goes up against a corrupt system, society, leader or non-human entity. Steampunk settings are typically in the big, coal-spewing cities of the Victorian era, though not always. These places gave us the assembly line and wonders of technological progress, as well as workers’ strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. So that dichotomy is rich ground for conflict, what every story needs.
While much period literature tended to portray idealized visions of Victorian society (think Cummins’s The Lamplighter), today’s steampunk writers often focus their polarized monocles on the social inequalities that early industrialization brought to people across the globe, not just in Victorian London. A good example is Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, which imagines an alternate-history Seattle, Washington where poverty and class struggles are only one problem her protagonists must face (zombies top the list).
Beyond the Page
Prada’s Steampunk-inspired 2012 fall line.
What started as an obscure literary genre has become an art and culture movement. One can hardly pass through a craft fair nowadays without spotting that “industrial chic” style that many call steampunk (those of the “if you stick a gear on it” school of thought. I can hardly cast stones as I have a cigar-box full of fake gears myself). This is all an outgrowth of the work of a talented “steampunk maker” culture of artisans, craftsmen and cosplayers dedicated to bringing the aesthetic to life. Some worry that it will become too mainstream and lose that mystique. And when Prada finds inspiration from what had once been a hand-made only aesthetic for their Fall 2012 line, well…
Check out my links page for more, or my every growing list of recommended steampunk literature.