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The Genre Jumble of Steampunk and Why It Works

Steampunk is historical fiction that isn't bound by history.
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I wanted to write a new novel, something that could be enjoyed by men or women, by anyone age twelve and up. I wanted wit and action like Joss Whedon's "Firefly", a heroine with the power to heal others, and a smidgen of romance, too. I pondered the different ingredients I wanted to pull together and came to one conclusion: this book needed to be steampunk.

Steampunk novels use Victorian- or Edwardian-inspired settings, along with a boost of technology and/or magic. The characters' clothes are glorious: women with corsets, bustles, hoop skirts and parasols, and men in tailored suits, rippling trench coats, and jaunty hats. Speech is formal and polite. Air travel is achieved by dirigibles -- airships like the Hindenburg -- or even rockets to the moon. Paranormal elements might include wizards, werewolves, fairies, or even aliens. It crosses borders with murder mysteries and romance and hardcore science fiction and wild west cowboy tales. It's such an adaptable genre that's it's hard to categorize, really -- and this is awesome.

Steampunk is a powerful and flexible trend outside of literature, too. It's a sassy clothing subculture with a huge following worldwide, with frequent meet-ups in local associations and conventions. There are acclaimed video games like BioShock 2, and popular touring bands like Steam Powered Giraffe and Abney Park. Last year, IBM's Social Sentiment Index declared that steampunk's influence would increase in coming years and go mainstream. The stores at the mall already reflect that, and so do bookstore shelves.

I read and write across all genres. I've published stories that are straightforward historical fiction or fantasy, but there's something special about steampunk. As a cook, I think of it like a stew. The elements of other types of literature complement the basic history and atmosphere of the genre. Tweak those spices, and you create something new and delicious. Steampunk is historical fiction that isn't bound by history. It's an interchangeable setting where women defy all social expectations and where adventure romps like "Indiana Jones" are the norm. Quite simply, it's fun.

At heart, steampunk is science fiction. Innovation and science were trademarks of the Victorian age, and it's only right for authors to look at that and think, "What if...?" Other than airships, but you'll also find robot armies, ray guns, time machines and more. The technological twists lead to constant surprises.

The historical element is where the spices in the stew create real variety. Some books, like Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, create a light alternate Victorian London full of paranormal creatures and whimsical romance. Steampunk is very romance-friendly -- the rigid social structure just begs for defiance and some corset-ripping, though the heat level varies widely. Alternately, there's Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy. It's a Young Adult reimagining of World War I where Germany has advanced mechanical technology and England's scientists evolved floating, living whales into airships. Airships are a standby in steampunk, but floating whales? The amazing thing is, it works. Westerfeld took the trope and made it new in a perfectly steampunk way by blending Darwin's theory of evolution with zany science worthy of Dr. Frankenstein.

Steampunk isn't bound to Earth, either. In the case of my own book, The Clockwork Dagger (Harper Voyager, $14.99), I thought, "What happens in a medieval-style fantasy society like "Game of Thrones" if the Industrial Revolution hits?" The magic of epic fantasy can co-exist with evolved technology. I created a new world based on post-World War I Europe, a place devastated by decades of warfare, where science and machines hold higher value than antiquated magic.

That's the thing with steampunk. It's a mood and a level of technology, not simply a specific place and time. Adjust a few herbs in the stew, and presto! New dish. That's why you also find books like Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders by Richard Ellis Preston Jr, which takes steampunk into a distant future, set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Los Angeles.

Steampunk is about social inequity and coal-burning factories and the horrors of colonialism--and ultimately, about hope. Science and innovation might just save the world... or they might destroy it. It's not that different from our world, really, but with far superior fashion. Maybe that's why it's rising in popularity. Some of those old standards of etiquette really should return. As for the clothing, well, steampunk proves how sexy a person can be when covered from toes to wrist to neck. As for the bad elements of the Victorian and Edwardian eras? Steampunk literature gives us a chance to rewrite that. The voiceless can be given a voice, the disadvantaged an advantage. With the economy and the real world as it is, I want to see the little guy succeed; likewise, I want to immerse myself in the sort of story where the pauper might indeed be a princess, but defies that life to captain an airship instead.

In just the right doses, different genres bring something new to the dynamic. In The Clockwork Dagger, I borrowed from books I've loved to create something fresh and new; that's how genres evolve, and that's what keeps it interesting for readers and writers. The story starts out as essentially a murder mystery, one that draws from Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. There's magic from epic fantasy. I researched World War I and the American Civil War for real world historical and medical details. There's the Young Adult element of a woman fresh from an academy, setting out on her own. A sprinkle of this genre, a dash of that. It's fun to read, and it's an absolute blast to write.

One thing's for sure. Whatever taste you crave, you'll probably find a steampunk novel to suit your mood.