Hissing steam, the chugging of polished brass pistons, flying contraptions with butterfly wings, or maybe even the glimmer of otherworldly magic. It's science fiction, with a twist. And it has a name: Steampunk. A strand of movies, games, and books that involves fantastical technology married to recognizable, perhaps clunky, machines straight out of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century.
Steampunk’s origins are intimately intertwined with other major societal developments from the era this genre depicts, most interestingly with those first expressions of science fiction. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas or The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells could be prime examples of how people in the past, chiefly writers, envisioned the gleaming world of the future. These fantastical stories planted a creative seed that would blossom only many decades after, from the 1960s to 1980s, to be exact.
Steampunk: an imagined alternative history
Nowadays, Steampunk is known as one of the various “punks” or subgenres of science fiction, sharing the stage with the original Cyberpunk and other strands such as Atomicpunk, Clockpunk, and even Solarpunk. Steampunk’s “punk” moniker was given, much like a tongue-in-cheek reference, after Cyberpunk exploded into popularity in the 1980s.
But what “is” Steampunk, actually? It's an imagined alternative history where steam engines remain in mainstream usage, with a serious dose of fantastical technology or even a hint of magic sprinkled on top. Writers and creators use the romantic visions of 19th Century Victorian times (or, for instance, the American Wild West) as a jump-off point to fantasize about a retro-influenced future. This can be anything from massive airships propelled by plodding steam engines to mechanical computers using gears and levers instead of electronics.
Dive deep into the world of steam and brass: Movies
What are some of the top examples of Steampunk in present-day media? What should you check out if you want to dive deep into the world of steam and brass? There are countless films, books, comics, and art about Steampunk; the following is just a list of suggestions.
A great place to start is a wallop of film nostalgia with The Time Machine (1960), the classic that introduced us to H.G. Well’s vision of traveling to the far future on celluloid. Apart from introducing - a now iconic - time machine, it also featured the terrifying Morlocks, hair-raising adventure, and renowned time-lapse technique to depict the passing of centuries in a matter of seconds.
A more modern take would be Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Released in 2004, the film was written and directed by the visionary Hayao Miyazaki, based on the 1986 novel about a young girl being bewitched while a war between kingdoms rages in the background. This particular example has a heavy dose of magic. Still, intriguing and the most visually arresting is its richly imagined turn of the 20th century’s society, from warships to devastating flying machines to the actual moving stronghold on legs.
Turning the page to the written word, you wouldn’t be amiss to read The Difference Engine, an alternative history novel by William Gibson (the pioneering father of Cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling. It’s widely considered establishing the Steampunk genre’s foundations in the Victorian world of 1855, with the story seeing the successful introduction of the mechanical computer by Charles Babbage.
Heading over to the comic section, don’t forget to check out The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series created by writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill in 1999, which features a Justice League-esque group of rather unique individuals battling nefarious forces around the turn of the 19th century. A slightly less well-received movie starring Sean Connery - but still fun - found its way into the cinemas not long after.
We saved the best for last: games! If you want to have a real taste of Steampunk while gaming, one of the seminal titles that set the bar (very) high is Final Fantasy VI, released in 1994. This renowned role-playing game, created by Square for the Super Nintendo, propels the player into a magical world resembling the Second Industrial Revolution.
A bit more recent, but equally acclaimed, is Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, with its massive floating city of Colombia, alternative universes, robot-like birds, and many more fantastical inventions.
And of course, the list wouldn’t be complete without Arkane Studios’ Dishonored series, the first seeing the light in 2012. With its dystopian setting of the plague-ridden industrial city of Dunwall, this action-adventure game is a unique take on the Steampunk genre. Check out more details of this story - and more - in Slitherine’s deliciously fulfilling The Geek Recipe interview with Arkane co-founder and game designer Raphael Colantonio.
The Steampunk genre doesn’t stop growing. The upcoming new expansion of Slitherine’s popular 4X strategy game, Master of Magic: Rise of the Soultrapped, is a case in point. A fusion of machinery and magic will revolutionize the wizarding planes of Arcanus and Myrror. A new realm - Techmagic - can be explored for the very first time in this major expansion, bringing new units, new playable Wizards, traits and spells, and new heroes. Bulking machinery and Steampunk-like tech intertwine with the marvels of the arcane, introducing a new race, the Soultrapped. They act as guardians to a formidable new stronghold that, once conquered, can provide a vast new zone filled with precious resources.
Steampunk keeps on inspiring. Who knows what this fantastical retrofuturistic take on science fiction will bring next?
Master of Magic: Rise of the Soultrapped is set to release on August 28th on Steam.
Text: Stephan Meijerhof
Pictures: Pixabay, MyComicsShop