All Steamed Up: The Rise and Rise of Steampunk Fiction

(May 2010)

There’s a new fiction bandwagon in town, and publishers and authors are scrambling aboard. It’s called Steampunk, and while it’s not truly new, it’s arguably the ride of the day and it’s taking a few new twists and turns on its journey.
Ugh, enough with the labored metaphor!
Suffice to say, although I perennially fail to attach myself to any bandwagon, thus missing out on those six-figure advances and depriving my children of a private school education, the word “steampunk” is interesting enough to have caught even my attention in several recent publishing news items.
When I decided to do some research on the subject, much of the material showed up in my email inbox uninvited, making my task ridiculously easy. So here’s Steampunk, from a newbie’s perpective…
First up, what is Steampunk? And should it be spelled with a capital S? (Hey, some people worry about that stuff. I’m one of them).
Steampunk, says Wikipedia, “is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, frequently featuring elements of fantasy, that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s (I did warn you it’s not really new!). The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of ‘the path not taken’ of such technology as dirigibles, analog computers, or digital mechanical computers…these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or with a presumption of functionality.”
Thanks, Wikipedia. (By the way, do you lie awake at night worrying about our increasing dependence on Wikipedia’s unnamed experts? Me, too).
For a women’s fiction/romance perspective, I asked highly articulate author Theresa Meyers, who just sold a Steampunk trilogy to Kensington (more on that later), for her definition of the genre.
“At its heart,” Meyers says, “steampunk is Victorian-era science fiction or fantasy. Think Jules Verne with 50,000 Leagues Under the Sea or H.G. Well’s Time Machine. One of the primary expectations is that the story [should] take place in the Victorian period, but according to those involved in clubs and the steampunk community, it’s the time period, not the locale, that matters. It can take place anywhere on the globe or even in a parallel dimension as long as you remain grounded in Victorian materials – that’s the steam. The punk comes from taking those Victorian sensibilities and social norms and twisting them inside with unexpected roles for characters (like female airship captains) or unusual technological advancements (like death rays and mechanical horses).”
Writers not confident about setting their story in England might instead use the American Wild West, which is proving popular as a steampunk setting, or create their own alternative steampunk world.
“In general, New York is just beginning to grasp the limitless range this burgeoning sub-genre has to offer, but the whole culture of steampunk and the people who love it are growing all the time,” Meyers says. “Steampunk has very few defined limitations, which is part of the reason people enjoy creating their own experience with it at conventions and conferences, from artwork and costuming to music and literature. To get a feel for what steampunk is really like, go to a convention or conference and hang out with the people who are firmly grounded in this fascinating world. You’ll never look at the Victorian era the same again.”
M.J. Scott, whose recent debut sale was a steampunk trilogy, concurs with Meyers’ description. “Steampunk is fantasy, or science fiction, set in worlds where the predominant power is still steam,” says Scott, who adds Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the list of steampunk originators.
“This level of technology – think Victorian England – is generally coupled with magic or made up gadgets or modern gadgets brought into that time and powered through steam or magic. These days, people probably expect more of the gadget type stuff when they think steampunk. My books fall at the less-gadgets, more just steam technology end of the scale.”

Steampunk Plots

So what,exactly, happens in a steampunk book? As in other genres, stories vary widely. But to the casual observer, steampunk books do seem to have rather a lot going on plot-wise.
Theresa Meyers’ three-book steampunk romance series features three paranormal hunting brothers, all named after their father’s guns, in the weird wild west of 1880s America.
“The best way for me to describe the series is what would happen if you took the show Supernatural and mashed it up with the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West,” Meyers says. “They’ve got steampunk technology and a nearly mad British inventor friend, and they’re out there protecting humanity by fighting supernatural things, that turn out to be nothing like they expected.”
M.J. Scott describes her books as “dark fantasy”. The first book, Shadow Kin, is about an assassin sent to kill a human mage. Things go horribly wrong, which changes both the heroine’s life and the City where she lives. “There’s a good dose of romance and a touch of steampunk, but my books aren’t full-fledged steampunk. Books two and three are set in the same world with different main characters though the overall external plot is continuing.”
Publishers’ Marketplace has reported several recent sales of YA steampunk. Suzanne Lazear’s Innocent Darkness is described as “a steampunk fairytale, in which an adventure-seeking sixteen year old who has been incarcerated at an abusive reform school for her delinquent ways is rescued by a mysterious man from the realm of Faerie who reveals she must die in sacrifice in order to save the entire Otherworld civilization.”
Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s The Sundowners Book I: West Of The Moon is “a steampunk Western, in which three teens in 1867 Texas pool their skills to defeat a zombie army.
Lia Habel is another author combining steampunk and zombies. Publisher’s Marketplace describes her Dearly, Departed as “a maximalist, post-apocalyptic, neo-Victorian steampunk zombie novel in which a girl, whose blood is impervious to the ‘Z-virus’, searches for her missing dad, is kidnapped by (good) zombies, falls improbably in love with a rather sweet zombie boy, and sets out to save the world from a zombie plague beyond imagining.” Sounds complicated, but the sale was a “significant deal”, so obviously it’s a good kind of complicated.
Steven Harper’s The Doomsday Vault is the first in a new series of steampunk novels in which two people join an underground police force in Victorian London, They fight zombies, mad scientists, and air pirates in an attempt to save the British Empire from a terrible plague, only to discover that the cure may be worse than the disease.
Another 1800s America-set novel is Devon Monk’s Dead Man’s Moon, which sounds like a battle between machines and magic, with some paranormal creatures thrown in. Philippa Ballantine’s Geist is a “dark fantasy with steampunk overtones filled with soul-stealing ghosts, fatal rune magic and impossible situations.”

Selling Your Steampunk Novel

If you have a steampunk manuscript ready to submit, well done! Because editors are allegedly hanging out to read this stuff. What comes next is a mix of industry gossip and news from Publishers Marketplace that might help you figure out where to send your steampunk story.
If you’re wanting to go the Harlequin route, one of my USA chapters invited Harlequin editor Adam Wilson to a meeting in March, and he specifically mentioned steampunk as something as he’s looking for. Tara Gavin, another Harlequin editor, has also been known to request steampunk manuscripts.
Kensington editor Megan Records reportedly expressed interest in Steampunk at the Romantic Times convention in April, And Theresa Meyers’ sale was to Peter Senftleben at Kensington.
M.J. Scott sold to Ace/Roc, Penguin’s fantasy imprint. Other recent sales reported in Publishers’ Marketplace were to Anne Sowards at Ace/Roc, Chris Schluep at Ballantine, and Danielle Stockley at Berkley. In the young adult arena, Deborah Noyes Wayshak at Candlewick, Brian Farrey at Flux and Margaret Miller at Bloomsbury Children’s have all made recent steampunk acquisitions.
Check out Eos, Orbit and Baen if you’re looking for a specialist SF/fantasy house or imprint.
Some of the literary agents involved in recent deals are Laura Bradford at Bradford Literacy Agency, Lucienne Diver (The Knight Agency), Laurie McLean (Larsen/Pomada), Miriam Kriss (Irene Goodman Agency), Renee Zuckerbrot (Renee Zuckerbrot Agency).

Go Native!

If you want to immerse yourself in the steampunk world, you might want to look the part. Steampunk accessories – timepieces, goggles, parasols, bustiers and steampunk jewelry – can be purchased on sites like Antique stores are a good source of the real thing, too.
And if you want to hang out with fellow steampunkers (did I just invent a new word?), you can hit one of the steampunk conventions. Steamcon II,, to be held in November 2010, is the largest steampunk conference on the west coast. Others include the Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey in mid-May (, the Steampunk World Expo in Dearborn, Michigan, and for Canadian fans, the Victoria Steam Exposition in late May in Victoria,
If you fancy yourself as a steampunk artist, Bookview Café Press is currently running a steampunk photo contest to celebrate the forthcoming release of Shadow Conspiracy II. The winning photo will be used on the cover of SC II which is scheduled for publication in December of this year. Check it out at

So, Is Steampunk For You?

Like any publishing trend, it’s best to jump on board only if the concept resonates deeply with you. Theresa Meyers says of her new sale, “These characters have been spinning around in the back of my brain for decades.”
M.J. Scott advises, “Firstly I think it helps if you are someone who is interested in technology and history, and wants to have some fun with both of those mixed up with science and fantasy. Like any fantasy or paranormal book, world-building is really important. There have to be reasons why your world is the way it is. I also think you still have to write a great story with great characters. Throwing lots of gadgets into a book won’t make it a great book if the characters and story don’t hold reader’s attention.”
Having done my research, I’m going with my initial assumption that, like most bandwagons, steampunk isn’t for me. But it might be for you. Don’t be put off just because you’ve never thought of it before. If your heart goes pitter-pat at the thought of combining gadgets and history and fantasy and romance, then maybe you’re about to have the best-ever steampunk idea.
In which case, go write that story. Now! You might never have a better opportunity to make that sale.

Steampunk TBR

Want to read steampunk? Check out these titles recommended by fans of the genre

  • Clockwork Heart, by Dru Pagliassotti
    Soulless, by Gail Carriger
    Changeless, by Gail Carriger
    Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
    Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
    Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman
    Doctrine of Labyrinth series, by Sarah Monette (“steampunkish elements”)
    The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, by Alan Moore

Paranormal writers Gail Dayton and MelJean Brook also reportedly have steampunk series in the works.