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Subgenre Bingo – Steampunk

For a lot of people, steampunk is less a speculative fiction variant and more a fashion and decorating aesthetic. That’s okay (far be it for me to say it isn’t) but the roots of the aesthetic are pretty much in literature. Specifically, Victorian era science fiction. Why am I naming it a subgenre of fantasy then? Because there is no such thing as aether particles and besides, there is nothing saying that science fiction can’t have some small element of fantasy in it.

As usual, trying to define subgenres of any stripe is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall: where you decide to put the nails might vary. Although I’ve been told by someone with experience in such matters that one can duct tape Jell-O to a wall.

So onwards and slightly to the left…

“Where do we land the dirigible?”

1. Is it set in the Victorian Era?
2. Is it set in England or the US of A?
3. Is the setting in some state of an industrial revolution?

When people start attempting to define steampunk, these are generally the first few things that will get mentioned. Certainly these are the things that anchor the aesthetic for a lot of people. In books, as long as there is some semblance of technology being more advanced that what the average history book says, one could argue it as steampunk. There are a lot of things that change socially once one starts introducing mass produced items when people are used to craftsman produced items.

As for being stuck in some version of England, when hasn’t fantasy had a streak of eurocentrism? Although the United States does appear as a setting for these alternate histories, many will still be stuck in Europe and England in particular. Possibly because the railway system there was much more expansive early on (and still is for the most part).

This might also be due to how these were the technologically booming areas of the world at the time. Or that the colonialism and imperialism occurring everywhere else sucked. A lot. Although since steampunk borrows many cues from alternate history and what the steam engines are doing, there really isn’t any reason why the timeline can’t get tweaked a little more, like the Chinese mastering flying technology way earlier than anyone else or significant portions of the Alexandria library escaping destruction and ending up in parts of Africa. But that might be hard.

Tick Tick Tick Tick

4. Are there steam engines and/or clockworks?
5. Are some of Tesla’s more improbable devices reality in the setting?
6. Is there a mad scientist?
7. Are there good scientists or engineers?
8. Is a thoroughly debunked scientific theory reality in the story’s setting?
9. Does steam take the place of magic?

Hopefully most people can agree that steampunk has vintage technology doing very improbable things. Whether one decides that the technology in question is steam engines or electricity or aetheric perpetual motion generators is really besides the point. The technology is there in the story and it has an effect on the culture it resides in.

Engineers and scientists would be gaining prestige among the higher ranks of society in such an environment. A mad scientist can be either useful or dangerous, depending on their goals. Certainly Nikola Tesla had something of an eccentric streak (to put it mildly) which is one of the reasons his really neat machines pop up with some measure of frequency.

To branch off of that, science, whether nutty or mundane, can be used well or poorly. The things that pseudo-sciences have been used to justify run the gamut from comforting those whose children died young to perpetuating prejudices.

That in many such cases whatever is powering the technology functions as magic (even though it is never mentioned as such) is not worth dwelling on. Also it gives everyone and their pet octopus an excuse to wear goggles on their top hat, aviator cap or pith helmet.

Social Graces

10. Are most of the characters of the upper classes?
11. Is there a class conflict amongst the characters that is never really addressed?

Time period based fiction tends to gloss over the ugly parts of that time period. Rampant classism, repression of women, racism…The list goes on, but the point is that when one is presented with the choice of the person giving the orders or the person shoveling coal into the furnace, one tends to get picked over the other. I suppose it says something about how people overall avoid upsetting social systems and prefer instead to improve their position within it.

That and the clothes for the aristocracy look more awesome and take more craftsmanship. Although, my miserly ways tell me that every other class is cheaper to pull off. In fact, most other locales other than urban Victorian era places would be easier and cheaper to pull off.

Odd Gears Out

12. Are there cameos from any of the following or their characters: H. R. Haggard, Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft?

Of course it couldn’t possibly be a derivative work using characters from works where the copyright has expired. Historical figures are something to be expected in moderation because of the setting restrictions. However, once you start seeing characters from works where copyright has expired, one starts to branch over into the realm of derivative work or fan fiction depending on how rampant it actually is.

13. At any point does the following cross your mind: “They got science fiction in my fantasy!” or “They got fantasy in my science fiction!”?

I have yet another food related comparison for this (since I seem to use one for every bingo sheet thus far). Science fiction and fantasy are complimentary to each other in many ways and can be used in similar ways to each other even though on the surface they seem very different. Goat cheese, pears, black pepper and dark chocolate don’t seem like they would go together in any combination, but the reality is that they actually can go all together and make something awesome. Yes, I mean that literally and the bonbon was delicious.

Anyway, whether one is using magic or technology or some mix between the two, they are not mutually exclusive and are often used to signify different things in the stories they are found in.

14. Does the story avoid mention of disease (except for zombies)?

A funny thing about the Victorian era: while engineering technology was really gathering speed, medical practices and understanding how to treat disease was lagging. Major outbreaks of things like typhoid and cholera in urban areas were not unheard of. Zombies (while fun for everyone who possesses a shotgun) are not usually viewed as much as a disease (despite the means of transmission) so much as monsters or vermin to be burned out. Maybe it’s that whole undead thing. Or maybe it’s a simultaneous comment on consumerism and classism.

It is also interesting to note that diseases such as sleeping sickness and malaria (everyone’s favorite) had as much of an impact on the outlying parts of Victoria’s empire as the understandably pissed off locals and the supreme idiocy of not changing uniforms to something better suited to the local climate. However, since the tendency is to avoid the British colonies of the era, why would they ever be mentioned?

15. Are pocket watches or pocket devices an integral part of the story?

Because in steampunk ray guns, souped up parasols, compasses that detect things other than north and other such devices are like towels. You should never be without one. These devices are analogous to cellphones and iPods: everyone with disposable income probably has one and they do tend to be useful despite the improbability of their inner workings.

16. Is tea vitally important to the characters?

As far as I’m concerned tea should be vitally important to everyone. Since we’re looking at steampunk and by general default that means England one can almost be assured that tea or tea time will be mentioned at least once. What’s interesting is that every continent has its variation of leaves steeped in hot water. There are a bunch of different ones in Asia (India, China and Japan being the major places), Africa has rooibos, South America has maté, North America has various tisaines as well.

It should be noted that while I wrote this I was in fact drinking tea. Earl Grey. Hot. With milk and honey.

17. If there is a female character, does she mention her corset at least once?

There is a conception that corsets are (and are supposed to be) uncomfortable. However, if one takes into consideration that a girl of the era would have been wearing them from the age of twelve (or earlier, I’m too lazy to look it up), they wouldn’t be uncomfortable because they would have gotten used to it the same way modern women get used to certain kinds of bras. There’s also a lot of variation on how period corsets were constructed and boned. Depending on the design and boning, some corsets are effectively back braces and one can do work in them.

But let’s ignore that because corsets up the sexy factor. And they can symbolize repression without all that tedious mucking about in setting and character expansion.


And now to tally the scores for those of you attempting to identify a suspected steampunk book…

1-4 “yes” answers – Probably not a part of this subgenre. You may want to use a different bingo card.
5-8 “yes” answers – Contains elements of the subgenre. Might be classified as a part of the subgenre by some, but it’s more likely a rather thorough mix of two or more different subgenres.
9-13 “yes” answers – Will generally be considered part of this subgenre. Although it deviates in some ways.
14-17 “yes” answers – Congratulations! You got subgenre bingo!

Title image by Jeffrey M. de Guzman.



  1. Very good. I scored an easy 16, although the addition of Sherlock Holmes or the Dalai Lama would be welcomed in my ramblings.

  2. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    Now I want to read some Chinese steampunk. Because that would actually be pretty damn awesome. All the steampunk I’ve ever read was set in England or the US, and you’re right in that there isn’t a heck of a lot of variety when it comes to settings.

    Also, corsets can be surprisingly comfortable. I’ve worn one, and I started wearing it in adulthood, after I realized that bras in my size were prohibitively expensive and corsets lasted longer. It took a little bit of adjusting to, and it meant that I had to sit a bit differently than normal, but I think that just goes to show how bad my posture was to start with, and the corset helped with that. But yeah, they’re not too bad if you get used to them, and so long as you’re not tightlacing for a long period of time, they’re not really worth complaining about. If a character’s complaining all the time about her corset, then likely she’s not wearing one that fits her properly, and she needs to get a new one. :p

    • Avatar Fellshot says:

      As soon as I find Chinese steampunk, I am going to read the pages off of it. It must exist somewhere.

      I’ve fenced in underbust waist cinchers and didn’t find it an ordeal, but then I don’t do tight lacing and find that fit is everything. Also corsets make complete sense if you are hanging 15 pounds worth of skirts and petticoats from your waist. 😛

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