Defining Steampunk (and Dieselpunk)

Someone tweeted this article today – it’s old, but it’s awesome and I agree with everything it says.

Also, someone on was looking for non-Victorian Steampunk, and someone *actually* answered “Why non-Victorian? I think that’s a positive element in Steampunk. There are some wild west stories that are Steampunk and I started reading one based on Alice in Wonderland that was alternative American history based but I can’t say that I was enjoying it. I’m primarily looking for good Steampunk that *is* Victorian England now.”


I just finished one book a couple of days ago, and was today skimming through my ebooks to see what to start next, and decided I’d try out Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which I got on sale for 99 cents a couple months ago. I read about 5 or 6 pages of the main character beating etiquette into a vampire with a parasol, and stopped. It’s not a bad book, or poorly written or anything, it’s just not my *kind* of book. But it seems that has become the definition of Steampunk lately, and I dislike the whole idea that Steampunk is becoming pigeon-holed into this, and people are starting to say if it doesn’t have X,Y, or Z elements, it’s not Steampunk.

That resentment comes from my main reason for writing Dieselpunk in the first place. Which is, quite frankly, that I’m bored with traditional medieval fantasy. I wanted a setting that’s fresher and not done to death. So I have a setting a little farther ahead, tech wise, for the hell of it. I could set it in a medieval fantasy world. Easily – my character’s could ride dragons and their giant base could be more blatantly magic, rather than the magnetic handwavium powered gimmick I’m going with. Magic items could serve the roles of radios and radar, and my orphans could live in the “dark forest” instead of the sewer. But my way is more fun for me.

I just write what I write though, I’m not writing to a definition. Dieselpunk is just the closest definition there is for what I write, so I use it. So what happens if a book doesn’t fit into a particular category? Should the author be forbidden to pick the closest thing? Or worse, be forced to introduce elements into the story to solidify it’s placement in a genre category? Don’t think it doesn’t happen – I’ve seen discussions online where people insist that there be magic in a story for it to be classified as fantasy, so if that’s true, then where do you categorize secondary world fiction that doesn’t have magic? Because the Literary section sure doesn’t want it.

I say just relax, and let writers write what they write. If that means taking a little bit more time to describe what a book is like, then so be it. If it makes it a bit more difficult to write a pitch, then that’s the author’s problem. 😛


10 responses to “Defining Steampunk (and Dieselpunk)

  1. I’m starting to think that those of us moving to Dieselpunk are doing it because the steampunk name is starting to crowd us a little. Dieselpunk seems to offer a lot more breathing space, at least for the timebeing.

    Seems like no matter which case though, secondary world fiction is overlooked too often. Is alternate history really that more accessible than fantasy?

    • I dunno – I do Dieselpunk just because it’s the tech level I naturally gravitate to. That and secondary world – my stories just tend to be too big, world affecting wise, to fit them into a real world, historical, or even alternate history setting. But I hate when people try to tell me that if I’m labeling it fantasy, I need to have a “speculative element”. Is the secondary world element not enough?

      • I would think hours of worldbuilding would count as a speculative element.

        But now that I think of it, that’s a rather odd thing to say in the first place. It sounds like writing workshop talk on steroids.

        Anyway, I’ll be far more interested in your story than another victorian science fiction-ish murder mystery with a few gadgets tossed in! Haha.

  2. In his book ‘On writing’ Stephen King talks about the author finding the story, digging it out carefully like an archeology project. I agree. When you dig out a story, it is what it is and if you try to frig about with it, it loses it’s integrity. Refining your work is about finding a truer version of the story. It’s can’t be something it’s not, we can’t write something to fit a category; as Lindsay says ‘I just write what I write’.

    Saying something isn’t Steampunk because it’s not Victorian is like saying the dinosaur you dug up isn’t a dinosaur because it’s got scaly wings. To which the answer might be:

    “It may be a Pterodactyl but it’s still a Dinosaur!”

    If a story has the spirit of Steampunk or Dieselpunk (or Amish romance or whatever) at it’s heart, that’s it’s genre – whatever the outward conventions might dictate.

    There’s something in this about the tension between the true nature of a story, the true nature of the stories we write and love, and the pidgeonholes people want to put them in.

    I do try to find categories for what I write, but, frankly if we are like archologista, then we can only serve up what we find.

    • So if you’re digging, and you find a skeleton that has wings like a pterodactyl, but bigger teeth, shorter beak, longer legs, etc, and doesn’t fit into any species classification so far known, then you give it a new name.

      Which is great, because when you discover a new species, you become frelling famous.

          • A giant floating aircraft carrier? Better than a giant SINKING aircraft carrier anyway! Oh wait! You mean a giant FLYING aircraft carrier!

            Seriously, I hadn’t read your first chapter before I criticized the flying carrier in ‘SKY CAPTAIN’, Lindsay. My objection to the ‘SKY CAPTAIN’ carrier was the impossible size, weight and fuel consumption of the engines needed to keep it aloft, if they were any kind of real engine. Magnetic Handwavium Power is another matter! Even better if you actually call it that, like James Cameron calling the magic anti-gravity mineral in ‘AVATAR’ Unobtanium.

            I have a flying aircraft carrier myself in the YA Dieselpunk trilogy I’m completing. It’s actually the INTREPID, retrofitted with alien anti-grav technology, which is of course just magic for moderns! Another flying carrier I must check out is the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier ‘THE AVENGERS’ movie.

  3. Pingback: Defining Steampunk (and Dieselpunk) | Lindsay Kitson … | Vampire Occult Society

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