Steampunk stories postulate an alternate history where Victorian-era technology, namely steam, and aesthetics took hold. The sub-genre came into its own around the 1980s and 1990s; it has since bloomed into a highly popular form that has been adopted into literature, film, video games, fashion, art, and inspired gatherings of fans.
Steampunk is one of those sub-genres that can be placed in Fantasy or Science Fiction (see our sister site'ssteampunk science fiction genre guide)—it has strong technological elements that make it more Sci Fi, but the fantastical nature of this anachronistic technology makes it more Fantasy. In addition, some of these worlds have magic as a power source. Steampunk is a kind of interdisciplinary genre because it incorporates elements from so many places: science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, mystery. .
The setting of Steampunk stories is typically Victorian-era England, but the American west, post-apocalyptic versions of the world, and even other planets can be used as the setting. Common among all these possible locations, is a sense of social change, of revolution. The overall mood of these settings tend to be ripe with contrasts: dark and morbid on one hand, but shiny with optimism on the other hand.
Steampunk is a strongly visual and creative sub-genre—part of the reason why it has such a strong following of devoted fans. Fashion, architecture, art, mechanics, all have a similar design and aesthetic appeal. Victorian fashions, clockwork gears, goggles, brass, dirigibles, analog computers are all a part of this aesthetic.
Low. Some Steampunk worlds have magic, and it can be powerful in their stories. However, in many Steampunk stories magic is not present at all—indeed authors have more fun imagining implausible, and slightly fantastical, technologies than creating magic systems.
Variable. Steampunk takes place in a period of revolution—social and technological—so there are opportunities for social commentary. Moreover, because Steampunk is a sub-genre of re-imagination and reinvention, authors can create a space to explore the social implications of changes in history.
Moderate. The 19th century is full of strong characters: criminals, masterminds, eccentrics, scientists, monsters, creators. Characters in Steampunk stories have a lot going for them, so long as the writer doesn't get bogged down in world-building.
Low-Moderate. The plots of Steampunk stories are not necessarily complex, but they are fast paced. There is usually some kind of mystery to be uncovered and the plot ushers us toward that discovery. However, in the task of world-building the plot can sometimes drag, and at worst, brings the story to a halt.
Variable. Revolution and mystery tend to involve some kind of violence, but this is rarely the focus of Steampunk stories. In fact, Steampunk tends to be optimistic in tone.
Alternate History. Steampunk Fantasy is essentially an alternate history, it tells the story of what if... electricity wasn't our power source?
Urban Fantasy. Steampunk tends to take place in urban environments and so Steampunk and Urban Fantasies are natural companions.
New Weird. Some authors like China Mieville write Steampunk that combines a number of bizarre elements, from strange settings to grotesque characters.
Science Fantasy. The blending of magic and fantasy elements with science fiction technology (steamworks, clock-powered automatons, etc) often place Steampunk in the Science Fantasy subgenre.
By Gail Carriger. Victorian England is home to werewolves and vampires, not to mention mystery, dirigibles and tea.
By Jay Lake. The first of its series that is set in a universe with a clockwork solar system. A young clockwork apprentice is visited by Archangel Gabriel and embarks on a journey to rewind the Earth's mainspring and save it—but he must overcome dark magicians, monsters, mechanical men, and other wonders.
By Ekaterina Sedia,. An Urban Fantasy and Steampunk crossover, this novel combines political intrigue and alchemy.
By Kate Elliott. The first in the Spiritwalker trilogy. The industrial age is beginning, but magic still has some control. The mages oppose the industrial revolution and two cousins are caught up in its mysteries.
By Tim Powers. 19th century England, a werewolf, a clown, an Egyptian sorcerer, a millionaire, and other classic characters make this time-traveling novel a romping adventure.
By Mark Hodder. A creative take on Steampunk, combining it with the Sword and Planet sub-genre, the setting is an alien world that is modeled on Victorian London. A psychologically rich story with grand moral questions.
By Lillith Saintcrow. The first in the Bannon and Clare series, this novel introduces readers to an alternate London where a complex magic system exists in a Steampunk society.
By Cherie Priest. Steampunk in an alternate American Civil War, also a gold rush, and some zombies. A literary novel that blends the fantasy, science fiction, horror, and alternate history genres.
By Ian R. MacLeod. The Industrial Revolution was fueled by magic—aether. Aether has its secrets, that are held by the Guilds. But revolution is in the air, but there is a secret that may change the very fabric of society.