In which I have thoughts about steampunk as a genre.

I love Steampunk. There is something very appealing about the steampunk aesthetic that combines modern technology with very Victorian sensibilities. I like that the books have a historical feel without quite being historical but also fantasy elements without quite being that either.

You can browse my “steampunk” tag to see all of the related reviews and posts (there are some book lists and Linktastic! posts as well). Yesterday I reviewed Etiquette & Espionage which is my most recent steampunk read.

Keeping in mind my deep and abiding love for the genre in general and the Leviathan series in particular, I’ve noticed something.

Steampunk books usually involve an English setting and in order to get in the right head-space, the narrative also involves a certain tone–you know, an English/Victorian tone. (It sounds made up but, trust me, if you read enough steampunk books you will see it.)

The problem I’ve noticed is that in adoption that tone and talking about those things that are inherent to steampunk (the clothes, the manners, the steam-powered inventions) it feels like a lot of steampunk books also become somehow flippant. Not that the writing is low quality or that anything about the book is cut-rate. It just feels, sometimes, like because the book is genre fiction (sub-genre fiction really since steampunk is so specific) that it isn’t allowed to take itself seriously. Instead of a deadpan (as it were) presentation of events we get a tongue-in-cheek kind of story.

Then I consider the fact that I didn’t notice that flippancy in Leviathan or its sequels. Which brings to mind other gender issues. Does Leviathan come across as more serious because it’s written by a male author? Does it come off that way because of a male protagonist? Does the focus on a military airship necessarily preclude elements that might create a flippant tone in other novels?

I don’t really have any answers here but it’s just something I noticed and wanted to talk about.

Do you ever think books don’t have permission to take themselves seriously? Does it matter? Is this all in my head?

Let’s talk it out in the comments!

Is all of this just in my head?

4 thoughts on “In which I have thoughts about steampunk as a genre.

  1. The steampunk novels I’ve read seem to fall into two categories, one’s that embue the whole book with the setting without constant obsessing on drawing out how it’s such a steampunk setting, and those that fail horribly (and may actually use the phrase “steampunk” in the narration). Perhaps many authors have trouble showing steampunk and instead tell it to us?

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    1. That’s definitely true! There is a wide gamut of quality in steampunk books. I sadly haven’t read a good one since Etiquette & Espionage (which I have come to appreciate more since reading it) so I have had to branch out into more general historical fantasies.

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  2. I hear what you’re saying about tone in steampunk, but I’ve also characterized books in my head as either ‘serious’ or ‘not’ with regard to the setting (and that includes the tone, and taking itself seriously, or not). I think Meljean Brook’s steampunk romance series is a great at taking a serious look at steampunk but varying the setting with every book (including non-Western world settings!). I have found that a lot of the YA steampunk tends to be on the non-serious side, but the romance/adult stuff is split. Anecdotal evidence, of course, but still.

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