Four Letter Nerd

4LN Primer: Steampunk

Today marks the first day in our ongoing series of Primer’s on the many sub-genres in nerd culture.  It’s important to note that we will not be experts or even vaguely familiar with some of the genres we cover, but will try to provide as accurate of an overview as we can. Our first Primer will be an introduction to the interesting world of Steampunk.  So gather round the phonograph that inexplicably runs on gears and steam and pay attention, it’s time for some learning.

But first!  What exactly is a primer?


Steampunk is a sub-genre of science-fiction that also touches on fantasy, alternative history, horror, and speculative fiction (what I am trying to say is the genre wears many hats… mostly of the top hat variety).  In most cases it is set either in the 19th Century Victorian era/American West, but in an alternative historical time-line, or in a post-apocalyptic world.  The genre has recently gained steam (pun absolutely intended) as of late with games like Bioshock and Cosplaying becoming ever-so-slightly more prominent in mainstream culture.

Now that we have gotten the formalities of classification and setting out the way let’s attempt to answer the question: What IS Steampunk?

Steampunk attempts to imagine a fictional world where machines are powered by steam and gears rather than electricity (I assume Tesla and Edison finally decided to settle their differences by entering the precursor of the Thunderdome, but two men entered and no man left.  It was much less popular than the two men enter, one man leaves platform used later).  These steam/cog-powered machines can include steam-powered Zeppelins, analog computers, and other mechanical marvels like H.G. Wells time machine.


It appears that the genre itself was borne out of the imaginations of science-fiction authors like Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds sans Tom Cruise, and the Time Machine), but the term was not coined until the late eighties as a play on the term “cyberpunk.”

The Steampunk aesthetic is not only a literary genre, but has influenced personal style, television, movies, and home design.

You might remember the cinematic masterpiece, Wild Wild West.  That film features quite a bit of Steampunk.  The villain, Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), creates a giant, mechanical spider, a amphibious tank, a mechanical wheelchair, and countless other steam-powered inventions that were way before their time.  Using these technological terrors, Loveless was almost able to take over the United States, and would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for Will Smith.  Also, the protagonist’s train also was a Steampunk marvel, with all sorts of contraptions. The original TV show the film was based off of also featured a lot Steampunk designs, although it predated the term.


Steampunk has also infiltrated the realm of gaming using some of the biggest titles over the last few years.  The award winning game, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (which is freaking incredible) features an extinct race called the Dwemer, but are known to men as Dwarves.  The Dwemer were an advanced society that was well ahead of the other races in every aspect.  When you explore the ruined halls of the Dwemer strongholds you are constantly attacked by steam-powered Spider Guardians and Centurions.  The designs for these automatons predominately feature cogs and gears, and are frustratingly resilient.


Bioshock: Infinite, another award-winning videogame title, is set almost exclusively within a Steampunk inspired city known as Columbia during the year 1912.  Columbia is an air city that was built by the U.S. Government to serve as the location for a world’s fair.  The Steampunk aesthetic is prevalent throughout Bioshock, Bioshock 2 (both of which take place in an underwater city), and Bioshock: Infinite.


Steampunk is very prominent in the wide world of Cosplay.  For the uninitiated, Cosplaying is short for “Costume Play.”  If you’ve ever been to a Comic Con you have seen them, they dress up either as characters from a particular story, reimaginings of those characters, or completely a character of their imagination.  This translates very well to the Steampunk genre.

Steampunk versions of superheroes or characters from sci-fi franchises such as Star Wars are pretty common and can look awesome.  If you would like to know more about the competitive world of Cosplay you should check out Heroes of Cosplay on the Syfy Channel.


Recently DC Comics announced that in February 20 comics will be getting Steampunk variant covers, and they look pretty awesome.  This isn’t the first time comic superheroes have gotten a Steampunk overhaul.  In 1989 Gotham by Gaslight released.  Gotham by Gaslight was a oneshot by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola and is set in 1889.  It follows Wayne as he takes on the mantle of Batman as he attempts to stop the notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  The comic has a noticeable Steampunk aesthetic and is ranked as one of the best Elseworlds comics (the Elseworlds series take place outside of DC continuity).


If you are interested in Steampunk you can check out the Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer as well as the comics, videogames, movies, and TV shows mentioned above.

This was the first attempt at providing a brief overview of a nerdy sub-genre.  If you would like us to cover another specific sub-genre let us know in the comments!

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Cam Clark

Cam is a husband, father, and a fan of many things. In college, he wrote his senior thesis on Mythological, Philosophical, and Theological Themes in Star Wars, and now spends his days causally specializing in Star Wars, Tolkien, and cubical work. No relation to Bill Clark.

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