I read my first steampunk book just a couple months ago. (Armored Hearts, by Pauline Creeden and Melissa Turner Lee if you really want to know.) Since then, the steampunk radar in my head goes off every time I pass a book cover with gears or cool goggles on it. Today we’re digging into steampunk and cyberpunk. While they both have the word punk in them, you’ll find they’re quite different.
Steampunk has not yet figured out exactly which genre it falls under — science fiction or fantasy. I’ve seen many people placing it under both, and it really comes down to which type of steampunk it is. But we’ll get into that in a moment. [grin]
Steampunk stories take place in a time period featuring steam-powered machinery or technological aspects of the 19th century. There are several different forms of steampunk — western steampunk (“wild west”), Victorian era steampunk (Britain), alternative world steampunk, steampunk romance, and even post-apocalyptic steampunk where the world has deteriorated (or advanced, depending how you look at it) into a reliance on steam power.
The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences sums up the core of steampunk perfectly in one sentence:
Steampunk is modern technology — iPads, computers, robotics, air travel — powered by steam and set in the 1800s.
Some might debate limiting steampunk to only the 1800s, but the rest of the definition is spot-on. The stories often involve fictional machines like dirigibles (the cool picture at the start of this post), punk-type clothing such as goggles, and the invention of gadgets with futuristic technologies like giant robots, mechanical computers, etc.
Steampunk is defined mostly by the worldbuilding, era, and machinery. The story in itself can take whichever form or turn it desires inside such a world and still remain steampunk.
Authors H. G. Wells and Jules Verne would be considered steampunk authors if they were writing today. But aside from their books, here are some other steampunk novels — some from our own authors — that you can consider reading:
- Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield
- Armored Hearts, by Pauline Creedence & Melissa Turner Lee
- The Stark Brothers series, by Steve Rzasa
- Sherlock Holmes (the movie with Robert Downy Jr.) has also been labeled as steampunk.
Cyberpunk is solidly defined as a subgenre of science fiction. it is characterized by high-tech cybernetics (it’s okay, I had to look up that word, too) and a breakdown of the social order in which there is a strong sense of helplessness and loss of humanity. These books can be about virtual reality, artificial intelligence, megacorporations, cyborgs, clones, or hackers. Some cyberpunk books deliver the majority of action through cyberspace or virtual reality.
The characters in cyberpunk novels are often living on the edge of society, in an underground side of an electric civilization. Blade Runner and The Matrix are examples of movies with heavy cyberpunk themes. Cyberpunk also tends to cloud what it means to be “human” with its use of cyborgs, robots, and human body modification.
Where steampunk is defined by the world building and technology, cyberpunk is defined by a mixture of both world building and character journey: the cybernetic world building and the “low-life” social order. The state and plight of the characters is very important to determining if a novel can be called cyberpunk or not.
Examples of cyberpunk:
- Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (one of my favorites!)
- Eternity Falls, by Kirk Outerbridge
- Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
- The Terminator movies
Which do you lean toward? Steampunk or Cyberpunk?