What Is Steampunk? 25 Defining Titles from This Singular Speculative Genre

When you hear the word steampunk, it probably conjures up visions of tight corsets, thick goggles, top hats, and intricate costumes involving clockwork and other machinery. Everyone is dressed in lace and waistcoats, but they wield strange technologies — prosthetic-like accessories that give them the curious appearance of Victorian cyborgs. Indeed, the “steampunk” aesthetic is characterized by a mind-boggling mashup of future and past.

Steampunk as a fashion trend emerged full-steam (pardon our pun) in the 90s and early 2000s, and has only become more popular — and imaginatively manifested — since then. It’s even been described as a “subculture,” encompassing not just fashion, but all sorts of DIY projects such as custom furniture, as well as mainstream media like TV and movies. Notable in the steampunk repertoire are films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Disney’s Treasure Planet, which combine classic action/adventure tropes with inventive science fiction to create spellbinding stories in universes very unlike our own.

So what is steampunk as a literary genre? To put it in a more bookish context, steampunk is the eccentric lovechild of Victorian literature and cyberpunk, the latter of which is itself a combination of “lowlife and high-tech” (think The Matrix or Blade Runner). However, rather than homing in on a hypothetical future, steampunk projects its speculation back into the past — reimagining the 19th century with technology far exceeding the reality of the era. Naturally, steampunk literature focuses less on pure aesthetics and more on story, which has resulted in some of the most exciting speculative fiction in the canon.

As a subgenre of sci-fi, steampunk is sometimes guided by certain rules of scientific possibility, yet it also tends to incorporate fantasy elements like mythical creatures and time travel. It’s definitely a bit slippery — one of those genres you have to read to truly understand.

But we all know there’s no time like the present (as ironic as that is to say about this particular genre). So here are 25 iconic steampunk novels from the past 150 years, sure to enthrall fans of alternative timelines, steam-powered madmen, and ruthless political allegories alike.

1. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)

Widely acknowledged as one of the original architects of steampunk, Jules Verne doesn’t peer into the past with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but at his own present; this book was published smack-dab in the middle of the Victorian era. This sublime seafaring tale follows marine biologist Pierre Aronnax as he’s swept up in a whirlwind adventure aboard a high-tech submarine called the Nautilus. Spearheading their expedition is the mysterious Captain Nemo, who has no desire to ever return to shore… and won’t let any of his crew leave, either. Though Aronnax enjoys the exciting underwater destinations and discoveries, he can’t help but wonder about Nemo’s motivations, which are as murky as the darkest depths of the ocean — and possibly even more sinister. Read More.
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2. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

Another seminal work of steampunk was H.G. Wells’ book, The Time Machine. This novella is significant not just to steampunk, but to science fiction as a whole: it introduced and popularized the idea of time travel through a “time machine,” a term that Wells invented himself. Of course, his protagonist — referred to only as “the Time Traveller” — is even more groundbreaking than the book: the story kicks off with him traveling over 800,000 years into the future. He finds that humanity has evolved into two separate species: the small, elegant Eloi and the caveman-like Morlocks. However, the Traveller’s theory about their relationship could not be more wrong, as a chilling series of encounters reveals what has really happened to society and where it now stands. Read More.
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3. Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock (1971)

There was a long dry spell in the world of literary steampunk after The Time Machine, as the Victorian era ended and most people lost interest in the possibilities of advanced steam power. That lasted until the 1960s and 70s, when the genre suddenly became something new: a combination of retrospective and predictive, or “retrospeculative,” if you will. Warlord of the Air was one of the early books of this “new” steampunk, drawing up an alternate timeline in which World War I never happened and an un-bankrupted Britain retained power over all its colonies. Our hero, Oswald Bastable, hails from the 19th century but has been transported through time to 1973. He discovers in London a modern utopia full of new-age technology. But when Bastable realizes that the price of this “utopia” has been the mass oppression of the colonies, he turns against his own country to fight for the underdogs suffering at its hands. Read More.
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