Friday, March 28, 2014

YA Steampunk

Last weekend I was on a panel at MidSouthCon 32 about YA Steampunk. The panel description was “How to use/write steampunk in YA”, with an additional comment that “Steampunk is huge, especially in YA.” Panelists were Missa Dixon, Jennifer Mulvihill, Sharon Rawlins, Kimberly Richardson, and Kathryn Sullivan (me). Three authors of steampunk stories, a YA librarian and an editor (also author) of steampunk anthologies brought several different outlooks to the panel.

Like YA, Steampunk can cover so many other genre: alternate history, science fiction, mystery, romance, pirates, adventure, thriller, or Westerns. Even fantasy can be steampunk. I’ve read both those with a magic versus machines theme and those with just magic elements or beings. Dragons as well as elves and dwarves appear often in both versions. (Just to mention that I have a short story, “The Taste of Treasure” in Clockwork Spells and Magical Bells which has a competition between an elf and the Dwarfking’s children) Steampunk is usually associated with the Victorian age, but the stories don’t always have to be set in that time period.

The appeal of Steampunk is that the science is understandable. Steam power and electricity are not as complicated as, say, nuclear power, and much easier for do-it-yourselfers to figure out how things work and visualize how to construct things (and I’m not just referring to the costumes, though the panel did get slightly distracted on that point). Materials needed to construct a steam-powered or electric-powered machine are also easier for the average person to obtain or make, rather those in modern day science fiction stories (which requires the character to be a millionaire or backed by the government of a small country at the very least). The heroes of a steampunk story (both male and female) can be not only the good fighters and adventurers, but also (depending on the story) the engineers and the inventors, the MacGyvers and the Teslas, the people who “fix things”.

Sharon Rawlins provided a handout of YA Steampunk titles, which included Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series, Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series, Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Philip Reeves’ Larklight series, and Tiffany Trent’s The Unnaturalists, just to name a few. The panelists mentioned other titles they could recommend. The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress and The Jupiter Pirates series by Jason Fry are ones I can add to the list. Girl Genius is an example of a steampunk webcomic of interest to many ages.

There have been television shows that embodied steampunk before the term ever existed: The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne with Michael Praed, Legend with Richard Dean Anderson and John de Lancie, and even The Wild, Wild West with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. A example of a show today that has steampunk elements is Warehouse 13.

Writing YA Steampunk means focusing on both YA and Steampunk. Good YA (and Middle Grade) has characters that do things rather than just letting things happen to them. No matter how dark things became in A Series of Unfortunate Events, one panelist pointed out, she could always count on Violet rolling up her sleeves and taking charge to put things right.

All three authors as well as Kimberly Richardson (editor and author) are published with Dark Oak Press, so we all had experience with one publisher that publishes Steampunk. Anthologies allow for more varieties of approaches. Kimberly Richardson mentioned what she looked for in stories submitted to her, both in terms of believable technology and characters.

What YA and Middle Grade Steampunk stories have you enjoyed?


  1. I found this post most interesting. I've dabbled in Steampunk story-writing, and have enjoyed the marvelous costumes at Faerie and SF/F cons. I'm due to write a guest post on Steampunk, and have been thinking about what titles I'd drop into the Seampunk category. "The Golden Compass" came to mind. One trope you didn't mention was "clockworks" - another method of powering things without using fossil fuels, etc. And what of Jules Verne & HG Wells - are their works Steampunk or not - because of the era in which they were written? BTW, I absolutely agree the ease of understanding the science (transportation, communication, etc.) is part of the appeal of Steampunk.

  2. I don't know much about Steampunk but appreciate all the information you put into this! I was a huge fan of the Jules Verne series with Michael Praed and am seriously hoping they release it to DVD at some point. Thanks for posting this!

  3. This is so interesting. I wasn't really sure what Steampunk means. Now I understand. Thanks.