Steampunk. It’s everywhere right? But how do you define steampunk–as a literary genre. I’m more interested in it as a genre rather than steampunk culture, DIY projects, and the like. There are dozens of definitions and websites dedicated to the celebration of steampunk literature.

Personally, my definition of steampunk doesn’t get bogged down in the Victorian era or 19th century settings. I also tend to focus more on the -punk part of the word. To me steampunk is still linked to cyberpunk, just with different aesthetic touches: challenging authority, oppressive regimes, etc. To me the -punk suffix is perfect for writing things that challenge the romantic notions of the 19th century, a time where European imperialism was at its height.

At the same time I love worldbuilding. I’d much rather create my own setting than use even a fictionalized version of Earth. It’s fun for me, and at the same time I don’t have to worry so much about factual accuracy. If it’s my setting I can make it how I want. But can a work be steampunk if it’s set in a completely made up setting?

I ask because my novel just got rejected by a certain SF/F publisher. While the acquisitions dept. said it had potential and was tightly written, “The steam punk feel came through strongly enough […] It was very modern in language and dress.”

They remarked that this was a subjective view, and I agree. I don’t fault them at all. It’s their prerogative to accept whatever books they want. But I can’t help but wonder, were they working off a different definition of steampunk than me? I think absolutely. According to this publisher, steampunk needs to have an older–read: 19th century–feel to it. On that note I have to disagree.

Just because a book isn’t set in England and doesn’t have people riding pennyfarthings and speaking with faux old-timey accents and diction, doesn’t mean it’s not steampunk. I had airship battles, clockwork automatons, corrupt governments, violence, and other things that I feel fall perfectly within the realm of steampunk. I put this question up on Twitter and according to the responses I got (from a small sample size) people seemed to agree with my view.

Oh well. It is what it is. I’ll continue to describe my book as science fiction/steampunk. This particular rejection didn’t hurt too much. At least they took the time to offer up something more than just a generic rejection, plus it had a little positive something something in the middle. But the best part is that it sparked this little thought experiment.

What do you think? How do you define steampunk? Does it need to have 19th century trappings, even when the piece is set in a completely fictional, non-Earth setting? Let me know.