The American Wild West and the steampunk aesthetic have more in common than you might think. Though separated by about a century, the two have overlapping themes, imagery, and ethos. Understanding the relationship between the Wild West and steampunk can unlock new dimensions in both.
Defining Steampunk and the Wild West
First, a quick definition of terms.
Steampunk is a retro-futuristic subgenre of science fiction set in the 19th century. It features steam power and analog machinery rather than electronics. Steampunk stories often incorporate fantasy elements as well.
The American Wild West refers to the Western United States in the late 1800s. This period saw cowboys, lawlessness, fortune hunting, and rapid industrialization.
The Transcontinental Railroad connected East and West in 1869.
So steampunk reimagines the technology of the 19th century while the Wild West was the actual historical setting that inspired it.
Shared Themes and Symbolism
Steampunk and Wild West stories share similar themes and symbolism:
- Frontier spirit – Both have a rugged individualism as people headed west for a new life. There’s a focus on survival, opportunity, and risk.
- Outlaws – With weak governance on the frontier, outlaws flourished. Both settings typically feature rogues living outside the law.
- Adventure – Heroes explore new territories and seek their fortunes. There’s a sense of danger and excitement.
- Gritty realism – The settings eschew an idealized past in favor of a grounded, dirty aesthetic.
- Self reliance – One must use wits and grit to survive, with little help from institutions. Technology is imperfect but cleverly wielded.
- Romanticism – There’s nostalgia for pre-industrial life and technology, before the alienation of modernity. What critics call steampunk romanticism.
Shared Imagery and Iconography
Steampunk and the Wild West also share similar visual elements:
- Steam locomotives – Railroads transformed the West and feature heavily in steampunk
- Cowboys and gunslingers – With wide-brimmed hats, spurs, leather chaps, etc.
- Saloons and gambling – Wretched hives of scum and villainy
- Homesteads and open wilderness – The vast frontier, mountains, prairies, and deserts
- Native Americans – Often romanticized as either noble or savage
- Mechanical inventions – With gears, cogs, pipes, and exaggerated functionality
Steampunk Interpretations of the Wild West
Many steampunk stories use the Wild West as direct inspiration and setting:
- Wild Wild West – Will Smith’s 1999 sci-fi action film with gadgets galore
- Back to the Future Part III – The DeLorean time machine is used in the Old West
- Westworld – The HBO series with robot cowboys gone haywire
- The Steam Man of the Prairies – An 1868 dime novel with a steam-powered mechanical man
- The Infernal Devices – Young adult book series starring shadowhunters in Victorian London
- Tabletop RPG Deadlands – Supernatural horror in the Weird West
These works overlay steampunk elements onto Western settings to create something new, such as cyborgs, robots, or paranormal creatures stalking frontier towns.
The Wild West was already undergoing rapid technological change, which steampunk exaggerates further.
The Wild West’s Influence on Steampunk Style
Beyond direct reinterpretations, the Wild West has influenced steampunk style more broadly:
- Cowboy and cowgirl outfits – With leather or suede accents, vintage-looking fabric, chaps, boots, and hats
- Revolvers and lever-action rifles – Often with sci-fi embellishments like coils or pipes
- Sheriff’s stars and cowboy jewelry – Buttons, pins, watches, and hatbands
- Saloon and gambling hall decor – Such as playing cards, poker chips, and sigil dice
- Horse-and-carriage motifs – Faux horse head masks and decorative carriages
Like adopting medieval fashion, integrating Wild West style adds a gritty frontier feel even to steampunk stories set in urban environments.
The Wild West was a formative historical influence as the steampunk aesthetic evolved.
Shared Spirit of Exploration and Imagination
Most importantly, steampunk and the Wild West share a spirit of exploration and imagination.
The frontier settlers sought new lifeways outside society’s constraints. Laws were lax and expectations were lower.
Likewise, steampunk invites open-ended worldbuilding, free from the canon of high fantasy or hard sci-fi.
New stories can be told.
Both settings feature tough, resourceful heroes relying on their wits and resolve to survive. Problems must be solved with innovation and courage. This makes for compelling adventures.
In truth, steampunk interacts with many historical settings and genres, from gothic horror to medieval, Victorian, the Renaissance, and more. But the Wild West was clearly an inspiration in steampunk’s formative days.
The Wild West and steampunk remain kindred spirits, linked by their sense of adventure, ingenuity, and imagination in exploring the past to imagine the future. Their crossover helps make both settings more compelling.