Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. It explores alternate histories during the Victorian era and often features retro-futuristic innovations powered by steam.
One of the key influences on the steampunk genre is the literary and artistic movement of Romanticism that arose in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Steampunk reimagines the steam-powered technology of the Industrial Revolution through a Romantic lens, drawing inspiration from the values and ideals of Romanticism.
- The Roots of Romanticism
- Steampunk as Neo-Romanticism
- Key Characteristics of Steampunk Inspired by Romanticism
- Examples of Steampunk Inspired by Romanticism
- Wrapping Up: What Is Steampunk Romanticism?
The Roots of Romanticism
Romanticism was a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature during the Enlightenment, focusing instead on emotion, imagination, and individuality. Some key characteristics of Romanticism include:
- Reverence for nature and nostalgia for the past
- Celebration of the mystical, supernatural, and gothic
- Fascination with the exotic, remote, and mysterious
- Interest in the medieval and folk traditions
- Focus on intense emotions and personal experiences
Romantic authors emphasized passion over reason, intuition over logic, nature over civilization, and creative imagination over scientific fact. They had a great appreciation for medievalism, folklore, and Gothic ruins.
Some major Romantic literary figures included:
- William Wordsworth
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Lord Byron
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Mary Shelley
- John Keats
- Sir Walter Scott
"Though nothing can bring back the hourOf splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind." - William Wordsworth
Romantic visual artists like J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich focused on dramatic landscapes, ruins, storms, and shipwrecks.
Their paintings evoked strong emotions like awe, terror, and melancholy.
Steampunk as Neo-Romanticism
Steampunk adapts the Romantic fascination with old ruins, mysterious lore, and the power of nature. But it reimagines them in a speculative retro-futuristic setting powered by steam technology.
Steampunk can be seen as Neo-Romanticism – it recycles the tropes and values of Romanticism in a new technological context.
Some key ways in which steampunk incorporates Romantic elements:
- Nostalgia for bygone eras, especially the Victorian period
- Reverence for craftsmanship, mechanics, and elaborate ornamentation
- Rebellious, eccentric outsider protagonists
- Melancholy and wistful longing for impossible things
- The exotic, otherworldly, and gothic
- Dread, awe, and terror in the face of uncontrollable natural or supernatural forces
- Interest in fancy, fashion, and aristocratic allure
Gothic and Supernatural Themes
Steampunk, like Romanticism, has a strong affinity with the gothic, the macabre, and the supernatural. Gothic horror novels were popular in the Victorian era, full of haunted castles, demons, vampires, and ghosts.
Steampunk often features gothic architecture, dark introductions, shadows, and veils of mystery and horror. The goggles and gas masks inherent to steampunk gear add a creepy, sinister vibe.
Works like The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling incorporate the supernatural, séances, and occult mysticism.
Characters fight with fantastical steam-powered weaponry against demonic forces.
Exoticism and Orientalism
Romantics had a fascination with the exotic Orient, reveling in the colors, mystery, and luxury of Near and Far Eastern cultures.
Orientalism influenced music, art, literature, and fashion.
Steampunk also appropriates and exoticizes non-Western cultures. Works feature samurai, geishas, Indian rajas, Bedouin nomads, and West African kingdoms with anachronistic retro-futuristic technologies.
However, this cultural appropriation often lacks nuance and promotes reductive stereotypes.
A core theme in Romanticism was the sublime – feelings of awe, terror, and insignificance evoked by the sheer scale, power, and chaos of nature.
Romantic poets wrote about the sensory and emotional impact of volcanoes, oceans, deserts, and mountain peaks.
Steampunk translates this technological sublime to inventions and manufactories. The bewildering scale of retro-futuristic machines, locomotives, airships, and automatons provoke a sense of wonder and terror.
The technological sublime in steampunk reflects the turbulent technological changes of the 19th century.
Key Characteristics of Steampunk Inspired by Romanticism
Melancholy and Weltschmerz
Romanticism valued melancholy and weltschmerz – world-weariness and despair. Characters in Gothic novels were often gloomy, tormented anti-heroes and exiles pining for an unattainable ideal.
Steampunk protagonists also tend to be gloomy outsiders, disillusioned with contemporary society and seeking escape in fantasy worlds.
They indulge in whimsical fashion as an antidote to existential angst.
Celebration of Beauty and Aesthetics
Romantics emphasized aesthetic experience and the cultivation of beauty in art and nature. They highlighted the sublime wonder of landscapes.
Similarly, steampunk celebrates elaborate handicraft in costume, contraptions, and prosthetics.
The ornate, anachronistic technology is deliberately hyperbolic, foregrounding visual spectacle.
Even utilitarian objects are adorned with filigrees.
Idealization of Lost Ways of Life
Romanticism idealized the Middle Ages as an idyllic past age of faith, folklore, and chivalry. Romantics had an anti-urban longing for the countryside.
Steampunk also sentimentalizes lost eras before industrialization. It nostalgically laments the decline of handicraft, heroism, and aristocratic nobility in the modern world.
Moral and social decay is contrasted with an idealized Victorian era.
Blurring of Science and Magic
Romantics emphasized mysterious phenomena beyond empirical science and saw magic in nature. Exotic sorcery and pagan lore featured in medievalist fantasy.
Steampunk also revels in pseudo-science, weird gadgets, and the occult. Strange engines and chemicals produce magical effects, blurring the line between technology and alchemy.
Science is aestheticized and intertwined with mysticism.
Romantic literary heroes were bold adventurers and non-conformists rebelling against social convention. They relied on emotion over reason and fought for noble ideals.
Similarly, steampunk protagonists are often mavericks resisting authority, on self-directed quests. They are eccentric tinkerers and inventors driven by passion.
Their individual creativity and ingenuity enable their fantastical adventures.
Examples of Steampunk Inspired by Romanticism
- The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling (1990) – Mathematics, mysticism, and alternate history with Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer.
- Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (2000) – Weird science, clockwork robots, and Gothic tones in the squalid city of New Crobuzon.
- The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder (2010) – Alternate history of Queen Victoria and the British Empire with werewolves, vampires, and Strange Engines.
Film and Television
- Hugo (2011) – A whimsical tribute to early French filmmaker and magician Georges Méliès, full of clockwork robots and theatricality.
- Sherlock Holmes (2009) – Guy Ritchie’s action-adventure take on Holmes infused with Gothic ambience, weird experiments, and steampunk flair.
- Castle in the Sky (1986) – Hayao Miyazaki’s atmospheric animated film about a floating island city, ornithopters, and a boy heroine.
- Thief (2014) – A gloomy medieval setting with clanking machinery, magic, a plague-ridden city, and a master thief hero.
- Bioshock Infinite (2013) – A neo-Victorian flying city, metaphysical mysteries, and ideological rebellion.
- Machinarium (2009) – A puzzle adventure game following a quirky robot hero through a retro-dystopian cityscape.
Fashion and Lifestyle
- Alexander McQueen – His extravagant fashion shows incorporated Victorian motifs, mechanical sets, and a gothic sensibility.
- Abney Park – “Post-apocalyptic punk cabaret” band that popularized steampunk style with airship pirates and sci-fi elements.
- The League of STEAM – Performance art group that stages steampunk-themed productions and events across America.
Wrapping Up: What Is Steampunk Romanticism?
At its roots, steampunk is an act of Romantic artistic imagination that wonders “What if?”: What if steam power catalyzed an industrial revolution of airships and mechanical marvels? It nostalgically resurrects the lost past while envisioning an extraordinary retro-futuristic present.
Steampunk’s incarnation of technology is the antithesis of the streamlined, utilitarian uniformity of modern devices. It privileges rococo embellishment, revolution, fantasy, and poeticism.
Through this neo-Romantic lens, steampunk pays an affectionate tribute to the spirit of the 19th century.
“Steampunk is the intersection of technology and romance; it values texture, interconnectedness, and aesthetics. It is the meeting of the past and the future.”
– Empowerment in STEAM Conference, 2014
The technological mayhem, mystery, and vibrancy of steampunk reveal a campy, off-kilter interpretation of progress.
But at its emotional core, steampunk returns to a Romantic nostalgia for heroic ideals in a world threatened with mechanism and disenchantment.