I was thrilled to speak on several panels with The Steampunk Scholar at the Pure Speculation Festival in Edmonton in 2010. Mike Perschon, the man behind, The Steampunk Scholar, is indeed scholarly – a doctoral student at the University of Alberta and a professor of English at Edmonton’s, Grant MacEwan University.

Mike knows his stuff and the stuff he knows is cool. So cool, that after a short discussion with my high school, social studies teacher husband, he’d convinced him to use Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, an alternate history, steampunk creation, in his classroom.

In hopes of providing you with a quick and dirty education, here’s a Q&A session with The Steampunk Scholar on all things STEAM:

Your blog: is a wealth of information (and everyone should read it till the wee hours!), but could you give us the Coles notes version on what defines the steampunk genre? Any cliches / norms?

Early on in my research, I realized there wasn’t an awful lot that defined the steampunk as a genre. It seems more useful to me to define it as a style, an aesthetic, that gets applied to genres. That’s why we’ve got steampunk adventure, steampunk fantasy, steampunk romance, etc. But my definition of steampunk as a style contains three, possibly four elements. First, steampunk evokes the nineteenth century, either by setting the story in an alternate version of that time period, or by positing another time or place that feels like the nineteenth century in some way or another.

Second, steampunk is retrofuturist, which is to say, us imagining how the past imagined the future. So Jules Verne and H.G. Wells aren’t steampunk – they’re futurists, looking ahead. Steampunk looks back. Third, steampunk most often includes technofantasy – technology that seems scientific, but is really based in fantasy. For example, despite the physical reality of how airships really operate, steampunk often invents better materials or a special fuel that permits air travel in a technology we abandoned for pragmatic reasons. That technofantasy is often industrial in nature, but that seems to be saying the same thing as the first point, so I haven’t decided if that needs to be a separate aspect or not.

What do you consider to be the first steampunk novel?

Michael Moorcock’s “Warlord of the Air” in the UK, and “Morlock Night” by K.W. Jeter in the US. James Blaylock is arguably the first to write steampunk in the US though, with “The Ape Box Affair.”

Any steampunk films we should be watching? (And am I alone in thinking Sherlock had such potential, but fell a little short?)

I don’t think Sherlock Holmes fell short of anything except expectations for it. I think it’s very good, for what it is. It’s a good example of why I speak of steampunk as a style. There is definitely an application of the steampunk aesthetic in that film. As to steampunk films you should be watching, I’d recommend Katsuhiro Otomo’s gorgeous anime Steamboy. It’s slow moving in spots, but it’s an incredible technical achievement, if nothing else. Chris Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige is also noteworthy, as it is the only steampunk novel to be adapted into film yet.

If you haven’t watched The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello on YouTube, you need to. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated: it’s a mix of Poe, Lovecraft, and perhaps Alien, or The Thing. Mike Mignola’s animated pilot for The Amazing Screw-On Head is also excellent, and available on YouTube as well. You can buy both as DVDs, but that’s only necessary for those who love image fidelity. The City of Lost Children also has steampunk elements, and is a brilliant movie, if you don’t mind subtitles. For TV series, I recommend the Anime series Last Exile, which has a new edition coming out shortly. Finally, I should mention that CityTV in Toronto is doing a steampunk spin-off from Murdoch Mysteries. You can check out the trailer here.

Thanks again to THE Steampunk Scholar!