Steampunk is having a moment. If you don’t know the storytelling behind the style, you might well wonder what all the fuss is about. Why would anybody wear those ridiculous goggles? And what’s with the dirigible fixation? I’m going to try to capture the essence and appeal of steampunk for you in 18 baby names.
First, some quick background. Steampunk is an imaginative genre set in a pre-electric age of steam power and clockwork. Adventuring scientists build, and battle, mechanical creations, even while navigating the restrictive customs of their times. Elements of fantasy are often at play, especially period types like a vampire or gentleman-magician.
Imagine shaking sci-fi and fantasy free of space operas and orc battles — or shaking Oliver Twist free of his workhouse, with the help of a clever automaton. Imagine a hidebound past full of infinite possibility. Such a world, with rigid etiquette and class structures but without electricity, channels the science fiction imagination in very human directions. The meeting of manners and machines also makes for plenty of humor.
Can we capture all of those contradictory appeals in a handful of baby names? Let’s try:
1. Ada. Real historical characters often make cameos in steampunk worlds, and Ada Lovelace is a favorite guest star. The daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace was a mathematician who is often called the world’s first computer programmer. Designing algorithms while wearing a bustle qualifies her as a real-life steampunk heroine. (Ada was actually her middle name; her given name, Augusta, is also a contender.)
2. Agatha. Agatha has the antique side of steampunk down pat. It’s the ultimate old lady name. Yet, the name gets a youthful spin in Girl Genius, a comic series with the tagline “Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!” Young heroine Agatha Heterodyne makes the name Agatha positively swashbuckling.
3. Bram. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula defined vampires as we know them. His Victorian setting still shapes our image of the bloodsuckers, with their formal attire, impeccable manners and threats to feminine virtue. It’s no surprise that vampires are the favorite crossover creature in steampunk fiction. You can honor them via their creator, with his simple but uncommon name.
4. Briar. You may associate the name Briar with a more traditional kind of fantasy. Briar Rose was the fairy tale princess also known as Sleeping Beauty. But the steampunk novel Boneshaker reshaped the name with Briar Wilkes, who braved a zombie-ridden 19th-century Seattle to find her son. This quiet but tough mom puts some of the thorns back in Briar.
5. Clementine. Clementine, the follow-up book to Boneshaker, is named for an airship rather than a person. The name nonetheless places you in the novel’s Western America setting. Thinking of Clementine as a pirate airship captained by a runaway slave may even help get the “Oh, My Darling” lyrics out of your head.
6. Edison. Thomas Edison embodies the spirit of invention, in real life and steampunk fiction alike. The Wizard of Menlo Park was a larger-than life figure, but his surname doesn’t sound showy. And unlike many other surnames, it’s distinctly masculine.
7. Hugo. The 2011 film Hugo was a clockwork enchantment with a glowing landscape of brass gears. It showed off the pretty and nostalgic side of an often gritty genre. The name Hugo, in turn, shows off steampunk heroes in their best light. Hugo sounds old-fashioned, even eccentric, but dauntless.
8. Ives. Ives is a variant on the saintly name Yves/Ivo. While it’s old and traditional, chances are you’ve only encountered it as a place name, perhaps in the rhyming riddle “As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives....” Ives boasts strong steampunk credentials in the form of Langdon St. Ives, the Victorian scientist and adventurer of James Blaylock’s books. The name itself is both stately and creative, and totally undiscovered.
9. Jeter. Author K.W. Jeter, of Infernal Devices, is credited with coining the term “steampunk.” To the uninitiated, his name may say “baseball” rather than “clockwork.” (Derek Jeter was a long-time star for the New York Yankees.) That’s fine, let the sports fans carry on in blissful ignorance as you tinker away in your basement laboratory...
10. Jules. 19th-century novelist Jules Verne is one of steampunk’s patron saints. His “scientific romances,” like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea still inspire writers with their blend of adventure, gallantry and steam-era invention. His name captures that blend perfectly. It’s an elegant but bold antique, and the sound-alike term “joules” refers to a scientific unit of energy.
11. Phineas. This name, with its quirky gentlemanliness, seems made for the genre. You find a smattering of steampunk Phineases, but the name’s real heart-of-steam lies in the similar name Phileas, as in Phileas Fogg and his journey Around the World in Eighty Days. You can choose Phileas instead, but it’s often misheard and the nickname Phil is less fashionable than Fin.
12. Sophronia. Sophronia Temminnick, the young heroine of Etiquette & Espionage, attends finishing school on a dirigible, where she learns the proper way to throw a knife while curtseying. And yes, it’s OK to laugh. The name’s over-the-top formality suits the book’s arch sense of humor, and might give a distinctive wrapper to the über-popular nickname Sophie.
13. Sterling. Bruce Sterling is the co-author of the seminal novel The Difference Engine. His name also suggests the British Pound Sterling, and carries a air of affluent poise to suit a top hat and silver-topped walking stick.
14. Tesla. If there’s one inventor who can eclipse Edison in the steampunk universe, it’s Nikola Tesla. Interest in the Serbian genius has been soaring lately, and his name is popping up in new places, including the baby name arena. This is the most scientific name on the list, but young Tesla will have to contend with Tesla Motors, the electric car maker.
15. Victoria. The Victorian era is eternal in steampunk — sometimes literally. (Queen Victoria may, for instance, become an immortal vampire and extend her reign into the 21st century.) Her Royal Highness even puts in personal appearances in many stories. She remains resolute in the face of perils, like the constant threat of being replaced by a lifelike automoton. This is a name of dignified, ladylike steel.
16. Violet. Violet is a favorite name of the steampunk world. Its vintage charm is pure delicacy, even as the word suggests “violent” possibilities that make it tougher than it seems. You’ll find Violets in books like All Men of Genius and the steampunk-tinged Series of Unfortunate Events. You can even shop for industrial-style corsets from “The Violet Vixen.”
17. Watson. The great detective Sherlock Holmes is irresistible to steampunk authors. He shows up, lending his powers of induction throughout the genre. Yet it’s sidekick Dr. Watson who has the better steampunk name. It carries the spark of invention, from the moment when telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell spoke, “Mr. Watson — come here!”
18. Wellington. This oh-so-British surname harkens back to the Duke of Wellington, the great soldier and statesman from the height of the Empire’s power. For bonus points you can use the nickname Wells, as in The Time Machine author H.G. Wells. For double bonus points, Wellington Books is a hero of the popular steampunk series The Ministry of Peculiar Occurences.