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A new age of steam

Steampunk, a modern mix of Victorian technology and sci-fi, is becoming a major influence in books, fashion and on the big screen

It's a classic tale of boy meets girl, except he dabbles in nanoelectromechanics and she is the aether gun-toting captain of a steam-powered airship. Welcome to the future of romance.

Katie MacAlister's Steamed: A Steampunk Romance is the latest hit in the genre that is rocketing up the US bestseller charts and tipped as the next big trend for the UK literary love scene.

Romance writers are capitalising on the growing popularity of the fictional genre, which mixes steam power with science fiction in alternate realities. But it is not just in bookshops that 2010 is set to see a new age of steam: a burgeoning subculture is making its mark from the cinema to high street fashion.

Enthusiasts mix the aesthetic of the steam era with modern creativity, donning brass goggles, pith helmets, corsets and pocket watches to complement modified sword canes, Flash Gordon-esque ray guns and "Victorian" jet packs. Vision Express announced in December – when Sherlock Holmes hit the big screen – that it was reintroducing monocles to cope with unprecedented demand.

"It's about taking the best of the steam period, which we define from about 1830 to the end of the First World War, but using it to look at a bright new future," said "Major Tinker", chairman of the Victorian Steampunk Society. "It is also trying to revisit some of those values – things like a rejection of crass commercialism and the idea that things should be disposable. Punk started as a rebellion. Our rebellion is a rebellion against chav society."

Steampunks, he added, embrace good manners and polite behaviour. The Asylum, the UK's first steampunk festival, attracted 400 people to Lincoln last September, with 1,000 expected this year.

Dylan Fox, administrator of the UK Steampunk Network website, takes inspiration from sci-fi writers including Jules Verne and H G Wells. He claimed people were turning away from the generic nature of electronic goods. Exhibits at the world's first exhibition of steampunk art at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford include Dr Grymm's Eye Pod, a working iPod with eyeball control and gramophone dock.

Jim Bennett, director of the museum, who said the exhibition was the most popular in its 85-year history, described steampunk art as "retro but imaginative". "It's not a nostalgic reaction to the way things used to look but it's an updated development of Victorian technology," he explained.

Steamed, MacAlister's first foray into steampunk romance, entered The New York Times bestseller list this month. The fan of steampunk-inspired comic series and the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen said the sub-genre was "getting a lot of vocalisation right now". Other forthcoming titles include Nathalie Gray's Full Steam Ahead and Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series.

Barbara Jones, romance buyer at Waterstone's, said it was "early days" for steampunk romance in the UK but she expected it to become very popular over the next few years. "Steampunk in general is fun and adventurous, as well as being rooted in all things Victorian, which is very popular here but also, crucially, in the US, where most of the strong romance fiction trends start."