A relatively new genre, Steampunk has gained a large following in recent years. Anyone who has heard of it will no doubt conjure up images of men and women in Victorian dress with the additions of lots of brass and clockwork gadgets and of course, tinted goggles. They may think of submarines like the Nautilus from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and of airships and the walking machines of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. In fact the works of nineteenth century writers like Verne and Wells pretty much have it covered. But is Steampunk more than just Victorian science fiction? Where does punk come into it?
The term is usually atributed to K. W. Jeter (author of Infernal Devices) who tried to come up with a name that encompassed the genre he and Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (The Digging Leviathan) were writing in. In a 1987 letter to sci-fi magazine Locus, Jeter said;
“Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.”
So at face value Steampunk is stuff set in the age of steam, when railways were springing up all over the world, connecting empires in an age before the internal combustion engine, a more refined age, marked by the manners and speech patterns of the late Victorians. But there has been an increasing debate over the real definition of Steampunk. Where does it differ from what Verne and Wells were writing back in the age of steam itself?
The Urban Dictionary has it as; “a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.“
Most Steampunk stories take place in an alternate history where things turned out differently like in the Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling which suggests a Victorian age in which Charles Babbage succeeded in building an advanced thinking machine resulting in great technological leaps and bounds ahead of time. Sometimes it’s a post-apocalyptic set up like in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker in which a steam-powered drilling machine goes awry in the Klondike, releasing a vein of ‘blight gas’ turning anyone who breathes it into the living dead.
When K. W. Jeter coined the term he was clearly referencing another genre of science fiction called ‘Cyberpunk’ where stories like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the Matrix films present a post industrial age where the protagonists are often hackers or other subversive types keen on changing the social order. So this is the ‘punk’ part and it reveals itself in Steampunk where the artificial intelligence and mega-corporations of Cyberpunk are replaced by the steam powered technology of nineteenth century empires and the hackers or ‘punks’ are the subversives fighting a revolution against either the technology or the imperialism that defined the age.
So while the works of Wells and Verne clearly had an influence on the genre, I wouldn’t really call them Steampunk in themselves. They are Victorian science fiction. Steampunk is a new and different genre all about change and revolution that merely draws from the works of the great writers of nineteenth century science fiction.
Steampunk is as much an aesthetic medium as a literary one evident by the increasing interest in ‘cosplay’ (costume play). Tinkerers, tailors and other creative individuals express their love for the genre at conventions and Steampunk-themed weddings where brass, cogs and rivets abound as do goggles, corsets, top hats and dusters. Gadgets are as important as costumes and in many cases complement the former with pocket watches and weapons modified or created from scratch to reflect the style. Gadgets are custom made by and for those merely wishing to add a little Steampunk into their lives like brass iPhone covers, PC keyboards and lighter cases. It’s also a common thing to see Steampunk riffs on pop culture franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers and Doctor Who not just in costumes but in concept art and models like this Steampunk AT-AT by ‘Mark’ (AKA Captain Bailey).
Being a genre limited only by peoples imaginations, Steampunk is notoriously hard to define and will no doubt continue to evolve.