The term “Steampunk” came into existence via a letter to Locus Magazine, April 1987 from science fiction author K. W. Jeter. He was trying to find a description of his book Morlock Night, and others (Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates and James Blaylock’s Homunculus).
Steampunk for me, in a single phrase, is retro-futuristic neo-Victorianism. But that answer may prove no more helpful, as this collaboration of ideas is still exceptionally broad. I see steampunk primarily as an aesthetic, an attitude, and a way of doing. The aesthetic emphasizes creativity and functionality with authentic Victorian flair. While this may be a limitation to come, it’s more often a challenge met head-on by asking “how would I have created this item using antique tools”, and “how could I make it better than what actually existed”?
Steampunk in literature and film has as much of a focus on the technology as it does on the society using and producing the technology. Author’s have the chance to work with incredibly complex Victorian and Wild West America ideas:
- What historical realities are ignored in other literature?
- How would this technology affect the people in these communities?
- Corsets are pretty restricting to move in, how will my heroine overcome that, or how will it affect her attitude?
The Victorian SciFi roots of modern steampunk also remain staples of the genre and aesthetic: cephalopods from Jules Verne, modified physics from H. G. Wells, and of course the monsters from Shelley and Stevenson.
What, then, is the difference between Steampunk and something that is simply Victorian or Victorian inspired? For myself the difference lies in the role the technology plays in the story. If the pseudo-scientific materials are removed, can the story continue unharmed? If it can then it’s not steampunk, it’s simply neo-Victorian. If, however, the removal of the technology fundamentally changes the story, the characters, and/or the events of the book then it is absolutely steampunk.
There are a lot of answers, though, to What Is Steampunk, and below are a few author’s thought provoking quotes to guide you in finding what steampunk means to you.
“Steampunk creations may be mechanical, sculptural, or purely decorative. The designs may be practical or completely fanciful. Whatever the application, the art celebrates a time when new technology was produced, not by large corporations, but by talented and independent artisans and inventors” – Art Donovan The Art of Steampunk (book, 2011)
“Imagine a Jules Vernian/Charles Dickens mash-up world that runs on steam and practical magic, where gears and pistons and brass and iron take the place of plastics and microprocessors, and where Queen Victoria serenely rules a progressive empire of advanced thermal and aetherial technology” – Evan Butterfield of EButterfield Photography
ˈstēmˌpəNGk/ noun: steampunk; noun: steam-punk
“a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology” (Google Definitions).
“In its glibbest sense, it can be seen as a way of giving your personal technology a goth make-over. Imagine a top of the range computer pimped out to look like an old typewriter, or an iPhone dock that lets you answer your phone using an old brass and wood receiver. But at its deepest, it’s a whole way of looking and living: and a colourful protest against the inexorable advance of technology itself[.…]It has reignited a love of “old fashioned” materials: brass and copper, wood, glass, mechanical workings, ornate engraving. It has also co-opted the re/upcycling aesthetic in its love of the old, the repaired, the reworked and the imperfect”
William Higham “What the Hell is Steampunk?” Huffington Post Oct 18 2011
“Over the years, steampunk has evolved into more than just a sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Steampunk now extends into fashion, engineering, music, and for some, a lifestyle. With the Victorian British Empire or American Wild West as the backdrop, steampunk projects are a challenge of making something elegant out of random bits and bobs. Picture MacGyver or The A-Team in the 1800’s” visa the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences