I realized recently, much to my chagrin, that I’ve never written a dedicated post about what “Steampunk” actually is. I get asked about it all the time; even though steampunk has grown a lot in recent years, it’s still a lesser-known genre that leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. Part of the confusion comes from simple unfamiliarity, but part comes from the fact that “steampunk” can be difficult to define.
So, first, I’ll try to explain steampunk in a few succinct ways. Then I’ll elaborate more on the history of the term and where it seems to be going as we move into the future.
Art by Rowena Wang
The Short Answer
In short, steampunk can be described as:
- Retro-futuristic, Victorian science fiction
- Alternative history, wherein the technology of the Victorian era advanced much more quickly
- Any fiction wherein steam is the primary source of power
- Fiction set in an alternate universe that features anachronistic technology and/or Victorian aesthetics
There are some common elements to these descriptions: influence of the Victorian era and a focus on technology.
Here are some steampunk examples you may be familiar with:
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (comic and movie)
- The Difference Engine (book)
- Infernal Devices (book)
- Wild Wild West (movie)
- Van Helsing (movie)
- Castle in the Sky (movie)
- The Golden Compass (book and movie)
The Long Answer
To better understand what steampunk is, you need to look at its history and influences. The term itself, “steampunk” originated in the 1980s as a variant of “cyberpunk”. As defined by Wikipedia, “cyberpunk” is “a subgenre of science fiction in a future setting that tends to focus on society as ‘high tech low life’ featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order”.
That’s a complicated definition, but you’re probably pretty familiar with cyberpunk. Examples include Blade Runner and The Matrix.
Steampunk takes the genre of cyberpunk and, instead of using the setting of the near-future, uses the setting of the 19th century. Steampunk draws from actual Victorian influences such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, and Mary Shelley. The genre also goes well beyond book or movie genres. It extends into fashion, DIY crafts, music, home decor, etc!
Steampunk fashion is easily identifiable, as it combines Victorian fashion with gadgets and the “punk” aesthetic. Common elements of steampunk fashion include corsets, bustles, waistcoats, top hats, spats, goggles, parasols, mechanical limbs, and post-apocalyptic elements.
Steampunk crafts often center around taking mundane, every-day items (a phone, a light switch, a table) and transforming them into steampunk gadgets. This often involves elements such as leather, brass, copper, gears, levers, and patina. The craft and maker aspect of steampunk has helped transform it from a genre to a subculture.
Steampunk music can take a variety of forms. Influences include Victorian music (e.g. pieces by Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff), industrial dance, world music, rock and punk, opera, and more. Overall, steampunk music combines elements of the “old” with the “new”.
Part of the issue with defining steampunk is that it’s a very new genre. As such, with each passing year it grows and evolves within the community of writers, artists, makers, musicians, filmmakers, and fans. I think that’s one of the reasons steampunk is so appealing: everyone involved can make their mark on the genre.
Hopefully that helps explain the genre to anyone who was less familiar with it. Feel free to leave questions for me in the comments! What’s your favorite part of steampunk?