Defining Steampunk

Welcome to Media Monday! So far we’ve had one movie post and two book posts. This one will be…well, a little of everything, because we’re talking about steampunk.

What is steampunk?

See, there’s the problem. Where to start?

Jake Von Slatt steampunk computer

Photo by Jake Von Slatt, found via floorvan's flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/f7oor/564663403/

Steampunk is a science-fictional re-imagining of the 19th century. As you might imagine from the “punk” part of the name, it’s meant to be subversive. It asks the question, “What if the Age of Steam had unfolded differently?” The trick is that there are as many variations on that question, and as many answers, as there are people.

Some steampunks (i.e., people who “do” steampunk) focus on technology — What if the inventors and engineers back then had taken the steam engine and used it to create more than they did in real life? What would that look like? How would it work?

Others focus on society — What if the nineteenth century had offered more opportunities and power for women, people of colour (more), and other marginalized groups? What if the political or social maps were redrawn? What would that look like? What would they do? What would they wear? How would the events of the century unfold?

Of course, all of these questions — and the answers put forth by various people — feed into each other. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist in a dialogue.

The tricky thing about steampunk is that it’s not based on a single fictional world (TV show, or movie, or author, or what have you), the way most fandoms are, even though steampunk can be viewed as science fiction. In some ways it has more in common with a subculture based around music and fashion, like goth or punk — except that these lack the shared-world aspect that’s so integral to steampunk. (Giant disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about this kind of subculture. I come from the science fiction and fantasy side.)

So what is steampunk?

For some people, it’s a subgenre of science fiction — Gail Carriger‘s Parasol Protectorate series and Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan series are probably two of the best-known examples of books, and there are movies and TV series that could fall under steampunk as well. Here’s a contribution by me — “Engine Dreamer”, a short story in which the British Empire has expanded to outer space. (Available free from Turtleduck Press.)

For some people, it’s a lifestyle and an aesthetic — they decorate their homes and dress up at every opportunity. Along with this comes the opportunity to (1) invent a persona that fits into an alternate 19th century of your own devising, a role that can be played at steampunk meetups and conventions and online hangouts (and another for Canadians), and (2) make items of both beauty and function, everything from retrofitted computers to elaborate outfits to many kinds of art.

For some people, it’s a musical genre born out of these personas and outfits. There are bands and hip-hop artists devoted to steampunk. I don’t know enough about the musical side to say whether there’s an identifiable musical aesthetic — if you do, please enlighten me in the comments!

One of the best, and most fascinating, things about steampunk is that it can be so many things to so many people. There’s a lot of room to play, which is glorious. It’s sort of a fuzzy set — or in plain language, “you know it when you see it”. But that also leads to frustration when you’re staring at the face of a person who has only just heard the term for the first time, and you don’t know where to start explaining.

If you’re familiar with steampunk, how do you define and explain it to others? What part of your understanding did I leave out? If you’re not familiar, did my explanation make sense…or at least make you want to know more?

You might also be interested in my follow-up post about steampunk books.

7 responses to “Defining Steampunk

  1. I’m a science fiction and fantasy fan, but have never tried any steampunk and I don’t know much about it, although I had some idea. I thought your explanation was great, and having lots of links is pretty helpful :)

  2. Good post . . . I agree, each has their own interpretation, which can be fun. I’ve done a similar post along the same lines here:
    http://psalmboxkey.com/2011/12/01/steampunk-the-tv-beauty-and-the-beast/

  3. Thanks, Mike, glad it was helpful to you! I might have to do a follow-up post to talk more about the book side of things…

  4. Thanks for the comment! Your post goes deeper into some aspects I barely touched on — the philosophy and aesthetics of steampunk. Good stuff!

  5. That might not be a bad idea, especially if you’re writing steampunk.

  6. …I love your post, but it’s left me with a sinking feeling.

    From what I can see, steampunk is based in the 19th century. That’s the sole requirement–anything else kind of is up to the person interpreting it. Will I explore technology? Will I explore social aspects? But ultimately, it’s all fiction, and thus not real.

    I’m sort of feeling like we’re going to end up with an accepted view of what steampunk is, and anyone who dares to go against that will be vilified, because everyone will miss the point that steampunk is fiction.

    Don’t believe me? Four words. Stephenie Meyer and Twilight.

  7. Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of discussion about that. What qualifies as steampunk? Does it have to be Victorian? What if it’s set elsewhere in the world? What about gears and airships in the 16th century instead of the 19th? Where are the edges of this fuzzy set? For further reading (and more links), I refer you to http://silver-goggles.blogspot.ca/ and http://beyondvictoriana.com/ .

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