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What is steampunk?
In three short words, steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Here “Victorian” is not meant to indicate a specific culture, but rather references a time period and an aesthetic: the industrialized 19th century. Historically, this period saw the development of many key aspects of the modern world (mechanized manufacturing, extensive urbanization, telecommunications, office life and mass-transit), and steampunk uses this existing technology and structure to imagine an even more advanced 19th century, often complete with Victorian-inspired wonders like steam-powered aircraft and mechanical computers.
Where did steampunk come from?
In some sense, steampunk has existed since the 19th century. The Victorian period had its own science fiction, perhaps most famously embodied by the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and throughout the 20th century there have been later-day science fiction stories set in the Victorian period. However, the term “steampunk” was not coined until the late 1980s, when author K. W. Jeter used it humorously to describe a grouping of stories set in the Victorian period written during a time when near-future cyberpunk was the prevailing form of science fiction.
Where does the sci-fi come in?
The line between steampunk and period Victorian is extremely narrow, and often the two are indistinguishable. They are separated only by steampunk’s status as science fiction, albeit heavily inspired by the historical fact of the Victorian period. This is generally accomplished in one of two ways. The “proto-steampunk” stories of the 19th century can be seen as a parallel to our own science fiction; that is, a view of the future from the present. For the Victorians, this meant imagining a future that looks dramatically un-modern to modern eyes. Submarines, space travel, aircraft and mechanized life were all imagined by the Victorians, but while some of these came very close to the mark they still differed from where the future actually went. For modern writers, with the benefit of modern science, steampunk becomes a re-imagining of the 19th century with a view of where science will one day go. In this way, steampunk often works to translate modern concepts such as the computer revolution, spy thrillers, noir mysteries and even the Internet into a Victorian context using Victorian technology. Steampunk becomes the perfect blending of alternate history and science fiction.
Where does the steam come in?
Steampunk’s steam references more than simply the technology itself, although steam engines are a vital aspect of life in a steampunk world. Steam more generally signifies a world in which steam technology is both dominant and prolific. During the Victorian era, steam power revolutionized almost every aspect of life. The steam engine made full-scale industrialization possible and produced mechanical power more efficiently and to greater degrees than human and animal labor could manage on their own. Mechanized manufacturing and farming caused an upheaval in the structure of working life, but they dramatically increased society’s productivity and freed up an entire section of society to form the modern class of professionals and office workers. The changes in society brought on by steam-driven industrialization allowed for the unprecedented developments in sciences, society and goods that came to be associated with the Victorian era. Steampunk takes inspiration from these changes and applies them to whatever culture it influences.
Where does the punk come in?
Ironically, it doesn’t. As was mentioned earlier, the term “steampunk” is a tongue in cheek reference to the cyberpunk genre rather than a reference to the punk subculture. Moreover, “punk” in the context of punk rock was the product of very specific circumstances following the Second World War, which makes it fundamentally distinct from the Victorian aesthetic that inspires steampunk. However, individuals interested in exploring a steampunk equivalent to 20th century punk can find a wealth of material in 19th century counterculture groups ranging from the Luddites to utopians to hooligans. Add a dash of Victorian street culture and a sprinkling of ragtime, and steampunk “punk” comes into focus.
What about gears?
The gear is an easily recognized symbol of steampunk, but it is not unique to the genre. It was invented long before the 19th century and it remains in use today. The gear in steampunk joins related devices such as flywheels and pistons as the “power lines” of the steam age. Steam power is mechanical power and its transmission demands a network of moving parts in the same way that electrical power transmission demands wires. The gear on its own is not especially “steampunk” but when put to use in 19th century machinery it becomes a key icon of the genre.
What about goggles?
Goggles are often encountered in steampunk clothing and imagery, and this can create the misleading impression that they are somehow fundamental to the “steampunk look.” Certainly, goggles are associated with both science and mechanized travel, both of which are common themes in steampunk. However, this does not mean that everyone in a steampunk setting wears goggles; in fact, only people who have a reason to wear them do so, and then only while it is useful. As with scarves, driving coats, aprons and overalls, goggles are a piece of fashion that can help give life to a steampunk world when used properly and in moderation, but can rapidly border upon the ludicrous when turned into an end rather than a means.
What is the appeal of steampunk?
A genre as large as steampunk has a wide-ranging appeal. Some people are drawn to it from a love of the Victorian period. Others enjoy steampunk’s unique approach to technology: re-imagining modern capabilities with 19th century machines. Many people are drawn to it in light of its fashion aspects, which allow them to sample and even combine a range of clothing styles and accessories from across the 19th century world. One critical aspect of steampunk is the tremendous diversity of appeal it presents, which allows it to offer something for just about everyone. Steampunk is also aided by a more general neo-vintage movement, which has been steadily progressing through mainstream fashion, film and aesthetics, but even this cannot wholly explain steampunk’s appeal. The genre possesses a life of its own that draws in fans from countless directions and backgrounds into a world where fashion is tailored to the individual, goods are made to last, and machinery is still regarded as a thing of visual majesty.
Steampunk sounds great! Where’s an easy place to start?
The basic rule of thumb for steampunk is “start period and then add.” One of steampunk’s great advantages is that the period it is inspired by, the Victorian era, saw the invention of photography and cinematic film. These in turn allowed for a visual record of people from all different classes, cultures and backgrounds, providing an unprecedented amount of reference material. People looking for fashion ideas, character inspirations or scenes to describe can find a wealth of starting points in the countless vintage photographs and film reels left over from the 19th century. All that remains is to add to or modify the depictions to taste, though it must be remembered that many aspects of a steampunk world and its people will likely remain virtually indistinguishable from the period that inspires them.