What is Steampunk?
The question gets asked a lot by people just coming to the genre. Those familiar with steampunk tend to take a ‘I know it when I see it’ approach, and that’s because like many developing genres (although the term has been around since the 80s at least, I think of it as a genre still in flux), it’s still drawing inspiration from and blending with other genres. Many books, films, and video games have steampunk elements. Does that make them steampunk? I think it depends on what steampunk means to the viewer.
To me, steampunk is a postmodern re-imagining of classical Victorian science fiction, the kind written by Verne and Wells. It’s someone from the modern time period looking back and saying ‘okay, if I were living in the 1800s, and were writing sci-fi, how would I do it?’ Of course, the modernity of a contemporary writer can’t be erased, and most classic Victorian literature would be considered too dense by the average reader today, so that lens of ‘what would it look like?’ is colored by a modern sensibility. This sensibility can be tongue in cheek, and a little funny, or it can be serious and commentating. If you’re lucky, it’ll be both.
Of course, that’s just my interpretation of the word. As I said, the genre is still in an exploratory place and often hybridizing with other genres; we have (and I’m naming things as I go along here) supernatural steampunk – where technology of the Victorian era has been advanced due to Vampires, werewolves, etc. Retrofuturistic Steampunk, where instead of going back and advancing technology, we go forward, to a future where people have chosen to try to live as they did in the Victorian Era. Fantasy Steampunk, where a steampunk world had elements which cannot be explained by science but instead by a new element, such as a fantastic power source. And many, many others.
Steampunk elements have crept into many facets of culture, including fashion, art, popular television, and even books that weren’t written by me. I think its appeal can be attributed to the aesthetic of the machine. The idea that today, with tiny microchips powering everything, it’s difficult to get a grasp on how things work, whereas if you see a giant machine with moving parts, you can quite literally see how they work, and that makes the technology more human. I think that’s one part of it. Certainly, with today’s culture of overexposure it’s nice to visit a place where subtlety has more rein. I’m a fan of the witty remark over the catfight or twitterwar, of the double entendre over a craigslist ad. Some say that the cleanliness of much of science fiction makes it alien to them, whereas steampunk, with it’s rust and dirt seems a more human sort of science fiction. I think there are many elements which make steampunk appealing. Again, it depends on who it’s appealing to.
I’ve been told steampunk is fetishization of gears (which I think was meant to sound like a bad thing, but I do like gears), or goth with more brown, and I think it can be that for those who want nothing more. And if it makes them happy, then more power to them. But for others, steampunk is a complex exploration of nostalgia and modernity, of wanting to stride bravely into the future without losing sight of the past. I think it’s an ideal, in many ways. A way of having everything the way you want it. And gears, too.