What is Steampunk?

Because of the nature of my book, A Fearful Storm Gathering (The Volcano Lady,) I was asked “what is Steampunk?” I have to admit that may be quite a challenge. The genre, itself a sub-genre of Science Fiction, Alternative History, and Speculative Fiction, is growing and changing. It’s not the same today as it was when the term was first coined by K.W. Jeter in 1989 when he was looking for a way to distinguish his fiction from everyday sci fi. Even then, Jeter was being rather tongue and cheek, playing off the term Cyberpunk. Still lost with all these ‘punks?’

Okay, let me take a stab at it this way: Punk writing isn’t about some guy with a Mohawk and a typewriter. The term refers to a desire to take human history or an envisioned future and to make a statement about what the author doesn’t like in the worlds he writes about – and equally the world he lives in. Cyberpunk is fiction set in a dystopian future. Generally, the bleak environment is caused by corrupt and controlling governmental forces and the hero’s job is to survive if not to destroy those forces. In my opinion, Cyberpunk reflects the negative, often angry, hopeless thinking of the late 1980’s. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s writings defined the genre, so it comes as no surprise that they also were leading writers of the Steampunk genre, with the classic The Difference Engine. Steampunk fiction is an off-shoot of that angry writing style, just set in an industrial era gone by. Early Steampunk novels had an evil British Empire ruling the world, Railroad Barons enslaving thousands, and little hope for the little guy.

Well, that was true … at first. The real parents of Steampunk were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Their gentle, more hopeful outlook helped to ease the tension in the genre as fans began to read their classic works again. Like any science fiction, the fans eventually took over and began to dictate the nature of what sells and what doesn’t. Who can resist dirigibles, submarines, and clockwork androids (who require rewinding every morning?) Much of the ‘punk’ has softened and now we see more scientific romances than angry, literary activism.

Steampunk today has changed. And for the better in my opinion.
My definition of Steampunk is: a culture, started via literature, based on romantic ideas combining technology, innovation, visual arts, and Victoriana to create a fantasy world where steam power drives everything. Steampunk definitely fits my concept of culture. It has its own set of behaviors, norms, language, literature, music, fashion, and sometimes a bit of religion. Today there are conventions where participants combine Victorian clothing with outrageous gadgets. Check online: artists are designing or remaking computers to look like technology seen through the eyes of the Victorians. With Steampunk, the technology cannot just work with steam, it must be magnificent! Computers, aka Analytical Devices, must be bronze with ornate detailing. Submarines must have giant pipe organs of gleaming brass for the captain to entertain himself with. Beautiful and Dangerous, Glorious and Threatening.

Fans are equally men and women, though I do have the complaint that much of the available fiction is aimed at the 14 – 20 year old male. That too will change as the genre grows.

So I’ll hop off the blog now. I need to don my goggles, my silk bustle dress, grab my gloves (a lady always wears gloves) and pick hammer, and go do some geology. Thanks to Steampunk, what if was never more fun.

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