What Is Steampunk?

I’ve been intrigued by the Steampunk genre for a while now. I like the visuals of it, the gears and clockwork and pseudo-Victoriana, but it’s a curiosity that has been left at the periphery as other things have taken priority. My friend Mick Bradley is, however, quite into it (he does Steampunk-inspired crafts), so I always have some imagery coming through my social networks thanks to him, keeping it somewhat in my radar. I was happy to leave my interest vague, simply enjoying looking at pics, until last week.

This scene popped into my head some time ago, a scene featuring an airship battle inside a thundercloud, and it fermented there long enough to want to be written down. I didn’t know anything about the characters or story beyond that vague description. So I started writing, and behold, two characters emerged fairly well defined, along with the beginnings of the battle between two airships. In my mind airships are really closely associated with steampunk; along with some of the descriptions and dialogue that came out, it seemed that this is what I was writing right here. Great!

The issue then became, what is this I am writing? Not so much in terms of the story: that I actually have a pretty decent idea what it’ll be by now; but what about this genre I know nothing about?

Understand my approach to genre is very fluid. In general, I don’t care for genre; I always strive to write a good story first, and if it fits in some genre due to X or Y, then fantastic. But I’m also a firm believer of the adage “Know the rules before you can break them.” So I set out to learn at least some basics about Steampunk.

What I learned is that there are as many definitions of steampunk as there are gears in a Swiss watch. Common things include clockwork, steam-powered technology, pseudo-Victoriana, a love for the color brown. To some it includes automata, to others it includes social warfare. The “punk” can mean street-level heroes fighting against The Man, or it can mean genre-bashing without regards to rules or conventions. To some it simply means “slap as many gears and piston as you can onto that thing you like!”

Mick has been on a quest to find out/rail against the meaning of steampunk for far longer, and he has this quote on his blog by author Mark Hodder that I very much like:

Just when you think you might have grasped it, steampunk reveals itself to be something more than you thought. You shouldn’t be surprised. After all, how can you expect to pin down a genre/fashion/attitude that references the steam powered technology of the late 1800s yet employs the airships of the 1930s as its primary icon? Bit of a mishmash, ain’t it? Therein is the joy. Steampunk gleefully borrows the flavours of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne, and mixes ‘em up with whatever it damned well pleases.

Interestingly, following the link to Mark’s website yielded these two more recent blog posts where he talks about what steampunk means to him, the first dealing with Steampunk and Empire:

I don’t hold much truck with the notion that sometimes a dirigible is just a dirigible. The idea that steampunk is popular simply because it’s fun fails to take timing into account. I have to ask, if it’s such an enjoyable genre (which it is), why didn’t it take off in the 1970s, after Mike Moorcock wrote Warlord of the Air, or in the ’80s after K. W. Jeter’s Morlock Night? Why is steampunk such a phenomenon now? Personally, I think it’s because we live in a world in which empires are crumbling.

The second on the meaning of “punk” in Steampunk:

It strikes me that the definition of Steampunk is rather a flexible one, due, in part, to the word “punk” having a more politicised significance in British English than it does in American. I was in my mid-teens when the punk movement railed against the established order back in the late 70s, and my generation still retains the attitudes that were formed back then. To us, the establishment was bigoted, brutal, uptight, and clearly representative of everything that is wrong with imperialism, market-driven policies, and the non-distribution of wealth. Steampunk is, for me, the perfect arena in which to explore socio-economic policies that seem to have spiralled farther and farther out of control since those punk years.

Both are interesting posts, though what I personally find most interesting is that, his entire argument on both articles is one that, for me, resonates more when dealing with Cyberpunk than with Steampunk. I’m forced to wonder, is Steampunk just Cyberpunk in the past instead of in the future?

Ultimately what I discovered is that I can safely create my own definition of Steampunk out of a series of elements that may or may not be considered such by others out there. And more importantly, that this is fine, even if it draws the ire of some purist somewhere.

To me, right now, Steampunk means retro-futuristic stories  set in a pseudo-Victorian (late 1800s, though not necessarily England) era where steam-powered technology has evolved to early- to mid-20th century levels, involving larger-than-life heroes with very human foibles engaging in high-flying adventures against villains that embody the social and cultural stiffness of the time.

Oh, and airships. Because, airships!

Based on that, the tale of the Airship Star which I am writing is solidly within the genre, but as I said, I’m far more interested in telling a good story than a genre story, so I reserve the right to break my own definition if I need to.

And to close with a song, here’s a video that I saw some time ago (also via Mick) dealing with the whole “what is steampunk?” question. Just take it with a grain of salt.

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