Of Cogs and Corkscrews: What is Steampunk?

This is a guest post from one of my favourite gaming bloggers, Vrykerion. He’s a great writer and much more knowledgeable than I am about steampunk as a whole! This post deals with steampunk as a genre. Enjoy!

Top hats and goggles, zeppelins, elaborate machinations built of brass and gears – there’s a lot of iconic images that spring to mind when you say ‘steampunk’.  There has been a huge surge in popularity in this somewhat strange sub-genre in the past few years, and while I can’t honestly say I understand why, I was asked to come here and explain a bit about what ‘steampunk’ is and where it came from.  Because knowing is half the battle.  The other half involves a steam-powered boxing glove launcher.

In its most basic form steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction that theorizes an alternate version of history where modern-day or sometimes futuristic technology is emulated through Victorian era means.  Drawing inspiration from great fantastical works by authors such as Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, steampunk is filled with strange constructs assembled mostly through gears, cogs and steam power.  This can be anything from steam-powered motorcycles to giantmechs propelled by clockwork gears and coal. Or if you are a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, steampunk can easily be summed up as “Everything the Fire Nation makes.”

Of course, after that the next question is usually: “Okay, I get the whole steam thing, but what about the punk?  I never saw the Ramones dress like Victorian era English snobs.” And while my entire knowledge of the Ramones consists of two songs and watching Rock & Roll High School once while I was sick at home, I’d wager you’re correct.  To explain the -punk suffix, we have to take a stroll down memory lane.  TO THE 80’s!

The -punk suffix that seems to have become the standard for a slew of various types of speculative fiction (more on that in a bit) comes from the grand daddy of the sub-genre: Cyberpunk.  Yes kiddies, Cyberpunk came first.  It is not “future steampunk.” While the most iconic works that helped define the steampunk genre did predate cyberpunk, the term steampunk was derived from cyberpunk in the late 1980s by author K.W. Jeter in an attempt to explain and categorize his and a few others’ works.

Cyberpunk is defined as a speculative near future scenario that theorized technological advances based on present (80s) technology.  It also was quite depressing, focusing on the technology creating a loss of humanity and deregulated corporations controlling most – if not all – aspects of everyday life.  The visual aesthetic of much of cyberpunk was taken from the times it was created in.  The corporate wage slaves were often dressed in identical suits and styles worn by 80’s business men and women.  Meanwhile the oppressed common man and freedom seeking street thugs were modeled after – you guessed it – the punk and heavy metal music scenes.  Lots of leather jackets, chains and piercings, with 80’s neon colored hair galore.

Now how does this punk/metal look apply to steampunk?  It doesn’t. Not at all.  The name just carried over as a clever nomenclature. See? That was simple.

So now that we have that whole name thing, we have a solid grasp on steampunk, right? Wrong.  Because even with the very clear definition of steampunk that we originally started with there is still a ton of debate still over whether something is or is not steampunk.  Oh, you think it’d be easy, but no.  After all, some people contend that steampunk specifically pertains to stories and art that are placed in the Victorian era.  While others are more lenient and generally willing to accept any technology forged from Victorian era means regardless of setting – be it an alternate steampunk World War, a distant future world, or a fantasy setting.

That’s just the beginning of the debate.  You see cyberpunk and steampunk aren’t the only two attractions in this twisted carnival of speculative fiction.  Oh yes, there are many other sub-genres each with their own criteria (and all have to the –punk suffix to boot!)  There are things like biopunk (DNA manipulation), nanopunk (nanomachines), clockpunk (renaissance era clockwork and spring machines), atompunk (atomic and space age technology), and the one that is most often incorrectly identified as steampunk – dieselpunk.  Dieselpunk focuses on World War II era design with examples like the video game, BioShock , or the film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  However because it tends to overlap with lots of mechs and especially zeppelins, dieselpunk and steampunk can be seem to have a lot of shared imagery.

However, the one thing that clearly differentiates all of these is time period and/or the technology being used. Steampunk is specifically built around technology developed with Victorian era (1820-1910) knowhow and machinery.  Anything before or after that, and you may be delving into a separate genre, so be sure to check that you’re labeling your metaphorical jars correctly, or else that dinner will end up tasting horrible!

Well, I hope this little guest post has helped to clarify and perhaps enlighten you to some of the more intricate details surrounding the immensely popular genre of steampunk. Fetch me my goggles and top hat! Excelsior!