Recently I spent an evening at a book seller’s/buyers trade show, and during this trade show, I was called upon to explain what steampunk is … repeatedly. Dozens of times, no joke. Likewise, I was asked many a follow-up question, and I did my best to provide concise, reasonable, correct(ish) answers to all of them.
Mind you, I didn’t have a print-out of my steampunk manifesto in hand; and anyway, even if I did, it would’ve been utterly impractical (and time-consuming) to recite. So I pondered. I struggled. I condensed.
Given the excessive (and delightful!) interest in the subject, I thought I’d take a stab at turning my experience into a Frequently Asked Questions page. Perhaps it will be of use to someone, somewhere. Perhaps it will earn me hate mail. One never knows. Regardless, here’s my best effort.
What is “steampunk?” No, seriously. Fifty words or fewer. I dare you.
Steampunk is a style (of books, clothes, video games, movies, etc.) that draws its inspiration from old science fiction stories. By “old” I mean Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and their ilk. Steampunk art is often (but not strictly always) indicative of a place and/or time wherein steam is the dominant form of high technology. Or at least it usually looks like it is. [Whoops, that's more than fifty words. But not much more.]
Okay. But why?
Because it’s fun. Also, it’s a reaction to the school of design that says all tech must look flat and shiny and inscrutable; it’s a rebuttal of disposable culture and wasteful consumption; it’s a rejection of history books that only tell stories about rich dead white dudes; it’s indicative of a desire for technology that’s easily understood, easily repaired, easily maintained; it’s hands-on; it’s a creative outlet; it’s pretty.
So “steampunks” are all about Victorians with ray guns? Because that’s kind of what it looks like.
Sometimes, but not exclusively. I would argue that steampunk has its roots firmly entrenched in the 19th century, yes — but there’s oodles of room for it to stretch its legs. Some people steam up WWI tech (for example, see Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Guinan and Bennett), or let the aesthetic influence stories and artwork even farther down the time line (see Mignola’s Hellboy). Aviator/aviatrix-chic is quite popular in steampunk fashion circles, but the early days of aviation represented are typically from the 19-teens to the 1940s.
There are scores of “second world” steampunk settings — which is to say, pretend places that look very much like the 19th century did here in the real world somewhere on planet earth (i.e., the “first world”).
I’ve also seen people push it back the other direction a century or two. These stories or costumes (reflective of periods before steam power was in common use) are often referred to as “clockpunk” instead.
Clockpunk? Are there any other punks we should be made aware of?
Well now, I don’t think it’s really necessary to split hairs. But if you wanted to, I guess you could. I’ve seen stitchpunk, dieselpunk, gaslightpunk, steamgoth, and other variants; but really, I think these things all fall under the steampunk umbrella.
To make an easy comparison for the sake of instruction, I’d point to romance novels. You can read historical romances, contemporary romances, time-travel romances, paranormal romances, and many, many other kinds of romances (believe me, I know — I used to work at a giant used bookstore). But at the end of the day, they’re all romances. You know them when you see them.
Where did the term “steampunk” come from, anyway? I’d never heard it before, and suddenly I’m hearing it everywhere.
Actually, the word has been around for a while. It is generally-agreed-upon that “steampunk” first appeared in a letter written to Locus magazine in 1987. Author K. W. Jeter was looking for a general term to describe his material (as well as the material of some of his contemporaries) set in the 19th century or 19th-century-like worlds, with strange tech and wondrous marvels.
He said: “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps…”
His usage here was a riff on the label “cyberpunks,” a then-newish and very popular genre that was very science-fiction-forward, loaded with bad-ass hackers, virtual reality tech, and (frequently) predictions of a dystopian future.
So what do steampunks … um … do?
Most steampunks have a jolly old time handcrafting jewelry, trying on corsets and cravats, building robots, turning squirt guns into ray guns, writing retro-futuristic fiction, having great big meet-ups, taking pictures of each other, and doing all sorts of other marvelously playful, resourceful things.
Also, we hold down day jobs, have families, clean litterboxes, meet deadlines, go shopping for groceries, vacuum under the couch, eat cupcakes, read books, moisturize, and just about everything else that everybody else does all the time.
That’s just how we roll.
I must know: Why goggles?
Goggles are fashion shorthand for ACTION, ADVENTURE, ACTIVITY, and other words that don’t even necessarily begin with “A” but definitely ought to appear in all-caps. They imply motion and maybe dangerous work — which means that if you’re caught wearing them, you’ve been interrupted while doing something wild.
Besides. They’re cool.
So, can you name or recommend some things that are steampunk?
Sure. Lots of people think that Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine deserves an early mention, and it no doubt does. And in addition to the aforementioned Boilerplate and Hellboy, check out fiction by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, Michael Moorcock, and K. W. Jeter; or some of the more recent stuff by Jay Lake, Ken Scholes, Ekaterina Sedia, China Miéville, George Mann, Stephen Hunt; look into nonfiction works of Jess Nevins (his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen annotations, and The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana for starters); for that matter, pick up the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic trades (though for the love of God, skip the movie); check out some of Joe Lansdale’s “weird west” material; visit also Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthologies; look into the webcomic Girl Genius.
Watch the old Wild Wild West tv show; turn off the sound and watch the 1999 movie with Will Smith and Kevin Kline. View Steamboy; Howl’s Moving Castle; The City of Lost Children nails the sentiment nicely. Play the video games Arcanum, Final Fantasy VI, and Bioshock (which nails the vibe without the time period). Listen to Abney Park and Rasputina; tune in to the Clockwork Cabaret. Play Unhallowed Metropolis.
Or don’t. Maybe just poke around the internet and see if there’s a steampunk group or club near you, and swing by a meet-up. Look online via sites like Steamfashion or (for U.K. readers) the Brass Goggles forums. Ask around. Steampunks are increasingly visible, and they tend to be a pretty inclusive lot — happy to proselytize and welcome newcomers.
(Really, though — everything mentioned above is just for starters. There’s scads more out there, and it’s usually not too difficult to find.)
What was that about a manifesto, again?
If you’d like to read a little more about my own experiences getting involved with steampunk, as well as my idea of its core philosophies, go here to my essay on the subject. It’s more of a Steampunk 102 than a Steampunk 101 (like I intend for this post to be), but if you’re interested in the subject, it might prove helpful.
Can I ask a question?
Absolutely, and I’ll try to answer it. Your results may vary, I warn. But I’ll give it an honest go. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment here.
But that’s all I can think of for now.
Thanks for reading!