Steampunk: What It Is, Why I Came To Like It, And Why I Think It'll Stick Around

This article, from Cherie Priest, originally appeared on her The Clockwork Century site on 8/8/09.

I would like to take a moment to define “steampunk.” This will be an exercise in futility (not to mention sadomasochism) because there is no formal, all-encompassing, final word on the subject, and people are bound to disagree. But for the purposes of what is to follow, I must begin with a definition of this term which I’m going to be flinging around willy-nilly. So here goes.

Steampunk: An aesthetic movement based around the science fiction of a future that never happened. Recall, if you will, visions of the future that were written a hundred years ago or more. Think Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and the like — telling stories featuring technology that didn’t exist at the time, but might someday. Remember that they were writing with no idea of the microchip, or the internet, or (in some cases) the internal combustion engine. Therefore, in their versions of the future, the technology upon which society would eventually come to depend is driven largely by steam power or clockwork. Sometimes electricity is likewise invoked, but it’s often treated as quasi-magical due to the contemporary lack of understanding about how it behaved and what it could do.

WooEEE. That’s a mouthful, I know. Let me broaden that just a smidge and add this as a postscript: Steampunk could be considered a retro-futuristic neo-Victorian sensibility that is being embraced by fiction, music, games, and fashion. It is ornate and vibrant, and intricate. It believes that functional items can and should be beautiful.

It is lots of fun. If it isn’t lots of fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Let the emails beginning, “Actually …” and “Technically …” and “But you’re forgetting …” begin! But please bear in mind, this is but one woman’s experience and opinion.

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Why I got interested in steampunk:

I first became interested in steampunk about four or five years ago, when I stumbled across a message board dedicated to the subject. This brief introduction sent me on a little research expedition to learn more, and the more I learned, the better I liked it — and the more I understood that this nebulous term was actually encompassing a whole slew of things I already appreciated.

My only tiny gripe was that most of the steampunk art and fiction I was seeing appeared to be centered around Victorian London.

Don’t get me wrong — Victorian London is a pretty awesome setting, and far be it from me to declare it unfit in any capacity; but this American cosplay enthusiast with a history minor [:: points thumbs at self ::] could scarcely resist composing a checklist.

Did we have oodles of fancy steam-and-coal-powered tech? Check. One massive rail system that eventually crisscrossed over three thousand miles of rivers, plains, mountain ranges, and swamps. I believe that counts.

And what of similarly hardcore weaponry, and early mechanisms of flight? Check. How about everything that ever fired, rolled, or flew during the Civil War — including the “aeronauts” and all their war balloons, spy crafts, and surveillance equipment? If that doesn’t count, then gosh darn it, I don’t know what does.

What of class clashes, colonialism, exploration, and scientific expansion? Oh honey, Check. Westward expansion with all its inherent ethical and pragmatic difficulties; an enormous slave class which was liberated and then obligated to integrate into free society, often with zero social or legal protection; a region’s failed secession and “reconstruction” into a crippled territory with a ravaged economy that hasn’t fully recovered even 150 years later; agricultural barons vs. industrial barons; urban poverty vs. rural poverty vs. urban wealth vs. rural feudal wealth; frontier millionaires; gold rushes; smallpox blankets; Spindletop and the rise of fossil fuels; Thomas Edison; Henry Ford … Jesus, need I go on?

So I still had a book under contract.
And I knew where I wanted it to take place — and what I wanted it to look like. 

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Why I think steampunk will stick around:

And now as people talk about steampunk breaking through to the mainstream, and what it must become or acquire if it’s going to have any staying power … I think that at least some of the answers are obvious, and I intend to talk about two of my favorites: (1). Steampunk comes from a philosophy of salvage and customization, and (2). Steampunk’s inherent nature is participatory and inclusive, yet subversive.

Read the rest of the article on The Clockwork Century.