What is steampunk?

Steampunk art by D Mattocks (CC-BY)

Steampunk art by D Mattocks (CC-BY)

Steampunk is a label applied to a certain form of literature, and also to the subculture that has arisen from it. Before we go further, let’s deal with the “punk” part. “Punk” is just a naming hook that pigeonholes steampunk as a literary movement by analogy with cyberpunk. The “punk” hook, perhaps originally a cheeky reference to cyberpunk, was catchy and it stuck.

The “steam” part refers to the time after the industrial revolution when steam power was dominant, before electricity and oil took over, which places it in the 1800s during or immediately prior to the Victorian era.

Steampunk literature is science fiction set in the era of steam power. The location may be a real one (often Victorian England), or a fictional place at a similar stage of industrial development. The technology in the story may be predominantly real, or it may represent an alternative technological path to the one that humans actually took. Either way, the story will include some kind of advanced technology or other technological anachronism around which the plot is built.

Jules Verne, who lived from 1828 to 1905, was perhaps the prototypical steampunk writer (although the term was not coined until much later). His stories featured travel through water, air and outer space, making them speculative fiction as these technologies had not been developed when he wrote his works. Jules Verne set his stories in his own time: the era of steam power. Another science fiction writer, H G Wells, could also considered an early steampunk writer.

The modern steampunk genre started with the publication of Morlock Night by K W Jeter in 1979. Jeter apparently coined the term steampunk in a 1987 letter where he suggests it as a collective term for the Victorian fantasy work of Powers, Blaylock and himself.

Modern steampunk differs from the work of Verne and Wells because it is looking back and can romanticise elements of the steam era in a way that Verne and Wells could not. There may be dystopian elements too, but that is not a requirement of the genre.

From this romanticism has arisen steampunk art, which is built around the industrial trimmings of the steam era. It features beautifully polished wood on which are mounted pipes, valves, dials, coils, gears, levers, knobs, coils, vessels and vents. There may also be early electrical devices such as indicator lamps.

Steampunkers (members of the steampunk subculture) especially like to modify (“mod”) advanced technology using the visual style of the steam era. Thus we may see a computer mouse in polished wood with a “mouse wheel” looking like something you’d find on an 1874 steamship, or a car dashboard made from antique controls and indicators mounted on the ubiquitous polished wood together with visible pipework—because the steam-era technology is considered so beautiful in its own right that there is no need to hide it.

There’s steampunk jewelry too. Here the wood is dispensed with. The jewelry is built from metal (sometimes coiled wire) bent into industrial-like shapes and often featuring a gleaming colored stone as the centerpiece. Hardware such as nuts, bolts or cogs may be incorporated into the design although the best steampunk jewelry uses these items sparingly and subtly. The overall effect of this jewelry is quite dramatic and alluring.

Even if you’re not interested in steampunk fiction, you may find the associated art quite beautiful and engaging.

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