OPINION :: Defining Steampunk
I will attempt to explore the topic Steampunk. What it is, what people think it is, and what I think needs to change. For some, this piece will be inflammatory and, in truth, I want it to be. However, it is also a necessary dialogue that needs to take place among those who profess to enjoy Steampunk.
My position is that Steampunk is more of an exposition of art than a genre or sub-genre of speculative fiction, scifi, fantasy or anything else. Further, all of the dash-punk offshoots of Steampunk, including dieselpunk and the somewhat newer Rococopunk, follow the same artistic and fashion flair as Steampunk and do not constitute genre.
Let’s start with what Steampunk is.
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Therefore, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Such technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or the modern authors Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfeld, and China Mieville. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s Analytical Engine.
Steampunk may also, though not necessarily, incorporate additional elements from the genres of fantasy, horror, historical fiction, alternate history, or other branches of speculative fiction, making it often a hybrid genre. The term steampunk’s first known appearance was in 1987, though it now retroactively refers to many works of fiction created even as far back as the 1950′s or 1960′s.
While pretty accurate, and certainly more along the academic lines of an encyclopedia, this definition doesn’t really do the idea of Steampunk justice. There are better definitions out there. In this case, steampunk.com has a definition (http://www.steampunk.com/what-is-steampunk/):
To me, Steampunk has always been first and foremost a literary genre, or least a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk). Unfortunately, it is a poorly defined subgenre, with plenty of disagreement about what is and is not included. For example, steampunk stories may:
- Take place in the Victorian era but include advanced machines based on 19th century technology (e.g. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling);
- Include the supernatural as well (e.g. The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger);
- Include the supernatural and forego the technology (e.g. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, one of the works that inspired the term ‘steampunk’);
- Include the advanced machines, but take place later than the Victorian period, thereby assuming that the predomination by electricity and petroleum never happens (e.g. The Peshawar Lancers by S. M. Stirling); or
- Take place in an another world altogether, but featuring Victorian-like technology (e.g. Mainspring by Jay Lake).
I think this is a much better definition along the realm of “what is?” but it too doesn’t define the what of Steampunk.
So I will give it a go. I think people have the whole Steampunk-thing wrong. Rather than a literary genre with roots connecting it to H.G. Wells, Wild, Wild West, and other bits of popular entertainment, I think Steampunk is nothing more than a style of fashion expressed through art.
Going back to Wikipedia, the intro to Steampunk also defines it as:
Steampunk also refers to any of the artistic styles, clothing fashions, or subcultures, that have developed from the aesthetics of steampunk fiction, Victorian-era fiction, and films from the mid-20th century. Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by individual artisans into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical “steampunk” style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk. Brass and copper metals, brass gears, brass and copper tubing, brass analog guages with glass faces, nickel plating, black iron, iron rivets, grease, charcoal black, leather straps and buckles are not uncommon sights in steam punk. Plastic and bright neon colours are not usually present. Lighting is direct, white, and usually unfiltered except through clear glass lenses, with either black or leather-brown backgrounds, but shiney brass and copper may also be seen (so called red metals). Metals are riveted or bolted, never welded.
Before I defend both my statement and that of Wikipedia, let me state that I get the books, movies, and TV that exists within what some have described as Steampunk. To this end, I enjoyed The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. I have fond memories of the original Wild, Wild West and only slightly cringed at the Wil Smith movie. I love finding steam technology in movies, TV, and the books I read, but none of this actually makes a genre or sub-genre. You cannot hold H.G. Wells and Jules Verne up as paragons of Steampunk virtue when they followed the exact same literary tradition as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Stephen King, Cherie Priest, and others.
One of the axioms of writing is to write what excites and interests you in the way that makes the most sense to you as the author. In this way, Jules Verne’s creation of a submarine, an island of anthropomorphic humans, and a trip to the center of the Earth were expressions of wish fulfillment we still see in a lot of what exists as entertainment. Verne and Wells both wrote what was right for them given the technology and expression of creativity.
Cherie Priest, as a modern Moses of sorts, is doing the same thing. The benefit she has an author is that Verne and Wells preceded her and an interest in Victorian inspired writing exists today. However, she is not a writer in a sub-genre instead (and at best) a founder of a new genre, a writer of some of the seminal works of what might define the genre, but not a participant in it.
Rather than looking to the world of literature and writing as the foundation for Steampunk, I think it is better suited to the world of fashion and art. To me, when exploring Steampunk both online and in the real world, the conundrum of the experience is not found in something clearly defined (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, after all, is considered Steampunk for its flying boat), but rather in the included esthetic of the experience.
Slap leather and brass, cogs and wheels on things, adapt them to be bigger and heavier, topped off with the flair of Victorian-era dress and style. We are not looking at something that is definable, as people state all over the Interwebs, but something that fits the perceived genre when it is seen or experienced.
However, by defining Steampunk (and by extension all dash-punk endeavors) as primarily fashion and art with a secondary influence on culture and society, and finally a tertiary influence on literature, then the definition of Steampunk (and again all related dash-punk offshoots) is one of fashion and style, artistic expression. The evidence for this is most clearly discovered through various Google.com and other searches. Click through to any link and the factor that combines everything isn’t genre specific, but costume specific.
From deviantart.com we can immediately see these examples of Steampunk as fashion:
In addition to these examples of visual Steampunk, there are online comics – most notably Girl Genius, that use the visual conventions of Steampunk and the belief it should be about today’s technology with Victorian engineering, to tell stories.
These stories are dependent upon the visual appeal of what is happening, though airships and steam powered robots, clockwork and a touch of genius help, but rather use the visual esthetic as a means of identifying the comic as something different and unique from every other comic on the planet.
A Google.com related:girlgeniusonline.com search revealed:
There are others, and they are – in individual ways, very interesting, but the connection among many of these is less style and more a product of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) style interactive game play. While a combined factor in each of these, with the overriding esthetic of look and feel, the outcome is still more DnD and less a genre specific entity.
If Steampunk is a movement in fashion and art, doesn’t it also follow that to define other elements of the artistic world as elements of Steampunk require a conversation on fashion or choices in artistic expression?
By removing the onus of a literary genre to one of artistic expression, the ability to talk about Steampunk becomes clearer and easier. We are no longer concerned with the constructs used to tell a story and become concerned with the overall visual appeal of the product.
Steampunk as Genre
I think people will reject Steampunk as esthetic. Not because I’m wrong, but because the fan of Steampunk wants it to be more. The problem with Steampunk as genre is that it has no definition. My primary evidence for this is that when enough disparate individuals begin attempting to define what something is, and no two individuals can agree upon what combines all elements of a thing together, then it is safe to assume that thing has no formal definition.
Whether or not you agree with me, a definitive description of something is essential to its existence. While it doesn’t negate the obvious existence of a thing (a tiger is still a tiger whether or not you can define: life->domain->…->family->genus->species). From evolution.berkely.edu we can read “The biological species concept defines a species as a member of populations that actually or potentially interbreed in nature, not according to similarity of appearance. Although appearance is helpful in identifying species, it does not define species,” (accessed 1/15/2013 from http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/VA1BioSpeciesConcept.shtml).
There is no counter-evidence to suggest that Steampunk or other dash-punks do not exist. On the contrary, we can see that they do. The literary suggestion is that there is no formal guideline or definition for what constitutes Steampunk over, say, Historical Romance with a science flair. The same problem currently exists between Urban Fantasy and forms of romance fiction or eroticism.
The inclusion of an element does not by its nature make that thing a product of something else. Just because humans and bonobo’s and are fairly close genetic cousins, sharing much of the same DNA, we are not the same thing nor can we be confused as the same. Human beings have characteristics and traits that bonobo’s do not (as well as all other primates) and as a result are very clearly defined.
More to the point, mystery, fantasy fiction, science fiction, thriller, and literary fiction all have established and defined guidelines. These have changed in some respects over the years. The modern thriller is as much a descendant of Sherlock Holmes as it is the crime noir movement of the early 20th century. Sherlock Holmes was a genius solving mysteries, while crime noir was about the flawed individual – in caricature – overcoming odds. The modern thriller is impossible without these, or the influence of the genre-specific tones of both.
My suggestion is a real effort to define what constitutes the genre of Steampunk. If this genre is truly an offshoot of science fiction then it also follows that some of the rules of science fiction should also be applied to the genre. In any case, it is not up to me to define what Steampunk is. Instead, it should be a community effort to more accurately and acutely define the genre beyond the visual.