What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is —- difficult to define.

If you’ve ever wondered what Steampunk is, or “what’s that odd, rusty, gear stuff she’s always talking about?”, see below. This is not an exhaustive list, and is only meant to help give you a basis for appreciating Steampunk.

Imagine a world in which human technology remained reliant on steam to power things instead of electricity. That is the basis of Steampunk. However, the implications of such a world are vast. Imaginative writers and gamers have come up with a million ways this type of world would look and feel.

For instance, if things are powered by steam instead of electricity, there would be more gears and levers and technology would have more moving parts instead of just wires. Things would be bigger, heavier, and perhaps the inner workings of devices would be considered beautiful. In fact, gears and springs would be exposed on purpose instead of trying to hide them. Cogs and movement pieces of clocks might even transcend practicality and be made just to look beautiful, plastered against any surface.

Another implication is that there would be a lot more pollution. There might even be enough to warrant people wearing gas masks everywhere they went.

Perhaps there would be airships instead of airplanes, dirigibles and ornithopters to name a few types. Society would be different. Money would be different. Style of clothes would be different.

How different? Many Steampunk artists choose to base their fictional worlds and devices off the styles of Victorian England. Why? Probably because it was a very aesthetic time for England, but also, it was right after the Industrial Revolution. There were lots of new inventions and steam-powered things. So in a Steampunk world, perhaps we would still be stuck in Victorian-styled age with hoops under our skirts and top hats. Perhaps since there are so many moving parts, anyone might be required to fix something that’s broken at any time, and thus everyone wears goggles all the time. You never now when you’ll need to weld something.

Perhaps there would be magic. Perhaps there would be zombies. Perhaps there would be hope, but you can never count on it since Steampunk lends itself well to dystopian settings.

As you can imagine, making up a whole new world gives rise to a need for words that describe new concepts. Necessity is the mother of invention and there are quite a lot of Steampunk-ish words. Below is a brief guide to get you started:

An Abbreviated Lexicographical List of Steampunk Terms for the Distinguished Gentleman or Lady:

Anachronism – An item, idea, person, or technology that’s out of time with its surroundings. For instance, in the painting of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, he painted oranges among the food on the table. But oranges hadn’t been introduced yet to the time and place of the Last Supper. Therefore, the oranges are anachronistic. Intentional anachronisms are common in Steampunk.

Retro-futurism – Anything that talks about the future by using terms of the past. For instance, a poster advertising robot servants for hire would be a future subject, but the poster could be done in the art style of WWII posters.

Neo-Victorianism – Anything that applies victorian aesthetics or ideas to present-day creations. For instance, a couple of neo-victorianistic friends might meet at a coffee shop, but instead of cracking open their laptops and chattering about their personal lives, they would politely sip from their cups and obey the laws of etiquette, sticking to allowable topics such as complimenting the other person or the weather, leaving other conversations for the relaxed atmosphere of a drawing room. For aesthetics, an example might be someone who composes a letter on a computer, but chooses a font which mimics handwriting with a quill.

Cyberpunk – This is quite different from Steampunk, though the two overlap. The major difference is that cyberpunk is most likely not run off of steam, but off of electricity like modern-day. Cyberpunk has the same fixation on technology that Steampunk does, however. Inventions used in a way other than what they were intended for, dystopian settings, post-apocalyptic eras, etc. I could write a whole other post on Cyberpunk, so I’ll leave it at this for now. There are also terms like DieselPunk, BioPunk, and other punks out there.

Dystopia – The opposite of a Utopia. Make sense? Instead of everything being perfect and happy and safe, everything is ruined, sad, scary, dangerous, and gritty.

Speculative Fiction – This is the much broader category that Steampunk and Cyberpunk fall under. It’s any kind of fiction that asks “What if?” As in, what if the world was run on steam instead of electricity? What if there was a zombie apocalypse? What if the South had won the war, instead? Speculative fiction should not be confused with science fiction. While there is some overlap, a book about an alternate history of America’s civil war probably would not involve any sort of space travel, time travel, huge leaps in technological discovery, etc.  So not all Speculative Fiction is Science Fiction, though some of it can be.

The Aether – This could refer to the regular atmosphere of Earth. Or it could refer to space. Or it might refer to some magical substance, imaginary place in the heavens, gas, or element. Each creator of Steampunk defines it differently.

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3 thoughts on “What is Steampunk?

    • rjrugroden says:

      Kevin,
      Thanks for pointing that out. I wrote this post back when I was new to blogging and thought I could just grab any image from anywhere and it was ok. I’ve since become more sensitive to all the work artists and photographers put into their images and respect them a lot more. I’ve deleted the images in this post since I no longer remember where I got them from. I hope that helps.

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