Before one can delve too far into the history of what we know as Steampunk, the sensible thing to do would be to define what Steampunk actually is. And therein lies the first minefield for anyone trying to get a grip on the concept. The simple fact is, there are (sometimes wildly) differing opinions about what constitutes Steampunk, and an extraordinary amount of energy, time and yes, sometimes venom has been expended trying to define it, with results that still can’t be considered according to Hoyle (and therein lies the fun imo).
Many people simply see Steampunk as a genre of speculative fiction, encompassing novels, films, comics and other popular media. This seems to be the easiest point of reference for a novice to wrap their head around. In answer to the question “What is steampunk?”, aficionados often cite examples from cinema or books as a starting point – probably because showing what Steampunk is takes around thirty seconds, and telling what Steampunk is can require a good 200 foot run-up and a pair of jet-powered rocket pants, especially if the person you’re speaking to is of the non-SF/F persuasion.
Other people see Steampunk as an entire sub-culture, with all the trappings thereof – fashion, music, cliques and clubs. It’s from this scene that the jibe “Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover the color brown” was, in all likelihood, first derived, and in it, we find a lot of the visual cues that we commonly associate with Steampunk today; the collision of Victorian-era high fashion with rivets and brass and clockwork, an often-extraordinary arts and crafts scene with a firm emphasis on DIY, and of course, all those ladies running about wearing outrageous goggles and very little else at SF/F conventions.
Finally, and at the extreme end of the spectrum, there are some who consider Steampunk a kind of counter-cultural “movement” – a mindset and philosophy that moves beyond the simple trappings of fashion and scene, and becomes a way of life. These are folks who you might hear throwing around odd sub-sub-genre handles like “Dieselpunk” or “Biopunk” or “Gaslight”. These people take their Steampunk seriously.
For my part, in this History of Steampunk series, I’ll be speaking mostly about the speculative fiction side of the equation, and leaving the “scene” to the people who spend the most time there – they’re far more qualified to comment on it than I am, after all. Even still, I’m certain my definitions and conclusions might seem inadequate to some, and for this, good Ladies and Gentlemen, I beg your indulgence. I don’t consider myself a Steampunk scholar. I don’t run in the scene, I don’t own a frock coat or a pair of goggles. I’m just a soon-to-be published author who thought anachronistic tech coupled with a feudal Japanese setting sounded like a fun idea for a book.
But having fun is good, right?
For the purposes of this series, we’ll work with the following definition (inadequate as it may be):
Steampunk (noun) – A sub-genre of soft science fiction, typically set in an industrialized historical period, in which anachronistic technology is present.
Awfully simplistic, I know. And it does leave out one of the most important parts of Steampunk to my mind; the word “punk” and all the associations thereof. But truth be told, the “punk” has really only been incorporated into Steampunk in recent times (despite the handle having been around for over thirty years), and not everyone involved is certain about the necessity of its inclusion.
So, with our (albeit shabby) definition firmly in the pocket of our waistcoat, onwards we march!
Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 2 – Origins