A History of Steampunk, Part 1 – Definitions

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

14 Responses to “A History of Steampunk, Part 1 – Definitions”

  1. Avid says:

    I think you almost need a part 0 in this series. The term “steampunk” was coined in imitation of “cyberpunk”. So I’d like to see a brief history and definition of cyberpunk and its defining characteristics. What is the relationship between the two terms? What do these genres have in common and what’s different?

  2. pr0g3kt1 says:

    is atlantis the lost empire steampunk or not im trying to settle a conflict your feedback is greatly apreciated thank you

  3. Janice says:

    In one explanation of steampunk jewelry, I read that steampunk jewelry came about from the paupers/servants of the rich (no clue which century) not being allowed or not having the means to have their own jewelry. Therefore, they used various parts of broken or unused watches and various other broken parts of jewelry that they found and fashioned their own kind of jewelry out if them. I would really like to nail down what the true definition of steampunk is, but the more I read the more confused I get.

    • I guess that’s part of the fun, really. There’s not a concrete definition, so people have a grey area in which to play. They don’t have to color inside the lines, because the lines are blurry.
      As soon as you define what something IS, you define what something ISN’T. You create boundaries. And those boundaries stifle all the wonderful creativity people can have. Essentially, they’re limitations.

  4. mike t says:

    mike a real Steampunk historian
    get your timeline straight Steampunk does not imitate any thing it started in 1979 and was named before cyberpunk !

    • The first use of the word “cyberpunk” was as a short story title by Bruce Bethke in 1983.
      KW Jeter is credited as coining the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine, written in 1987.
      So I’m sorry, but you’re kinda wrong. And when I say “kinda’, I’m trying to be nice.

  5. Excellent article. I read all 6 parts and really enjoyed it. I found it to be extremely informative, with no stones left unturned. Thanks for this short, simple, and very helpful explanation.

  6. Xavier Shaw says:

    I have not researched steampunk much, but what ive concluded is: Steampunk is a sub-genre poised in the Victorian revolution, and instead of electricity being discovered, the advancements worked toward steam instead.

  7. I’m not sure where you are getting your information, but great topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding
    more. Thanks for wonderful info I was looking for this
    info for my mission.

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