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Since you asked … How I define Steampunk

Last updated on January 31, 2012

Recently on Twitter, someone asked me “How would you define #steampunk?”. I’ve sort of answered this question over the span of two or three author interviews on different blog sites, but I’m going to summarize and condense it all in one place.

First, I want to get “politics” out of the way. To me the best way to define Steampunk is by inclusion. I prefer to be inclusive; it’s all Steampunk, unless we all agree that it isn’t.

Don’t tell me this isn’t Steampunk. It might not be -your- Steampunk, but that’s okay. This is -my- take on Steampunk. It is what I understand based on what I see the fans and advocates at Cons, concerts and meets talking about as cool.

Now that we’re clear on that, let’s go.

I want to start out with saying that to me, the word Steampunk is clearly composed of two words: “Steam” and “Punk”.

“Steam” is the temporal reference marker; the Age of Steam which firmly brackets the Victorian Era. There is so much factual and pop-cultural imagery in that period that it is astonishing. On land, at sea, and in the air, History was happening and the world was changing like never before. We had the ability to fly, but still had maps that had “terra incognita” written on them. Voodoo and seances lived next door to Curie and Pasteur.

“Punk” is the conceptualization of social ideologies that are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. It’s about freedom, it’s about walking counter-class or caste, it’s about doing things that would scandalize the “main stream culture” of the day.

Underneath the pirates, airships and clockworks is a literary, musical and aesthetic space with themes that take at least passing looks at the social norms of the day. The treatment of servants, class-based poverty, the perception of women as objects or property, and Calvanist morals… there is a lot to run at angles to here.

One of the things that the Victorian Era served as was a kind of watershed for the Sufferage Movement. To me, to be true to “Steampunk” as I see it, you pretty much need a female lead or supporting character to be ahead of the curve; already be out there, doing the sort of things that women of the time rallying in the streets could only dream about.

One of the most iconic moments in the adventures of the Victorian Era is the H. M. Stanley’s popular quotation, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. In the real world, that question could not have been delivered by a woman of the era. But what about a world where it could? What an interesting place that would be!

I do a lot of research as part of my writing. Steampunk is about “Victorian science-fiction”, so I am always trying to see what they theorized, knew of or had working examples of in the late 1800s.

Something I heard Phil Foglio say at Steamcon was that “Steampunk fiction is about when technology can save humanity. It isn’t the problem, it is the solution.”

I agree with that. Steampunk fiction is, to me at least, inherently hopeful. It is about people doing incredibly cool things at a point in time when when no one knew what the boundaries were and they seemed to be on the brink of revolutionizing the world. Everything was within the realm of possibility; everything was within reach. The right man — or woman — with the right perseverance and the right science at the right place could change the world for the better.

That’s pretty empowering.

In “The Sauder Diaries“, being a pirate is as much about freedom as anything else. It is an inherently hopeful act; taking ownership of their own futures by their own actions and associations. Maybe it isn’t very nice, but I’ll leave that for the moralists. The pirates in this world are inherently the rebels and underdogs. They are living outside the physical, social and moral walls of the setting. “Occupy The Skies”, if you will.

When I hear of someone trying to say that Steampunk is segregating, or splitting, or splintering, I can’t help but think that’s like saying a rainbow is a “splintering”. No. A rainbow is a revelation of an over all vision into its component parts.

When I read of someone arguing that a music video by a celebrity is a problem because it destructively “mainstreams” Steampunk, it drives me batty. To me, that’s like going to a Con and running up and down the halls yelling at people “only dressed up” without developed personaes and back-stories to leave because they aren’t good enough. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen that happen.

Steampunk is two very expressive words encompassing a very broad range of ideals and concepts mashed together to create something bigger and better than isolationism could ever allow for.

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  1. I ADORE this article! I think it really not only defines, but reminds us of what “steam” is all about. Instead of setting limits, you open it up to everyone. It’s not a mine vs yours thing. Like Sci-Fi in general – it’s a place where the otherwise unwanted can go to find unabashed acceptance and inclusion.


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