Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. 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 recognisably features anachronistic technologies or retrofuturistic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them.
It also refers to any of the artistic styles, clothing fashions, or subcultures, that have developed from the aesthetics of steampunk fiction, Victorian-era fiction, art nouveau design, 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.
Origins and Etymology
The term “steampunk” originated in the late 1980s as a tongue in cheek variant of cyberpunk, a genre that was being defined by works like Neuromancer by William Gibson. It was coined by science fiction author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for works by Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates, 1983), James Blaylock (Homunculus, 1986), and himself (Morlock Night, 1979 and Infernal Devices, 1987)—all of which took place in a 19th-century (usually Victorian) setting and imitated conventions of such actual Victorian speculative fiction as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
In a letter to science fiction magazine Locus, printed in the April 1987 issue, Jeter wrote: “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term… like ‘steampunk’, perhaps.” The name ‘steampunk’ was a playful, tongue-in-cheek nod to the cyberpunk genre, which was in vogue at the time.
Early Steampunk Works
Even before the term was coined, there were a number of works which would now be classified as steampunk. For example, the 1979 film Time After Time has H.G. Wells using a time machine to pursue Jack the Ripper into the 20th century. Michael Moorcock’s 1971 novel Warlord of the Air, featuring airships and both Victorian and Edwardian settings, is another early example of what would become steampunk.
However, it was works like those of Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock, which consciously mimicked Victorian speculative fiction, that laid the groundwork for the genre. These works often featured anachronistic technology, a key feature of steampunk, and were set in a recognizably Victorian (or pseudo-Victorian) world.
Characteristics of Steampunk
Steampunk is characterized by a setting in which steam power is still widely used—usually Victorian era Britain—that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them, based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc. This technology may include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.
Other examples of steampunk contain alternative history-style presentations of such technology as steam cannons, lighter-than-air airships, analogue computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Steampunk may also 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.
Steampunk fashion has no set guidelines but tends to synthesize modern styles with influences from the Victorian era. Such influences may include bustiers, petticoats, gowns, and corsets as well as gentlemen’s suits with waistcoats, coats, top hats and spats; or military-inspired garments. Steampunk-influenced outfits are usually accented with several technological and period accessories: timepieces, parasols, flying/driving goggles, and ray guns. Modern accessories like cell phones or music players can be found in steampunk outfits, after being modified to give them the appearance of Victorian-made objects.
Post-apocalyptic elements, such as gas masks, ragged clothing, and tribal motifs, can also be included. Aspects of steampunk fashion have been anticipated by mainstream high fashion, the Lolita and aristocrat styles, neo-Victorianism, and the romantic goth subculture.
Steampunk literature is a genre of books that combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, and speculative fiction. It is a subgenre of speculative fiction that involves a setting where steam power is still widely used, usually in the Victorian era, and often set in London. The technology and aesthetics of the setting are inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. The genre also often includes elements of adventure, magic, and the supernatural.
Steampunk literature often features anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians might have envisioned them. This could include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technologies like the computer but developed earlier in an alternate history. Notable authors of steampunk literature include K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers.
Steampunk in Other Media
While literature is where steampunk was born and has its roots, the genre has spread to many other forms of media. It has influenced film, music, graphic novels, and even games. In film, steampunk has influenced the design and themes of many films such as the 2001 film ‘The Time Machine‘, the 2004 film ‘Van Helsing‘, and the 2007 film ‘The Golden Compass‘. In these films, the design of the machinery, the clothing of the characters, and the overall look of the worlds they inhabit are heavily influenced by the steampunk aesthetic.
In music, bands such as Abney Park and The Cog is Dead have taken on the steampunk aesthetic in their music and their look. Graphic novels such as ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘ and ‘Girl Genius‘ are prime examples of steampunk influencing the art and storytelling of the medium. In games, both video and tabletop, steampunk has influenced the design and themes of many games such as ‘Bioshock Infinite‘, ‘Dishonored‘, and the tabletop game ‘Malifaux’.
Steampunk in Film
Steampunk has influenced the world of film in a significant way. The aesthetic of steampunk, with its blend of Victorian era designs and futuristic technology, has been a popular choice for many filmmakers. Films such as ‘The Time Machine‘, ‘Van Helsing‘, and ‘The Golden Compass‘ all feature elements of steampunk in their design. The machinery, clothing, and overall look of the worlds these films inhabit are heavily influenced by the steampunk aesthetic.
Other films, like ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘, take the steampunk genre and run with it, creating a world that is entirely steampunk in its design. The film features a group of Victorian era literary characters, including Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, and Dr. Jekyll, who team up to fight a common enemy. The technology and design of the film are heavily influenced by steampunk, with airships, advanced weaponry, and other anachronistic technologies.
Steampunk in Music
Music is another area where the influence of steampunk can be seen. Bands such as Abney Park and The Cog is Dead have taken on the steampunk aesthetic in their music and their look. The music often features lyrics that reference the Victorian era, steam power, and futuristic technology. The bands often dress in Victorian era clothing and use instruments that have been modified to fit the steampunk aesthetic.
Other bands, like Steam Powered Giraffe, incorporate elements of steampunk into their performances. The band members dress as steampunk robots and perform music that blends elements of folk, rock, and cabaret. The band’s performances often include a narrative that follows the adventures of the robots, further incorporating elements of steampunk storytelling into their music.
Steampunk in Games
Steampunk has also found its way into the world of games, both video and tabletop. Video games such as ‘Bioshock Infinite‘ and ‘Dishonored‘ feature worlds that are heavily influenced by the steampunk aesthetic. These games feature advanced technology powered by steam and other anachronistic power sources, and are set in worlds that blend elements of the Victorian era with a dystopian future.
Tabletop games have also been influenced by steampunk. ‘Malifaux’, for example, is a tabletop game that features a world where steam power and magic coexist. The game features miniatures that are designed with a steampunk aesthetic, and the game’s lore is heavily influenced by the genre. Other tabletop games, like ‘Warmachine’, also feature elements of steampunk in their design and lore.
Impact and Influence of Steampunk
Steampunk has had a significant impact on popular culture and has influenced many different areas of media. It has spawned a subculture that includes books, films, music, fashion, and more. The aesthetic of steampunk has become popular in many different areas, and the genre continues to grow and evolve.
Steampunk has also had an impact on academia. There have been a number of academic conferences devoted to the genre, and it has been the subject of several scholarly articles and dissertations. The genre has been examined from many different perspectives, including its relationship to history, its representation of technology, and its influence on popular culture.
The steampunk subculture is a community that has grown up around the genre. This community includes people who enjoy steampunk literature, film, music, and fashion. Many people in the steampunk community enjoy creating their own steampunk-inspired clothing, accessories, and art. There are also many steampunk events and conventions where people gather to share their love of the genre.
Within the steampunk community, there is a strong emphasis on DIY and craftsmanship. Many people enjoy creating their own steampunk-inspired items, from clothing and accessories to furniture and even homes. This emphasis on craftsmanship and creativity is a key part of the steampunk aesthetic.
Academic Study of Steampunk
Steampunk has also been the subject of academic study. There have been a number of academic conferences devoted to the genre, and it has been the subject of several scholarly articles and dissertations. These studies have examined steampunk from many different perspectives, including its relationship to history, its representation of technology, and its influence on popular culture.
For example, some scholars have examined the way that steampunk reimagines the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution. Others have looked at the way that steampunk represents technology, arguing that it presents a critique of modern technology and a nostalgic longing for a simpler time. Still others have examined the way that steampunk has influenced popular culture, from fashion and music to film and literature.
Steampunk is a rich and diverse genre that has had a significant impact on popular culture. From its origins in literature, it has spread to many other forms of media, influencing film, music, fashion, and more. It has spawned a vibrant subculture and has been the subject of academic study. With its unique blend of the past and the future, steampunk continues to captivate audiences with its unique aesthetic and imaginative possibilities.
Whether you’re a fan of the genre, a scholar interested in its cultural implications, or just someone who appreciates its distinctive aesthetic, there’s no denying the impact and influence of steampunk. As the genre continues to grow and evolve, it’s certain to continue captivating audiences and inspiring creators for years to come.
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