When I began working on Steamcon, a lot of people asked me questions like what should they wear at the convention, and what should they read to prepare. It seemed like there was a lack of good information. As I began to do some research I ran into a lot of instances of things being called steampunk that made no sense. There was no common thread. I began to work out a definition of steampunk for myself. I, like a lot of people, made some miss-steps at first, adopting fashion that was years too late and weaponry that was much too early. As I observed more, my perception of what steampunk was began to coalesce. Okay, so Victorian science fiction at it’s core, but generally written by modern people looking back and trying to figure out what the Victorians might have envisioned the future to be, so a type of retro-futurism based in the age of steam essentially. Verne and Wells are the fore bearers, but technically not “steampunk”. I did a lot of this simply for my own edification. I wanted to understand so I could costume well, create appropriately and help others to do so. I began to work with steampunk archetypes as a way to help folks figure out how to costume without simply copying others and I eventually created a book about it. A friend said it was very scholarly of me, and I was amused. I am far from scholarly, but I do have a need to dissect things sometimes, in my own clumsy way.
The more I delved, the more I encountered things that simply didn’t fit my template being labeled “steampunk”. At first I chalked this up to a lack of understanding. In some cases, it was obvious that if the term had cache then some people would try to capitalize on it. This was sad to me, but inevitable. I also encountered the “steampunk is anything you want it to be” argument, and was dumbfounded. How can a genre be “anything”? This argument meant essentially that the term was meaningless. In time, I have come to think that there are three basic but vastly different ways in which the term “steampunk” was being used.
First there is the genre of steampunk, which although fairly quantifiable, is still in some debate, but generally is accepted as science fiction/fantasy in the age of steam. Many people want to put the label on books that are more properly the next genre in chronological progression:”dieselpunk”, because steampunk is the more popular term. I even had a publisher admit that he knew that a certain book was rightly dieselpunk but billed it as steampunk, because it would sell better. “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “Rocketeer” are definitely dieselpunk, but again are often lumped into steampunk as if steampunk means retro-futurism, its parent genre. I often find people with no comprehension of science fiction at all lumping things like the film “Brazil” and “Flash Gordon” into the steampunk category, so it’s obvious that the science fiction aspect is apparent to them, but understanding tropes from different eras can really help. To the non-science fiction fan, Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon might seem as steampunk as Mad Max or Tank Girl. In reality, none of them qualify. They are all to a degree science fiction characters, but they are not from the appropriate era or level of technology. So steampunk to the mundane eye has come to be equated marginally with science fiction, but not always the right timeframe.
The amount of people adding steampunk elements to things to try and make them steampunk is staggering. Just adding goggles or airships to something rarely makes it steampunk. Several online series feel to me like they worked up this alternate world, with a medieval/post-apocalyptic story and someone said “hey, steampunk is hot, you should make it steampunk!” So they added a few cosmetic steampunk elements which really didn’t add to the already muddled stories. A friends theory states that if you have a vampire story that still works if you take the vampire out of the story, then it isn’t really a vampire story. It’s the same with steampunk. Just adding goggles and airships doesn’t make it steampunk, you need to start with a base of science fiction/fantasy in the steam age.
Me with Kristina and Captain Robert of Abney Park- 2012
The second way the term steampunk is being used is as a subculture. Way back in 2008, I first heard that there were people who considered themselves steampunks 24/7. They dressed steampunk all the time. They lived a “steampunk lifestyle”. To my way of thinking, they must have time machines and aether discombobulators, because if you don’t have science fiction then it’s just Neo-Victorianism and that’s already been done. Don’t get me wrong, if you are a steampunk maker, that’s very cool. I just think that would be a “maker” lifestyle. So perhaps the disconnect here is that they are referring to the subculture not the genre. The subculture of steampunk is still in its infancy really, still growing and changing but I dare say that it has as little to do with steampunk the literary genre as the goth subculture has to do with things gothic. There is overlap, but it is not expected or required. As Captain Robert likes to say “Steampunk used to be Victorian science fiction, but now it’s what steampunks do”. I believe that he was attempting to define the subculture and as sloppy as it is, it does rather work as a definition. The steampunk subculture tends to be a movement of creativity, DIY, recycling, and making our slick mass produced world more beautiful. Much like the airship pirates of the band Abney Park, it steals from all time periods and doesn’t worry about historical accuracy or definition.
Thirdly, there is steampunk as an “aesthetic”, for which I have never seen a satisfactory definition. People will look at an object and say it looks “steampunk” and I am at a loss to tell you what that object has in common with other objects that are also called steampunk. The primary characteristic is usually that it is not modern; usually older than the 1950s, but not limited to a particular time period. It is often worn or dirty and will often be mechanical or at least made of metal. The fact that it can be a car or coffee maker that actually existed and has not a smidge of science fiction or fantasy seems not to matter a whit. So as to “steampunkishness”? Not sure what the proper term should be, it usually has very little to do with the Victorian era or science fiction at all, but is simply old, dirty, and possibly mechanical. Try to explain that to someone who wants to understand steampunk. This may be where the maddening phrase “I know it when I see it” actually works, but for me as an educator it is a nearly impossible characteristic to explain fully.
I certainly admire all the lovely modded or steampunked computers and other such devices, but in those particular cases the maker was going for a steampunk aesthetic, adding ornamentation and brass bits to make something look like the whimsical invention of a Victorian tinkerer. While it is all very fascinating, it is still a bit difficult to quantify, but more obvious.
In part the reason that I prefer the genre as a basis for the definition is that it is definable. For the most part, there can be a consensus. It is also why I believe that there is so much dissension. If you are trying to discuss any of the three terms comparatively, I am certain you are doomed to fail. Perhaps these three things need to adopt new names? Maybe the genre could be steamfic? Or Vernean steampunk?
The other day a friend was confused by the term “steampunkesque”, but if the author meant something had the aesthetic of steampunk but wasn’t within the genre, it makes some sense. Language, especially English often gets tangled up like this and leaves me wishing for more clarity. Steampunk is an awkward and inelegant term for a genre that celebrates ornamentation and creativity, but it is the term that we have. As someone undertaking to help other understand just what “steampunk” is, these are the conclusions that I have come to and you may feel differently. As I stated, it certainly isn’t cut and dried. At the very least I hope that this helps you see my point of view.