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Words for Writers: What the Heck is Steampunk?

There is a lot of discussion of what is and is not quote-Steampunk-With-A-Capital-S-unquote.


Richard Castle investigates Steampunk in an episode of “Castle”.

For a while I didn’t have a good definition of my own (only that it’s “yesterday’s future, today!”), but then I had the very good luck to be put on a panel with The Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon, at the Canadian National Steampunk Expo.

J.M. Frey and The Steampunk Scholar; photo by Lex Machina

I was meant to act as Mike’s foil, both of us being smartypants. But I couldn’t disagree when I heard his rundown of what “Steampunk” IS. His explanation of how to define Steampunk was the most clever and concise version I’ve ever heard and I immediately had to agree.

Comic by Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant! Follow her on Tumblr here.

The Steampunk Scholar posits that Steampunk is not a GENRE, but an AESTHETIC.  I will wait for you to fetch rotten fruit, but while you are searching for it, take a look at his article describing why: Steampunk Aesthetic 101.

In short, The Steampunk Scholar posits that these are the three pillars of Steampunk, and that each pillar must be present for the work to be considered Steampunk, but the AMOUNT of pillar that is present may vary, and that is perfectly acceptable.

Quoting from the Steampunk Scholar’s article:

Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.

Technofantasy . It’s tech that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as impulsion.

Neo-Victorian I’d have preferred something less ethnocentric, but neo-Victorian evokes an era, rather than necessarily saying it takes place in the time. It was a lot less clunky than “nineteenth century fantastic mise-en-scene.” I’m not saying it has to be British. I’m saying steampunk’s aesthetic is grounded in the Victorian period with fuzzy boundaries. It’s not a geographic or temporal limitation, save as inspiration.

Retrofuturism: The way the past viewed the future, or more important in steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future. The idea of steampunk anachronism is flawed, because in texts where it’s a secondary world, there’s nothing anachronistic about your technology. It belongs in that fabricated world. There are steampunk texts that use anachronisms (again, The Difference Engine), but it’s really retrofuturism that runs across the board. Retrofuturism should be understood as more than technological: there is social retrofuturism as well, when we make the past in our image, as we do whenever a nineteenth century woman isn’t slowly going crazy in a room with psychedelic wallpaper.

These three features, in combination, seem to be what constitutes the steampunk aesthetic–since Moorcock and the California Triumvirate, right up until now. Steampunk texts and artworks do not belong to the same genre, but rather draw from the same aesthetic. Maybe that’s just semantics to some, but so long as we keep viewing steampunk as the stuff in the container, we’re going to miss that it was the container we should have been talking about. Steampunk is the glass – and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass – art, film, or lifestyle – and steampunk it.

I would also add that as a sort of flying buttress to these pillers, but not a piller unto itself, is the notion of Exposure of Inner Workings – corsets on the outside, mechanical guts showing, social anarchy, the ability to look at the Problematics of the era that is celebrated (racism, genderism, colonialism, etc.) and work with them and on them, etc.

Further Resources

You can read The Steampunk Scholar’s review of the CNSE convention here.

I am quoted in this article on Steampunk in the Torontoist, which gives a decent overview of my thoughts on Steampunk As Aesthetic: Steampunk And The City

Author Adrienne Kress of the forthcoming THE FRIDAY SOCIETY (Dial, Fall 2012) talks about why she loves Steampunk and how she defines it here.

An older blog entry I did on defining Steampunk here.

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