So you’ve Started Out Steampunk and had a chance to experience some of the variety it has to offer. You’ve built up your wardrobe, gone to a few events, and had a chance to talk with a lot of other people about the subculture. You’ve read books, researched some of the many articles about the subject, and even tried your hand a bit at crafting. Maybe you’ve had a chance to catch one of the varied excellent bands or comedy acts out there, gone to a convention, or simply hung out in a park wearing a top hat and goggles. Pictures of you have started to pop up on your Facebook or G+ account as you show off to your friends and family what you’ve done.
Then one of them asks you, ‘What is this Steampunk thing you’re doing?’
Because you’ve done so much reading and checking out information you think that’s an easy question to answer. You start to type and freeze as you wrack your brain for the right words. Or while on the phone you start to mumble through an answer of giving examples of movies, books, or long dead authors who have had great influence on Steampunk. Finally you get something out that either answers the question enough for them, or leaves them further confused because they don’t get your point of reference.
Something like this happened to my wife when she was trying to explain all the Steampunk stuff she was doing to her dance class. They were a collection of sharp, wonderful women but when she tried to use common points of reference, to those familiar with Steampunk at least, such as Wells and Verne, they just looked at her with blank expressions. Mention of Victorian Era science fiction did little to help clear things up. She brought up movies such as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and even the much maligned Wild, Wild West. Still, they didn’t get what she was going for. It wasn’t until she mentioned the new-at-the-time movie Cowboys & Aliens that they had any inkling of what she meant; and even that was a bit of a stretch.
Defining Steampunk can be difficult for a lot of reasons. The first is that not everyone uses the same point of reference when looking at their influences. Someone who approaches it from a Burning Man perspective is going to have a very different attitude than those who grew up amongst the still present history of the British Isles. Talk to those who’ve studied the Meji Period of Japan and you get another set of ideas on how you can define Steampunk.
Let’s take a look at some definitions by well-known members of the Steampunk community:
Cherie Priest, Author: “An aesthetic movement based around the science fiction of a future that never happened.” and ”I don’t believe in Steampunk as a binary. I see it as more like a spectrum.”
Caitlin Kitredge, Author: “It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans.”
Jake Von Slatt, Maker: “To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance.”
Robert Brown, Musician: “Steampunk is Victorian styled Science Fiction. At least, that’s how it started. Currently, Steampunk is a subculture full of people doing a million amazing things that may have drifted from that original definition quite a ways, but as part of the NEW definition of “Steampunk is our subculture”, it’s now all Steampunk.”
As you can see there are some ideas that run along similar veins, mostly pointing towards the ideas of Victorian Era as well as science fiction. No two had the exact same answer, and Cherie Priest’s definition has largely become a rallying cry for those who want to include as much as possible into Steampunk. If you ask a hundred more people to define Steampunk you would get a hundred different answers. Sure, some of them would be along lines that share ideas with some of the above definitions, but to say there’s any one specific answer would be remiss to mention the variety capable in the subculture. And most everyone admits to that.
Mike Perschon, known by many as the Steampunk Scholar, has taken a great deal of interest in helping to give shape to Steampunk. He has not set out to define it per se, so much as to try to help others to understand just what the term even means. He points to the fact that there is no actual definitive to say something is or isn’t Steampunk, which supports Priest’s idea of a spectrum of answers, but also argues it isn’t a genre in and of itself. Steampunk is, to him and many, an aesthetic.
As an aesthetic, Steampunk has a number of ideas, looks, concepts, and generally accepted memes that are rolled into the whole picture. No one genre can really encapsulate what it is that we’ve put together as a sub-culture. Perschon talks, in his excellent Aesthetics 101 discussion, about how he originally thought he would go into reading many of the most quoted authors and see the Science Fiction in them. He came away wondering where it was. KW Jeter’s Morlock Nights had quite a few fantasy tropes laced throughout the story, including appearances by Merlin himself. The Anubis Gate by Tim Powers was equally full of magic and technofantasy as opposed to heavy Science Fiction in Perschon’s estimation.
Since Jeter and Powers are among those sighted as the early Steampunk authors does that mean that it should actually be lumped in with the fantasy genre? That is certainly not the case as quite a few current authors do like to put more emphasis on science rather than magic. Going back to Priest’s Clockwork Century books she tries to make most of the fiction portion of the science act closer to actual fact and plausibility.
To directly quote Perschon: Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.
For clarification in this case, he means Neo-Victorianism in the sense of a late 1800s time frame more so than actual Victorian aesthetics.
This does bring us back to Steampunk as an Aesthetic. The use of visuals as the defining measure of the subculture rather than saying it’s any one genre. To fit in what Ms. Priest had said, to allow for varying degrees of Steampunk rather than the binary attitude of it is or it isn’t. That flexibility has allowed Steampunk to range far and wide to and away from the idea of science fiction in the late 1800s as the primary inspirations for it.
So is this the final definition of Steampunk then? It at least gives us a better idea and picture of what we’re working with. In the end none of the definitions given previously are wrong, as they are the right answer to those people. The same could be said for anyone and their definition of Steampunk, even if it’s shared by others or borrowed from how someone defines it.
So when someone asks you to define Steampunk, go for what best suits the need at the time as well as your own thoughts. If you have to reference a movie or book you’re not doing it wrong, you’re giving other people a better idea through their own perspectives. If you call it Victorian inspired science fiction, then there’s truth to that. Prefer to call it the future that never was? Sure, that works just fine as well. The Wild West with better toys? A bit focused but also not wrong.
Just remember that when you do talk about your favorite subculture to keep your head up high and do so with pride. You’re part of one of the most accepting and inspired communities of people out there; and we’re glad you’re along for the ride.
Next week we’ll talk about what makes something Steampunk.