It all starts with asking the right questions

“One does not simply define Steampunk.” -Captain Theo, Fortune’s Ember

It seems like everyone is doing it lately. Writing, or making a panel, or in some other fashion, trying to define and explain what Steampunk is. What it means, what it stands for, what it includes.

I have done it, as part of Dr. Fantastique’s experiment in asking several Steampunks that question and seeing how many different responses he received. There are seven distinctly different essays on the subject now in that collection alone. Many of the articles I enjoyed, and they brought up new things for me to consider, or things I agreed with. I imagine that there will be many more in the future.

But, I also see a problem. I have noticed a disturbing trend, lately. Certain individuals think that they “own” Steampunk, or are the “leaders” of it as a whole. That they can define it for the rest of us. They have a very specific idea of what should be Steampunk. And instead of listening with an open mind and trying new ideas, they are trying to bully others into following their vision of what Steampunk is, to the letter, no exceptions.

How on Earth can you do that? I mean literally, this is so big, that how can any one person or group of people manage it, maintain it, define it, and enforce those ideas? It’s possible to try to sway a large group of promoters and artisans to your belief, I suppose, in an attempt make sure the majority of events and products available with that label attached fit your definition, and excluding those that don’t fit. You can look down your nose and sneer whenever you hear about, read, or see something you don’t agree with. You can even create your own exclusive little club that amounts to not much more then a cult of personality. And I have seen attempts at all of the above, especially in the last couple of years or so. But, why the hell would you want to?

“Steampunk cannot be explained away by one man or woman’s definition- It takes many voices to create this community, and all are worth hearing.” -Dr. Grymm, in the “I am Steampunk” documentary

He also said that we should be supporting each other’s creativity, instead. I find that I agree with the good Doctor fully.

And since we, as individuals, cannot explain or define Steampunk, what do we do? How do we explain it to the uninitiated? How do we interest new people, and build the community? How do we establish where we are and where we are going? How do we evolve and grow as a community and as individuals? How do we “spread the Disease,” as Captain Cedric Whittaker put it?

My solution, which works for me, and I hope works for others, is to instead of defining Steampunk, briefly describe it, and then explain WHY I am a Steampunk, rather then WHAT is Steampunk.

So, WHY am I a Steampunk?


  1. I think its cool. I find the modern world around me, concerned with bills and money and getting ahead and keeping up with the Joneses, boring, stressful, and soul killing. My day job is brutal.  At any moment I find myself working a month and a half without a day off, twelve to sixteen hour days, and more stress then I can deal with without alcohol to numb aching joints, head, interpersonal relationship breakdowns and burns.  I find enjoyment and delight in all the artistic flair and uniqueness of Victorian style and design and the anachronistic Steampunk variations on those designs.
  2. Freedom. No one sets limits on me as a Steampunk. Sometimes there are challenges, things that make me stretch my imagination in order to achieve a goal instead of taking the simpler shortcut of using a single word descriptor, but as long as I put the work in, I get out exactly what I receive.
  3. Community. Steampunks are friendly and accepting, in general, and it’s easy to make strong and lasting real friendships within this community, even among those whose efforts have set them apart. Many of the trailblazers started off just like anyone who discovers Steampunk tomorrow, wide eyed and in awe, and the only thing that makes them leaders is the time and effort they have put in thus far. Any newcomer who does the work can achieve what they have, given enough time. And even cooler… many of those trailblazers will help you cut down on the amount of time by helping you get there.


Those are my top three reasons, which can be broken down further if we want to nitpick all the details, or can be summed up in a single nutshell word of: Fulfillment. The friendships in the community, the cool stuff I get to see and make and wear and read and listen to, the absolute freedom limited only by my resources and imagination fills a part of my soul with something uplifting and positive. That is why I am a Steampunk. That is why I wade through commercial, mass produced, plastic “knockoff” products and Etsy listings of macrame cats and nylon hunting vests. That is why I listen to bands that use the label Steampunk, hoping to increase their fanbase. That is why I let other people tell me “that’s not what I think Steampunk is.” That’s why I don’t hide under a rock anymore; I let my freak flag fly. I let people stare and whisper and wonder.  And that’s why I seek out other people and groups that share my beliefs to associate myself with, and abandon the elitist prigs and the pot stirrers.  Groups that do their best to include everyone, even if some of them are more fractious or out there then others.

That’s why I will do anything I can to promote the good and the positive things that make such an impact on me. Because I know I am not alone. I know there are other people out there with something amazing to share, but they need an outlet like this to do it, to even realize it’s within them. I know we, as a community, as a movement, as a genre, as a style, are elite, not elitist, inclusive, not exclusive. No matter what it is they ultimately do with Steampunk, whether it’s just a cool costume or groundbreaking advances in the philosophy of social awareness, something good will come of it, and shouldn’t we be a force for good, both as individuals and as a community?

4 comments for “It all starts with asking the right questions

  1. M Gabriel Colbaugh
    June 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Wonderfully put and expresses a lot of what I feel as well. Since Steampunk I’ve made more friends in my city than I had in several previous years combined. It’s given me a chance to reach out to a community of individuals with similar interests and get to know them. It’s a chance to be creative, to express myself, to dress up in a way I want to and just feel awesome for a while. I’m thankful my local Steampunk community agrees with the sentiments you’ve expressed here, and that we enjoy letting people’s individuality speak.

    • July 1, 2012 at 2:01 am

      Thanks much! Without new blood, we, as a community will stagnate. Without new members and new ideas, we should be lucky if we just stop in place, instead of regressing…

  2. June 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Indeed, well put. Defining puts limits on things; and Steampunk seems allergic to limitation. My “Why I’m a Steampunk” List has Fun front and center.

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