Monday, January 25, 2010

What Is Steampunk?

What Is Steampunk?

steamheat-1 After attending a couple Steampunk events and reading a couple of posts on blogs I follow*, I decided to write up my own impression of “What is Steampunk.” There are two basic classifications of Steampunk. The first is a modern 21st Century social movement, the second is an ongoing literary moment.

The Social Movement

The Steampunk Movement is a social movement characterized by the the return of 19th Century fashion coupled with pre-modern imaginative technology. I would call it “Post-Retro Fashion.” Here are the major themes of Steampunk Fashion:

  • Victorian Era garb. Corsets and waistcoats, top hats and mini-top hats, bustles and brocades. In Victorian days, “off the rack” meant you received a reprieve from torture. Everything was custom-tailored. Buying a “Steampunk” outfit from The GAP goes against everything Steampunk stands for. Fashioning a Steampunk outfit from Value Village ups your Steampunk cred immensely.
  • Goggles. Preferably crafted in brass, these are the sign of a active lifestyle and that steam workshops require eye protection.
  • Gears and Clocks. This is a rejection of modern industrial manufacturing, and hearkens back to a time when everything was hand-crafted. No digital watches, solid-state drives, wireless communication, or web sites. Although, of course, the modern Steampunk social movement is highly driven by the internet, but since it’s a social movement, there is a high degree of human contact, exemplified by crafting workshops, Steampunk Balls, and entire Steampunk conventions.
  • Customization. You can “Steampunk” almost everything, by creating handcrafted laptop cases or iPhones, or redecorating your home or office, all using 19th Century materials and processes.
  • steampunk gun1 Weaponry. No Steampunk outfit is complete without your own custom-crafted converted Nerf gun.
  • Reuse/Recycle. Steampunk rejects modern single-use throwaway tech and built-in-obsolescence. 19th Century Artisans built things to last.  Organic, natural fibers, non-manufactured goods.
  • Music. A few “Steampunk” bands have sprung up that feature retro music and period costumes and instrumentation.
  • Manners. Steampunkers are a gentle folk. The modern masses have lost some of the grace and charm of the Victorian Era, and Steampunk hopes to restore some of that lost civility.

The Literary Movement

The Steampunk Literary Movement is what I’d call a “reimagining of history.” It’s taking historic events, specifically during the Victorian Era, and applying Science Fiction or Fantasy tropes to this period. We start with the works of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Rice Burroughs who all imagined a future filled with strange flying machines, mechanical marvels, terrifying monsters, and, of course, polite society. Steampunk writers try to recapture the spirit of those authors, except with the retrospective of a century of progress, can go further than those authors ever could. It’s not as much thinking about what could have been as much as thinking about what should have been. Why don’t we have flying cars yet? What if flying cars had been invented instead of automobiles? Why don’t we have androids yet? What if they had been invented over a century ago? How would this change society?

Steampunk Literature can also be split into two general categories: First World and Second World. First World is simply alternate history, set in known locations with known historical figures, whereas Second World is either our future or an alternate world/reality, or even in a Fantasy setting.

sp_z-group-hero 1 The literary movements shares most of the same features of the social movement, but there are some general themes that abound in Steampunk Literature:

  • Steampunk Aesthetics. All the things mentioned above. Goggles gears, gloves, etc. Think about the Apollo Lunar Module. Cramped, filled with buttons and levers. That’s 20th Century aesthetics. A Steampunk Lunar Module would have all the comforts of home with a minimum of controls. Plush cushions, tea service, waiters, cigars, and navigation done by dead reckoning. There’s the moon, head that way.
  • Alternate History. What if? What if mechanical computers were invented in 1846 instead of 1946? What if mobile communications existed in 1810 instead of 1910? What if a wealthy individual created his own Manhattan Project in 1860 in order to create some impossible weapon that allowed America to conquer Europe or could turn a city’s population into zombies? What if Aliens landed in 1850 in brass capsules?
  • Retro Futurism. Modern industrial practices, especially the reliance on fossil fuels, is clearly unsustainable. All our technologies are belong to dust. A Steampunk Future is a return to sustainable technology that don’t require expensive manufacturing processes and cargo ships full of crude oil. Or it’s all Magic.
  • Steam Power. This is not saying that everything in Steampunk Literature is steam powered, but it is rejecting diesel, gas, and electrical power (and nuclear while we’re at it). Essentially anything 20th Century. However, exotic power sources are fine. Magnetism, Aether, magic, 8th Rays, The Force, etc. Typical Sci-Fi sources are out, too, so no Warp Drive or laser blasters. Think more Flintstones than Jetsons.
  • Social Change. As with all the scope of human history, the Victorian Era was rife with social upheaval, in particular, the rise of the Middle Class. The ugliness of factory sweatshops was still on the horizon. Woman’s Rights was in the offing, Civil Rights had its beginnings. Old-time monarchies still held sway in much of the world, and the extreme barbarism of the 20th Century had yet to start.
  • Exploration. So much of the world lay undiscovered, not to mention Outer Space. Everything was conjecture. What would we find at the South Pole? The Moon? The Center of the Earth? What is mankind’s potential? What is our place in the Universe? Not to mention the secrets of biology, chemistry, and quantum mechanics. 20th Century research has produced the great threats to mankind’s existence. But in the 19th, mankind had a kind of innocence, and thought it was a matter of time before they could cure mankind’s ills. They never saw the implications, so modern writers often explore that fallacy and the dire consequences of Science Gone Wrong.
  • Individual Creativity. How much better off would be have been if the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle had been private concerns? 19th Century writers never imagined that the State would sponsor such endeavors. The 20th Century is marked by a continual consolidation of power to the government and rampant socialism, coupled with an attack on large corporations (except for gas companies and banks). Steampunk seeks a return to the concept of privately-funded operations, where wealthy magnates use their influence for the betterment of mankind.
  • Invention. In 1899, it has been rumored that the US Patent Office almost closed for lack of business.  We know in retrospect that this was crap, and the 19th Century introduced a continual increase in patent applications that has been maintained to this day. Steampunk is actually more about re-invention, about achieving a modern level of functionality while using 19th Century processes and materials.
  • Beginnings of Industry. True American industrialism began in 1908 with the introduction of the Model T,essentially the end of pre-industrial society. Steampunk revels in the start of the world before the assembly line, when you built a car piece by piece from the ground up, using hand-machined metals and wood, a highly personal and rewarding experience.
  • Giant Mechanisms. There’s a theme in Steampunk literature to super-size common mechanisms. So if you introduce a tank, it’s a giant machine four stories high with a crew of 200. Robots are pot-bellied behemoths made of cast iron, not tiny little R2D2’s. All, of course, all hand-built at great expense by individuals, not modern corporations or governments.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on “what is Steampunk” because these lists only scratch the surface, and each new novel brings a new elements to the genre.

*List of recent Steampunk blog posts:



  1. steampunk is so cool! i found out about it 5 years ago from my youth minister at the time. its great to see it is becoming more and more popular. i am more interested in the technical aspects of steampunk like turning technology steampunk. here is a great article i wrote about a steampunk game boy!

  2. great post. elements of paranormal and romance as in gail carriger's soulless are also coming heavy into the scene which is a draw for women (i think).

  3. Very well done, sir. I like the rundown of both movements and the comparison between them. This is the first time I've heard of First World versus Second World, by the way.

    Also, I'm honored that I got included in your listing of recent steampunk blog posts.

    Side note: You might want to look up things like the Holt Steam Tank and the Doble Model E as steam-powered mechanisms that evoke the steampunk aesthetic. And actually existed too!

  4. Tubular, thanks for the clarification. Westerfeld introduced me to the concept, but I was uneducated until now.

  5. The Tom Swift, SR. (as opposed to the Tom Swift, Jr books of the 50's) might almost qualify as "Steampunk" I suppose. They were written in the early 1900's. If they were reissued they might fit right in with the whole movement.

  6. @Zack: It's definitely fun. I wish I had some mad crafting skillz.

    @v: Vampires in Dirigibles!

    @Matt: I could make whole posts on every bullet point. Just trying to capture the big picture! There's so much out there that's real and imagined. In my WIP I'm including steam cannons and steam catapults.

    @John: Westerfield's okay, but he only scratches the surface...and his book is set a bit later in history than traditional Steampunk.

  7. Wow! This is such a great explanation of Steampunk. I've bookmarked it for future reference. Well done, Andrew!

  8. Great article! And I love the pictures, especially of the Star Wars crew. LOL

  9. Excellent, in-depth explanation. I read Leviathan and enjoyed it and just read you comment to John that Westerfield only scratches the surface. I had no idea. I obviously need to read more steampunk. (You're going to get a lot of Google hits on this post!)

  10. @CVM: thanks!

    @Ian: Matt has more pix of them on his site

    @MG: It's like saying Paranormal is about Vampires. Steampunk is like that too...lots of different interpretations/aspects to it.

  11. One thing I was wondering about some of the literature and Anime I've seen. I was wondering if Trigun and King's The Dark Tower series would be considered Steampunk? Both stories reject the idea of modern technology as we think of it and strip the people that live in those worlds to a near pre-industrial society, though some modern tech tends to be leftover from "earlier" periods that have moved on, to use a phrase from King.

  12. "Todays science fiction is tomorrow's science fact."

    Don't know where I read that, but it stuck with me. And Andrew, you and Matt have me so interested in Steampunk, I have to find novels that express this sub genre.

    I'd like to say my interest is all in the writing blogs, but really; who could look at the storm trooper or uhm, damn, Matt had the other one I craved. Was it Luke - polar opposites. Well, doesnt matter. I'll be looking for the Steampunk Star Wars figures.

    I'll put them with my collection of micro machines.


  13. Fabulous tutorial for steampunk newbies. I love the little dog and sidekick pic at the end. It is forever burned into my brain as the penultimate symbol of steampunkery!

  14. @Ryan: Sorry, not familiar with that series

    @Donna: Gotta love steampunkery

    @cat: umm...then what's the ultimate symbol? (penultimate = 2nd most, not uber-most)

  15. Great article to explain what steam punk is. I referred to your article here:

  16. I just love the stream punk for it's costume designs. I have wore a princess costume of stream punk in last Halloweens. It was gorgeous. I got so many compliments wearing that princess costume. Thank you stream punk.

  17. 1st thing your a great writer ; 2nd this is one of the best break downs of " what is steampunk " . I just attended the Tucson Comic Con , there was a group called " Tucson Steampunk Society " . I've seen the style ; but the members in the society have events, high teas antiques , they're living it , outfits and everything that goes with it . You can find them on facebook/ groups/ tucsonsteampunksocietytinkerers . Thanks for the well written article : )


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