About Steampunk

Steampunk def meme
I made a thing 🙂

The word “steampunk” has been popping up everywhere lately, but if you are new to the scene or just looking for a history lesson, this is a great place to start. In short, Steampunk is like fan fiction about the 19th and 20th centuries that explores a futuristic past that never happened, or “punks” real events or literary characters with an imaginative twist.

I became interested in the movement a few years ago when I went to a Steampunk themed burlesque show in Minneapolis, MN. I had never heard of it before, but the aesthetic immediately caught my attention. My friend obliged and decked me out in a corset (which I wore upside down for the first several hours by mistake), bowler and goggles for the evening, but when I got there I saw people going all out in full gowns and amazing suits. Curious by nature, I decided to look into the different resources on the web for enthusiasts like me, and to get a handle on where to movement started and where it is going. (Check out my Pinterest board!)

So, let’s start with the word itself. The “steam” of Steampunk refers to the era when steam power and clockwork technology dominated the Western world. For many, the term is tied most specifically to Victorian England (1837-1901), but the wild west of the United States is another popular backdrop. Depending on who you ask there is more or less wiggle room here. I have found some people who would say that without a British accent it can’t be Steampunk, and others that include works like The City of Ember in the canon because of the emphasis on machinery even though it takes place in a post-Apocalyptic future. The Illusionist is on many Steampunk movie lists, but it takes place in Austria.

I always err on the side of inclusivity rather than exclusivity (who am I to tell you what your artwork is?) and so will this blog. I usually use the war of 1812 to WWI to help people get a handle on the dates but there is a lot of wiggle room as a story set in the 18th century that uses ‘futuristic’ weapons technology and awesome corsets could definitely be considered Steampunk (for instance, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) in its broadest sense (especially because Grimm’s fairy tales was first published in 1812).

The “punk” part of the term has to do with the rebellious spirit and a Do-It-Yourself attitude that goes hand in hand with innovation. Early science-fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne would have classified themselves as ‘futurists’ because their stories pushed the boundaries of technological innovation and explored new way humans can interact with their environment. The term Steampunk, of course, did not exist until long after stories like The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were already classics, but these authors provided the seeds that would some day branch into a popular genre that includes not only books, graphic novels and movies, but fashion, artwork, and handicrafts.

The word Steampunk first appeared in 1987 when a contemporary Sci-Fi writer, K.W. Jeter, was looking for a term to describe works like his own book Infernal Devices, as well as works by Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates). On his own blog, Steam Words (http://steamwords.wordpress.com/), he writes:

“Here’s the deal: I didn’t invent steampunk. I did, however bumble into coining the word “steampunk.” There’s a lot of creativity, written and otherwise, and just general fun that’s going on in regard to Victorian-themed fantasy & science fiction, and if a word I created has become attached as the portmanteau handle to all that, then I’m flattered. But it would still be going on, with or without that label.”

Yeah, but it has an awfully nice ring to it. 🙂

I found a wonderful and totally digestible article on the website for The Asylum: The United Kingdom Steampunk Convivial. Here is an excerpt, or you can read the entire article here.

Well to begin with let’s clear up the name. “Steampunk” started as a joke. There was a movement in science fiction to write in a genre known as “Cyberpunk”. When various writers began exploring similar concepts and ideas but setting them in a pseudo Victorian world one of those writers, K.W. Jeter jokingly coined the term “steampunk”. As a tongue in cheek descriptor it stuck.

The name DOES NOT define the genre. Nor is 1987 the genesis of the scene. Steampunk has been a feature of Western Culture since the Victorian age itself. Jules Verne, HG Wells, even Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker have contributed to the wealth of imagery and ideas which steampunks enjoy so much. Of course since then there have been an absolute multitude of other influences from movies such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Wild Wild West to comic books, novels, music bands and tinkerers. What Steampunks should thank Jeter for is coming up with a name which serves as a signpost to help them to find people with similar interests and tastes.

Steampunk has now developed into an extended network which encompasses a wide variety of input from a highly creative and artistic community. It includes writers, musicians, dancers, sculptors, model makers, costume makers and a host of other disciplines and skills. It has been summed up as “Well can you imagine what things would be like if the Great Exhibition had never finished?” Steampunks try to take some of the very best parts of the past and make them part of a bright future. Steampunks value good manners and polite conduct and try to encourage this by setting an example for others. They think things should be made to a high quality and to last thus helping the environment. They value and encourage creativity and indeed have been asked to collaborate in educational and arts projects across the globe.

Whilst things are set in a pseudo historical world which harks back to our Victorian heritage steampunks do not promote any of the inequalities of that past. Indeed theirs is deliberately an all inclusive community. You will find steampunks of all ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds and abilities. They also come from all walks of life from students to academics and from comedians to solicitors.

Can you still call it steam-PUNK? Punk in the seventies was a rebellion against contemporary society. It is plain that steampunks are rebelling but theirs is a stand against: throwaway society, poor manners and antisocial behaviour, homogenisation and commercialism.

Steampunks are generally polite, friendly, care about the environment , the past and the future and creativity and individuality.” 

~Tinker, July 2011


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