Sunday, 3 October 2010

Just what the hell is ‘Steampunk’ anyway?

I realised something the other day. While I’m perfectly happy to point at a book and say, “it has elements of Steampunk in it, it’s a Steampunk novel” I couldn’t actually define Steampunk in a couple of sentences. (And why is it my Mum who always somehow manages to stump me like this? Dammit!)

I know that Steampunk resides in a Victorian setting although it’s not always found in Victorian times (I’m looking at you China Mieville). There’s a higher level of technology than you would expect to find historically but it’s all driven by coal or steam (funnily enough). The emphasis of the plot (in least in what I’ve read) is on high adventure, mostly carried out by bored gentry or ladies with ideas far above their station.
There are goggles in abundance but they’re not just any old goggles, oh no. Steampunk adventurers don’t wear goggles, they all wear devices such as ‘Dr. Sanford’s Optical Enhancement Aid’. Same deal with the weaponry. See that dashing young Lord of the Realm who has just spied the mad scientist about to blow up the dirigible (there is always a dirigible)? The mad scientist isn’t up for negotiation here so our hero has no choice but to employ ‘Professor Barking’s Amplified Lightening Conductor’ (‘ray gun’ to the likes of you and I) to save the day!

Now I just know that there’s a lot more to Steampunk than what I’ve light-heartedly covered; genres and sub-genres always seem to come into being with a lot more thought behind them than someone saying, “wouldn’t it be really cool if the hero wore goggles?” What is Steampunk all about once you put the goggles and dirigibles to one side though? And don’t even get me started on Teslapunk…

Can anyone help me out here? In one of those moments of irony, Vandermeer’s ‘Steampunk II’ is lurking around the house somewhere but I can’t seem to find it…


ediFanoB said...

as a starting point I recommend to read following posts by Cherie Priest:
Steampunk: What it is, why I came to like it, and why I think it’ll stick around

Steampunk FAQ

Concerning literature I recommend to read the Wikipedia entry Steampunk

Bush League Critic said...

Two things shout "Steampunk" to me.

Anachronistic technology and sepia colored airships. ;)

Ryan said...

I believe it resides in the base of an alternate dimension where electricity hadn't been invented, coal and steam taking it's place with crazy machines and fashion being based in this fact.

Its one of those things that you know when you see it but can't explain exactly what it is.

suneokun said...

Steampunk is another example of a word which describes perfectly a genre which defies definition.

It's SciFi with the 'Sci' removed, and the fantasy pumped to the max.

Look no further than it's own name for a likewise lack of definition ...

Describe 'Punk' in one sentence?

Sometimes the invented name IS the definition.