Steampunk is NOT Victorian Science Fiction

Or is it? Only if you want it to be, but don't be pressured.
Is not steampunk explained easily?

Boromir knows.

This article is one of several that are an attempt to address the problems within the steampunk community. These problems are not the doing of steampunks who enjoy the culture, but of those who wish to only make profit from it.

There are more articles on this project via The Guidelines of Steampunk.

It’s a common misconception that steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction. I went along with this description until I delved further into the community. This description of steampunk has been pushed onto the culture by clever people who simply want to further their own career. By convincing you that their opinion of steampunk is the correct opinion and removing any that disagree.

It’s true that steampunk is largely based in the Victorian/Edwardian era when steam power was at it’s most prominent. That’s not always the case though. Sometimes it’s set in the future or the present. It doesn’t really matter. A major difference between the late 19th century (referred to here as the Victorian era herein) and steampunk – and certainly a difference that many people seem to have trouble getting to grips with – is that before 1987, the word steampunk didn’t exist. There were steampunk styled films or novels or music before then, but as a name, it didn’t exist. It certainly didn’t exist in the Victorian era.

As steampunks, we all know that it’s a very real culture followed by millions of people around the world. Yet so many of us are following a description of it without really questioning the source.

The reason this is happening is because if you search steampunk online it’s likely you’ll hit certain pages that have a certain way of making you perceive it. Because steampunk is such a free concept, it’s open to exploitation and that’s essentially what has happened.

What is steampunk if not Victorian Science Fiction?

Quite simply; steampunk is Victorian Inspired Science Fiction. Adding just that one word makes so much difference to how it’s interpreted. The term “Victorian” is generally reserved to describe late 19th century Britain and was named as such after Queen Victoria. An additional problem that arises is that the “Victorian era” is a wholly British experience. In other parts of the world they didn’t know it was the Victorian era. In America it was nicknamed the Gilded Age by Mark Twain, for example. Therefore, when steampunks refer to it as Victorian, they’re referring to a British era that the rest of the world knew as the late 19th century.

Once it’s understood where steampunk lies against Victorian Science Fiction, all the arguments on social media become more or less irrelevant. HG Wells and Jules Verne are superb authors. Their vision and creativity is laudable even today but are they steampunk authors? I would argue that they aren’t; they’re Victorian science fiction writers.

What’s the difference?

Let’s look at it from their viewpoint. Wells or Verne are sat in their studies in the Victorian era thinking about what fantastical adventures, vehicles and inventions may happen in the future. They wrote about them and this is Victorian Science Fiction. That is to say, it’s Science Fiction written in the Victorian era by a Victorian author.

Steampunk is Science Fiction that has a Victorian theme such as steam powered vehicles or technology that hasn’t moved forward. Fashion may still be set in the 19th century. It is inevitably inspired by the great authors of the actual time and that’s why steampunk isn’t Victorian Science Fiction. That being said, you don’t have to stick to this ideal and more articles will cover this in the near future.

Like I mentioned before, steampunk has been exploited and because there are no rules, if someone says “This is my interpretation of steampunk” then no-one can disagree and quite right. However, your own interpretation of steampunk should remain just that, yet in some cases these personal interpretations have been published and forced upon people so much that it’s changed our perception of what it really is. By following someone else’s interpretation of steampunk, not only are you forging the culture into something else, you’re also not sticking to the punk element of the name.

Why isn’t anyone allowed say what steampunk is or isn’t?

It’s not that anyone isn’t allowed to say something isn’t steampunk. It’s your right to say what you like. But it’s important to bear in mind that if someone posts a picture of something they’ve created and we all popped up slating it for not being steampunk, you can hurt that person’s feelings. For all we know they could be new to steampunk and have spent what little money they have creating something from their head. Who are we to say it’s not what they say it is? It may be exactly what they had in mind, or it might even be incomplete.

“If someone builds something and does what they can with the materials and money they have, they should be commended and encouraged. Not brought down.”

I’ve seen a lot of people find steampunk because it’s all encompassing and they feel welcomed whereas they may normally be shunned. We’re a welcoming bunch and don’t judge people on their differences.

KW Jeter had already written Morlock Night in 1979 before releasing Infernal Devices in 1984. It was with this book that he coined the term “Steampunk” in a note to Locus magazine in 1987. It’s important to keep that in mind that this didn’t happen in 1887, it was 100 years later. Interestingly, when people discuss the great steampunk authors, Jeter is rarely listed. In fact, in a recent internet meme, he was missed off completely and replaced with H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe. The latter actually being considered more part of the American Romantic Movement.

Is there a conclusion?

Based on this view, Steampunk can’t be simply Victorian Science Fiction and nothing else. If you’re new to the culture then keep this in mind. Contrastingly, if it helps you feel more comfortable describing it that way, then by all means do that.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be adding more to this topic and I welcome any input from readers who would like to say what steampunk means to them and whether you agree or disagree. Feel free to put across your point of view. After all, I’ve changed my mind once about how I view steampunk, there’s no reason why it can’t be done again.

This is a great article about steampunk books: Nine novels that defined steampunk

Categories
Articles - Guidelines of SteampunkArticles - Steampunk
23 Comments on this post.
  • Andrew Craven
    9 April 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Excellent article. I have been saying this on forums in discussions for a long time and most of the time i have been shunned. I look at the state of the UK Steampunk scene and I feel that many of the individuals and wouldbe businesses ride too much on the victorian thing. Down that historic costume reenactment route.

    Of course as you say each to their own. But the victorian mannerisms come with it and all this talk of British Empire etc which to be frank drives me bonkers. What about the other elements? What about the future from now. Phillip Reeves Mortal Engines and Toby Frosts Space Captain Smith to mention a few. What about modern tech and devices re packaged into the steampunk aesthetic like the work of Datamancer. It goes on.

    It may seem like a contradiction in terms when you tell this and preach the punk individualism and DIY ethics but at the end of the day, what you state in this article is an historic fact. And thats how generations of the future will see it.

  • H.A. Higgins-Keith
    9 April 2015 at 10:13 pm

    Well… a very interesting article though one I’ll disagree with quite a bit. Methinks you need to do some more sitting and thinking, good sir.

    Let us begin with “before 1987, steampunk didn’t exist.” Truly? So before a label is invented something can not exist?

    Ah, but before I progress I must also take umbrage with your statement “These problems are not the doing of steampunks who enjoy the culture, but of those who wish to only make profit from it.” As one who does not profit from Steampunk I find that there is as much or, perhaps, more argument about its definition from others who do not make coin on its back. Those who DO profit from it… merely do so. They write or draw, they craft or create… they make their offerings and people pay their money for it. It is that simple.

    And is it a culture or merely an aesthetic?

    Then you state ” there are no rules”. Again I must ask if you truly believe this for, if you do, then anything and everything may be steampunk in your view which leads to the inevitable argument concerning Dr. Who being Steampunk or similar.

    While I shall support your right to speak as you wish you do seem to be trying to convince people of your ‘truth’… and to that, good sir, I’m afraid I must say that this is just a whole fistful of confused poppycock.

    Oh, and as someone who lived through the punk years and was part of that subculture… you don’t seem to understand the ‘punk’ part of steampunk. I would refer you to offer that a little more thought and consideration.

    • Matthew deMaris esq
      9 April 2015 at 10:31 pm

      I didn’t expect everyone to agree so that’s perfectly ok for you to say that. I did quite clearly state that as a name steampunk didn’t exist before 1987 and it’s a poke at articles that say that Verne and Wells were steampunk authors. They were Victorian Science Fiction writers and steampunk is inspired from them. I also mentioned that I’m aware that films, books and the like were being released in the style.
      Sadly there are not just people who invent, create, sell, repeat. Some wish to change your perception of steampunk in order to sell there wares and that’s wrong.
      My article and the related work will only serve to help people who are new or in the dark. I feel Victorian Inspired Science Fiction is a much more logical description than Victorian Science Fiction and wish people to consider it.
      As for punk, please enlighten me. I was young during the punk period and have had to research it instead. I’ve based my reasoning on descriptions of what punk stands for such as the DIY element, anti establishment and non conformity among other traits. 🙂

  • Mark Jenkins
    9 April 2015 at 11:31 pm

    We have explained that Jeter coined the phrase Steampunk but that the fiction existed already HG and Verne etc.
    I’ve had people say nothing before Jeter because he said Steampunk first.
    I’ve had people say nothing before Jeter because he wrote of society rather than one off inventions.
    I’ve had people say nothing before Jeter because he wrote of our past as it developed after a certain point where Steam remained King and it had to be distopian.
    Now back to nothing before Jeter because he named SP so call it Victorian Sci-fi.
    I would say you name an era once an invention comes along! We called it the nuclear age when the first bomb was dropped, a first man in the moon or a time machine would be just such an important invention. Steampunk is popular, we run a group we don’t do it for profit we do it for fun, we encourage inclusion and support other subcultures and interests we like Dr Who, Sherlock Holmes and cosplay an include them in our events list and organized events. We also do Steampunk versions of display and DR Who.
    There seems to be an old school Steampunk that wish it to stay pure brass and newer Steampunks that what to include other interests. Let’s throw some Goth back in the mix too, support our Goth brethren as they have ‘had’ to accept the take over of their events, support them to come to ours.
    I found like many I had Steampunk interests when I found that all my favorite films and books were on the list. Should I now call myself a Victorian Science Fiction fan? Its more descriptive than Steampunk, and if Steampunk becomes a label that means ridgidity and stagnation then you can keep it.

  • ohsomebody
    10 April 2015 at 11:44 am
  • Lisa W England
    10 April 2015 at 5:54 pm

    I’ve used “Victorian science fiction” a lot as a term simply to help people who are outside the fandom wrap their heads about a general neighborhood of ideas. They ask me, “What is steampunk in three words?” And that’s what I tell them. However, I always add the historical bit, that steampunk didn’t exist in Vernes/Welles’ day, and that steampunk as a modern movement encompasses attempts to do work inspired by these great authors and the era in which they lived. I like the addition of the word, “-Inspired” very much.

    That being said … I find that most discussions about not defining steampunk are … at some level … defining in and of themselves. By telling people that they shouldn’t be defining steampunk, we are in fact restricting their attempts to be steampunk and figure out a definition for themselves. If people ask me what steampunk is, I tell them what it is from my perspective–and I don’t apologize for that. Wouldn’t ask anyone else to, either.

  • Brenda Morris
    11 April 2015 at 6:06 pm

    This post also has an interesting definition: neo-Victorian retro-futurism. http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/2010/05/defining-steampunk-as-aesthetic.html

    I like “Victorian inspired” too. I enjoy that there are some common ideas about the major elements of steampunk without anyone getting too picky about how you express or play with them.

    It could be argued that terms are coined *after* the creation of something new because we need to see it and understand it in order to give it a name… so maybe there was steampunk before 1987, but enough to form the critical mass that demanded a name for it. 🙂

    Thanks for your post – interesting thoughts!

  • Tayliss Forge
    12 April 2015 at 6:15 pm

    I think the easiest way to explain it is “alternative history”. It’s not Victorian inspired because that excludes the rest of the world. Just like people don’t look into the name, no one looks at the historical factors that make things “steampunk.” Looking at historical factors, this alternative history takes place from the 1750’s (when the steam engine came into existence) until before WWII when we as a civilization would inevitably (and did) shift to a new source of power. Victorian/Edwardian steampunk is a part of steampunk, but that excludes wild west steam, oriental steam, etc. It is not location based, it is time based. This is why alternative history is the best description.

  • BeardedDalek
    14 April 2015 at 6:51 pm

    Conflating past futurists with modern retro-future is a common issue, and I disagree that Jules Verne and other Victorian science fiction authors are exempt from the “steampunk” category simply for predating it. Their audience and perspective were different, but their method, goal and result were the same, and they stand as archetypes that much of steampunk looks to. Tellingly, fans of steampunk tend to be fans of Victorian science fiction. That said, I agree with the sentiment you have. To me, it seems like book-ending the genre too much for it to be “punk”.

    One of the things that troubles me about steampunk-as-it-stands is that it is almost always “set” during the period it is supposed to be drawing from. Instead of diverging from history to build upon the era of steam, it rewrites the history of the era of steam to inject characters and situations. When I was originally drawn to the genre, my thought was that the aesthetic and technologies carried forward and culture became more ingenious with steam and brass rather than delving into steel and gasoline. I have yet to see anyone treat it as being 2015 when airships dominate the sky, instead of injecting them purely into 18XX.

  • merennulli
    14 April 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Conflating past futurists with modern retro-future is a common issue, and I disagree that Jules Verne and other Victorian science fiction authors are exempt from the “steampunk” category simply for predating it. Their audience and perspective were different, but their method, goal and result were the same, and they stand as archetypes that much of steampunk looks to. Tellingly, fans of steampunk tend to be fans of Victorian science fiction. That said, I agree with the sentiment you have. To me, it seems like book-ending the genre too much for it to be “punk”.

    One of the things that troubles me about steampunk-as-it-stands is that it is almost always “set” during the period it is supposed to be drawing from. Instead of diverging from history to build upon the era of steam, it rewrites the history of the era of steam to inject characters and situations. When I was originally drawn to the genre, my thought was that the aesthetic and technologies carried forward and culture became more ingenious with steam and brass rather than delving into steel and gasoline. I have yet to see anyone treat it as being 2015 when airships dominate the sky, instead of injecting them purely into 18XX.

  • TheNavigatrix
    16 April 2015 at 9:41 am

    Reblogged this on The Navigatrix on Etsy and commented:
    I admire the simple clarity of this post, along with the positive, welcoming attitude of the author. Inspirational!

  • cogpunksteamscribe
    17 April 2015 at 1:50 am
  • chrispavesic
    17 April 2015 at 2:46 am

    Reblogged this on chrispavesic and commented:
    This is an interesting article with a focus on inspiration as the key term in steampunk.

  • Steampunk is NOT Victorian Science Fiction | fkuypers
    17 April 2015 at 8:00 am

    […] Steampunk is NOT Victorian Science Fiction. […]

  • forwhomthegearturns
    28 April 2015 at 7:30 am

    Nice article 🙂 On my site I like to review classic sci-fi as well as contemporary literature, and I post them all under the umbrella of “Steampunk Book Reviews”. I posted a review the other day for Journey to the Center of the Earth and got a comment telling me I was incorrect for including Verne in this series. This was a funny exercise in semantics, because what he read was “Steampunk Book” – Review, when what I was thinking was I am a person reviewing a book through a Steampunk lens, more like “Steampunk reviewing a book”. When I describe Steampunk to the unintiated, I always include the word “inspired” in regards to its relationship to Victorian Sci-fi. And when I write about classic sci-fi, I often include links and references to contemporary things that are clearly inspired by these particular books. This seems like an effective way to highlight the interchange between the past and how it is inspiring people in the present. I wrote an article awhile back looking at defining steampunk from an anthropological point of view as an act of identity-building, perhaps other people would interested in it as well, http://forwhomthegearturns.com/2014/04/22/making-it-to-the-party-early-does-not-make-it-your-party/

    • si Burgoyne-Neal
      28 March 2016 at 9:48 am

      I think you are pretty much spot on M… for me (and speaking on behalf of LSM too) SP is whatever you want it to be, it’s diversionary escapism. Since we have taken on board doing both the markets and my own stuff for a living (albeit meagre, but hey we have to eat!) . I’m working on the assumption at that this is in essence a question as to the “authority” of the “self appointed SP aristocracy”. Bottom line… get your kit on, go out and have fun. Frankly sick of a few things: Tea Room table hoggers, Shoe gazers, and those who choose to look down on any approach that isn’t theirs. We’re doing our level best with LSM to make it multi-inclusional. In short we welcome everyone as long as they aren’t extremist or self righteous.
      .

  • Sabrina
    13 March 2016 at 8:43 am

    I want to say that this is the most amazing and encouraging thing that i have ever read! I am not new to this, but i have been mislead so many times trying to truly understand steampunk. Thank you for making this very clear, and understanding to me! 🙂

  • Kit
    28 March 2016 at 9:49 am

    Wow! I went into this article with clenched teeth and thinking “Here’s another writer trying to tell me what Steampunk is” and came out enlightened!
    I have always told my local SP group that the old West/gilded age is a part of the genre, but mostly out of defense for my outfit.
    I’m actually going to look into other cultures around the 19th century to see where else we can pull ideas from. Thanks!

    • Matthew deMaris esq
      29 March 2016 at 6:33 pm

      Take a look at Steampunk India. She’s an inspiration to people around the world who the “Victorian era” didn’t happen to. If you know what I mean.

  • Jo Burgoyne-Neal
    28 March 2016 at 10:43 am

    I couldn’t agree more Matt!
    When members of the general public come to our markets in Leeds (now on tour all over West Yorkshire) and I get chatting to them, there are several words in your article that I use all the time.
    Main ones being: turn of the century, on the European side of the world = Victorian inspired, America/Australia didn’t have Victorian so was like wild western films, think of authors like HG Wells and Jules Verne, intrepid explorers, thinking outside the box. I like to end it with take everything in your wardrobe that doesn’t go together, wear it with a twist and you’re halfway there.
    It’s what you make it at the end of the day, make yourself unique. A lot of things have become very stereotypical – corsets, cogs, top hats and goggles but that doesn’t make them mandatory, right or wrong – anything and everything is always an individual option, no matter what.
    I mean, when Leeds Steampunk Market started in 2011 the only people you would see attending it would be – well – the old school/traditional steampunks. Now there is a huge diverse range in addition to all different styles of steampunks – goths, sci-fi geeks/nerds, larpers, furries and there are an awful lot of regular members of the public from all religions and backgrounds.
    At our next events our nominated fundraisers are for a Muslim Community Support group (which helped us and our neighbours when we were flooded on Boxing Day) and a charity that helps HIV causes. Oh yes and did we mention that we have a real life vicar that does our Coffee Jousting?!
    We welcome everyone, we think of our friends, traders and visitors as an extended family and we take care of each other.

  • Jonathan Fesmire
    31 May 2016 at 10:14 pm

    “Victorian inspired science fiction” is what people mean when they say “Victorian science fiction.” I’d go a step further and say, “Victorian era inspired science fiction,” as steampunk stories can take place all over the world and are generally placed in that era.

    • Matthew deMaris esq
      1 June 2016 at 2:50 pm

      Indeed and that’s a relevant point you’ve made which I’ve covered elsewhere on the site (10 points if you can find it).
      Given that to much of the world that was outside the British monarchy such as China, Japan, Africa (to a degree) etc, the word “Victorian” offers no real point of reference. It should technically be “late 19th century inspired science fiction”. Although that’s a bit of a mouthful and much of the world would likely not be able to associate the 19th century with the Victorian era.

  • ljvandeusen10
    15 August 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you for this post. I am new to steampunk and am finding it incredibly fascinating! It certainly stirs the creative mind into action. I am hoping to attend a steampunk fair later this month, but I don’t have any money. I’m hoping I can scrounge around here and there to fashion something into somewhat “proper” attire. Anyway, I do thank you for this clarification. I have shared it on my steampunk facebook page as I have had queries into what is steampunk.

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