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