Understanding steampunk – an introduction to an alternative 19th century

What is steampunk and how do you "do it"?

I’ve written several articles on various aspects of steampunk, but stayed away from a “steampunk 101” style article. The reason being that I was concerned that it would be too ambiguous, not really explaining anything and the experience of steampunk is different for everyone. With the recent exploits of steampunks from Steampunk‘d on GSN in the USA to the ever expanding Asylum weekend in the UK, more people are discovering steampunk. I think the time has arrived for an unbiased look at the subculture.

There are plenty of articles out there already that explain what steampunk is and what it means. As a newcomer to the culture, you have a lot of information at your fingertips. However, it’s worth noting that steampunk is a very personal culture. The way that you experience and view it will be different to anyone else. Therefore defining it is difficult and articles that stumble into this blindly ultimately end up biased towards the author’s own outlook.

As an ambiguous umbrella term, steampunk is an amalgamation of three different time points. Close your eyes and imagine a person of today using weapons of tomorrow and dressed in clothes of yesterday. The yesterday is our collaborative interest in the late 19th century while the future is the science fiction element. Today is incorporated because steampunk is a modern culture. It hasn’t been around since the days of Jules Verne or HG Wells but some people still class them as steampunk authors. We’re going to delve a little further into the history and meaning behind steampunk using personal experiences of how other people view it.

History

The starting point of steampunk is highly debatable and it’s likely that even with a comprehensive break down of the historical events, people will continue to use the information as they please in order to interpret steampunk.

Where steampunk begins is an interesting one. It’s been heavily pushed on various other websites that steampunk is “Victorian science fiction”. This is a highly convenient way of describing the culture to a member of the public at an event when you’ve been asked for the umpteenth time. It’s also an extremely popular way to condition readers into believing a certain way of viewing steampunk in order to sell more books and become a “leader” in the culture. Many people believe that steampunk begins with the coronation of Queen Victoria. One of the issues with this is that the Victorian era is mainly centred around late 19th century Britain and if you’re a steampunk in China or Siberia or the Amazon, chances are Victorian Britain holds little reference for you. I posted an article called Steampunk is NOT Victorian Science Fiction in order to combat this issue, but it seems that as time progresses and more people are introduced to the culture, a more complicated explanation is needed. An easier way to describe the Victorian era would be “late 19th/early 20th century” which is more encompassing than “Victorian era”, but it can be argued that more people will understand the latter than will work out what was happening in the late 19th century.

The reason for the reference to Queen Victoria is that during her reign, England started the industrial revolution and steam power was at its most prominent. This leads us to another issue that is frequently debated on social media.

Steam

The use of the word “steam” is often taken far too seriously with arguments stemming from not just the invention of steam power, but the refusal to accept any other form of propulsion. In my article Chronology of a Steampunk Universe – The Past, I noted that steam power used as a propulsion technique was invented in 1AD, but to go by that would be preposterous. I pointed this out because many people argue that steampunk begins with the invention of the steam engine, usually citing Thomas Newcomen or Thomas Savery and not Hero of Alexandria. If you were to read the letter that KW Jeter wrote to Locus magazine, it comes across as though the use of the word “steam” is merely  suggestion based on the time period that his novels are inspired by. It could have been (an in all likeliness was) a tongue-in-cheek name and there was a 50/50 chance we could have all been called Coalpunks instead.

Punk

Many people believe that Steampunk is a spin off of the Punk culture made popular in the 1970s by punk rock music. However, in the previously mentioned note by KW Jeter, he’s looking to coin a new name for his style of book that he and a number of other authors writing in. Because it bears a similar resemblance to Cyberpunk – a very popular science fiction genre at the time – he proposed “steam punk” as a name. However, in the following years, steampunks have adopted many of the worthy ethics that punks live by. Punks aren’t all about loud music and fighting. That’s a small denomination of them. In fact contrary to popular belief, the Punk culture is a complex one with multiple political outlooks, however they all share a view of individual freedom, non-conformity, not selling out and a DIY ethic. These particular ethics are ones that steampunks have employed in their past-time.

Steampunks are well known for allowing freedom of individuality; steampunk is entirely personal. We also don’t look upon others and judge them for anything, be it their race, disability, gender or even the amount of effort they put into an outfit. We don’t sell out to large corporations, although this could be argued that it has started to happen with the advent of the program Steampunk’d.

More recent cultures don’t embrace these aspects of Punk and simply add the word on the end to link into the success and/or familiarity of Cyberpunk, steampunk and dieselpunk.

There are many other articles to read to give you an idea of what steampunk is. Click on some of the following links for other articles on the subject. There are no rules to steampunk and this gives us a massive scope for creative freedom. However, in order to retain an element of steampunk, it’s worth staying within vague boundaries or guidelines that being interested in steampunk or victoriana you’ll be doing anyway. Have a read of the Guidelines of Steampunk article. I’m a firm believer that if you say you’re steampunk, then you are a steampunk. Some people argue that to be a steampunk, you have to be recognised as such by other people  – sort of confirming it if you will. I can see that viewpoint otherwise someone may try to sell a galvanised header tank on Ebay as steampunk.. oh wait, they have. Obviously that’s someone trying to sell something and thinking we’re stupid, but we aren’t. In fact, the 2014 buzzword was supposed to be steampunk, with everyone enjoying milking it for all it was worth. They didn’t bank on steampunks having some scruples and integrity along with short arms and deep pockets.

If you’re unsure how you should act/dress/sleep/breathe then there are few articles regarding the most asked about topics on social media. Have a read through them and see if you agree or disagree. The great thing is that if you think differently to what has been written, then that’s perfect because it means you’re defining your own steampunk on your terms and that’s what the entire project is about.

Tips on Music

Tips on creating a character

Tips on creating a back story for the character

Tips on steampunk books

Tips on steampunk fashion

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