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What is Steampunk?

Updated: May 21, 2022

What is Steampunk? Look it up on Google and you will get models who are often brown Victorian-inspired models, covered with copper plates and brass gears. This is the image people have of 'Steampunk'. But what is it? Realy?

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to this 10-year- anniversary special where we summarize a series of videos on Steampunk in 2000 words.

10 years of blogging, costuming, producing videos, and having over a hundred conversations with all manner of artists from within and outside of the Steampunk Community. 10 Years... And what do we have to show for it? Close to 4500 subscribers. A radio station we once made for Fallout 4. And a series of short stories and books called the Association of

Ishtar. A second book is currently under review with our publisher. The latter is also the reason for a lack of videos this month.

We also have been hard at work clarifying the submission process for the Association of Ishtar

submissions along with summing up some of the lore. Links to the website are down below. Finally, we have set up a Kickstarter in Prelaunch for our first coloring book with original art set inside of the same setting. Please give the project a follow so you won't miss a single announcement and share it with your friends!

Back to the topic of our blog. What is Steampunk?

The question itself is a meme. For starters, many Steampunks will answer this question, with another question. Are you familiar with Jules Verne? Have you seen Wild Wild West?" And if you respond with, "no..." They start scratching their heads themselves.

On this blog, on the other hand, we are the horrible types of people who define words. But before we do that, why is Steampunk so hard to explain to the layman? Because for most self-styled Steampunks, Steampunk is a thing that they like. If they like brass, it's Steampunk. If they like Star Wars, that's Steampunk. If they like brown chocolate, you get the idea. In short, it's projection.

For those who are interested in the creative process, it is a bit more nuanced.

On this blog, we use the word Steampunk as a homonym that covers a range of topics. That is why I distinguish the following themes:

1. The story genre,

2. The aesthetics,

3. The community or scene/subculture.

There are many similarities between them, but they are different topics that need to be discussed separately. To fully understand the misunderstandings surrounding Steampunk, we have to go back to the 1980s. When we talk about "The History of Steampunk", we are actually talking about the origin of the name. This is the main reason why I have a love-hate relationship with the word. But for an explanation of this, I have to refer to my other blogs and videos.

The term "Steampunks" was coined by Cyberpunk author K.W. Jeter (Morlock Night). In his letter to Locus Magazine in 1987, he used it as a catch-all name for stories he and his fellow authors, such as Tim Powers (The Anubis Gate), had written. Bruce Sterling (Man-made Self) described it as 'Cyberpunk in the Past'.

Cyberpunk was a very popular sub-genre of Science Fiction at the time. But instead of exploring a galaxy of interstellar empires like in Star Trek set millennia into the future, Cyberpunk takes the reader 5 minutes into the imminent century, in which hackers take on mega-corporations and governmental overreach.

It was therefore fitting that Steampunk goes back 5 minutes back in time to the Industrial Revolution. Hence, Steam-Punk. The invention of the word inspired Bruce Sterling and William Gibson (Neuromancer) to express this concept in their novel The Difference Engine (1990), which is considered the first book to be written as a Steampunk novel.

The genre

And this is where my love-hate relationship resurfaces. The name Steampunk is an invention of the 80s. To label, everything that comes before that 'Steampunk' is plain revisionism. So what about this book? The Difference Engine, by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, is an alternate timeline story in which Charles Babbage had successfully built The Analytical Engine in 1824, starting the digital revolution a century earlier. This makes the British Empire more powerful than ever before as their navies and air fleets dominate the oceans. Also, a new class of so-called savants has emerged whose existence has disrupted social structure as we know it. The Difference Engine is seen as a literary milestone because its intent is different from the previous books by the aforementioned authors. It was written as a 'Steampunk'. An alternate history where technological development was the linchpin in the deviations from the timeline. The above is also what I use for the definition of the Steampunk genre. Cyberpunk in the past. Like any other sub-genre of sci-fi, these are High-Concept stories: a story whose premise can be boiled down to a simple scenario or 'what-if question'. For example, a woman comes to the doctor. Or, what if the computer had been invented in the 19th century? This seems to be a pretty clear description. So why is there this much confusion? Well, Steampunk has a Fantasy sibling. Gaslight or Gaslamp Fantasy is a term coined by the creators of Girl Genius, Phil and Kaja Foglio. This is science fiction-inspired fantasy with mad scientists, big robots, and insane inventions in fantastic worlds. I don't know much about it, because I'm not a Fantasy fan. However, this distinction between Steampunk and Gaslamp Fantasy is rarely applied in practice, by authors, or by consumers.

Culture and community

It's hard to say where and when the first Steampunk costumes appeared. Some claim it came from the DIY communities. Others claims there were conceived during the sci-fi conventions. Some say it started in England. The other claim America. Japanese think it was them.

Regardless of its origins, it is certain that the aesthetics are Anglo-centric. There's a good reason for that, but that's for later. The phenomenon has been around since the 1990s, but the big explosion happened in 2012. The reason for this remains unclear, unfortunately.

The Steampunk community, with the exception of online communities, is unique because it can survive without sponsors. There is no Disney, or any other company, that stocks the coffers of Steampunk conventions. It's by the community for the community.

In fact, Steampunk societies are located all over the world. These groups exchange ideas and traditions. Teadueling, for example, is practiced all over the world, and parcourses for Teapot Racing are being built in various countries. There is even an International Steampunk Day on June 14: the day Charles Babbage presented his plans for The Difference Engine to The Royal Society.

There is also a separate music scene. So what is steampunk music you ask? “Well, Steampunk music is, what Steampunks like,” my old friend Montague Jacques Fromage always says. He is a familiar face at Steampunk conventions. And that is certainly true for the music scene. ‘There is no such thing as Steampunk music!’

A fitting metaphor for the Steampunk communities as a whole, really.

But what brings these folks together?

The Aesthetic

“Why is Steampunk clothing so often brown?” I once asked on Facebook. After all this time, I seriously didn't know. Nothing against brown, but it's just overdone. That aside, I got several answers that surprised me. Brown was associated with the industry (obviously), but also sepia/black and white photography. Oh!? Learned something, I suppose.

History too is an important influence. But not the history you learn in school. Most Steampunks aren't particularly interested in that. I have tested this thesis. During presentations, I asked my audience if they knew who Otto van Bismarck was: A prominent politician in world politics who united a little European country called Germany. Perhaps one person in the audience raised their hand to say it was a WW2 German battleship. (This was before Sabaton had made the song). Despite the fact that they rely on historical clothing, they do not know very much about it. But if you have questions about characters like Frankenstein, or writers like Jules Verne, they'll tell you how many times they've seen or read each respective work.

Point is, Steampunks love pop-history and pop-culture. Go to Google and search for Steampunk-

Disney or Steampunk-(your favorite superhero), and you'll find countless variations of these pop

icons. The same goes for famous historical characters immortalized in movies, like Lincoln. Same for the machines. The aesthetics for which Steampunk is known can be traced directly to drawings in 'dime novels' and 'penny dreadfuls of the 19th century. Disney movies, and now anime and video games. Despite some people's claims that Steampunk is a protest movement, its appearance has largely been popularized by Hollywood and Disney. And what does the average person know of the 19th century? Sepia pictures and steam engines. This is also why Victorian England is so popular in Steampunk literature. It's the England of Sherlock Holmes, War of the Worlds, and Oliver Twist. That's why I always laugh when I hear 'Steampunk must have steam engines. They literally don't know any better.

This is different for the artists, such as the writers and builders of the steampunk props. What appeals to many writers is the historical aspect. Not only that of events but also of literature and film. Steampunks are the curators of pop culture in that regard. In terms of historical awareness, there is a great distance between those who care about the creative/historical aspect of Steampunk and those who care about the social/costume aspect of the culture. Do not get me wrong. I love bronze and brass. All moving parts. And of course, STEAM! And for the ladies, beautiful dresses, and tough guys who can dress properly. And for the kids, STEAMPUNK BATMAN! And maybe they will learn why you 'pick up' a phone instead of 'activating it'.

When it comes to children, Steampunk has enormous potential in a range of fields, from creative to educational and even to health and pedagogy. Like in education for autistic children as used by Bruce Rosenbaum of Modvic.

There are countless other expressions and applications of Steampunk to explore, buts that's why we have created the Steampunk Beginners Guide.

But what is Steampunk really?

Aesthetically, it has a nice balance between the strange and the familiar, making it accessible to a large audience. It's also an amalgamation of hard sci-fi and playful fantasy. Those who can't appreciate history, admire the technological or pop culture elements.

What it is not is new or original. Rather, it's an anomaly. It is a phenomenon that should not exist in today's commercial landscape. Nowadays, a lot of media gets created because (that's the mantra) people think they want more of the same. This is the fault of both producers and consumers.

This is in stark contrast to early days of cinema. This is why many creators these days are being inspired by the pop culture of the early twentieth century. Fritz Lang, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock.

But what difference does that make, you ask? The writers and filmmakers of early pop culture are from an era when production companies were still young. Everything was unproven. Everything had yet to be invented. So directors and writers were given a lot of freedom. It is therefore no coincidence that many creative souls look with nostalgia at the 20th century. People spend way more time in public, so they dress well. Science was something magical. Technology had no boundaries, and there was still so much to discover in the world. Artists were pioneers of film and sound and their bosses couldn't help but say, "Go ahead".

These days companies only dare to use proven formulas. Why do you think there are so many movies being released over and over again? It is no coincidence that there is a growing Indy industry and that more and more people are rediscovering the works of Walter B. Gibson or Robert E Howard who created some of the first pop-culture Icons like The Shadow and Conan the Barbarian.

That is what Steampunk is. An amalgamation of rediscovered literature and pop culture. Archaic fashions and technologies that no longer have a place in our world, but still play a major part in our imaginations. Steam trains and bi-planes might be obsolete, they deserve our admiration to remind us we are but dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants.

But if that is too complicated you can just state that Steampunk is when goths discover brown. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thanks to everyone who has supported me over the years. Considering I'll be turning 40 in a couple of weeks it's fitting this is also our anniversary. Want to congratulate me? Get one of my books and/or follow our upcoming Kickstarter page. You can also email me for signed copies of our books. The Wrench in the Machine

If you want to support our projects, and the artists involved, please check out the support us section of the site and get some unique rewards to boot, like coloring plates and desktop backgrounds. For just 2 dollars a month you would help greatly and get some awesome Patrons-only content.

Want to meet other Steampunks, History- and fellow Indy-Writers enthusiasts, Join our Discord.

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