Can someone explain "Steampunk" to me?

7 years ago | G.S. Williams (Member)

I understand that "Steampunk" is a term generally referring to stories (and I guess shows or video games) that feature classic 19th/early 20th century settings with some science-fiction and perhaps fantasy magic to spice things up. "Steam" because things were mainly steam-powered (like trains).

My question is more, can anyone explain to me why this is a genre all of a sudden? I can see it being interesting once, with whoever "invented" the first story, but I'm not really clear on why it seems to have so many writers online jumping onto the bandwagon.

This isn't a criticism, mind you, I don't know enough about the genre to wonder why people are following the trend. I'm asking "Why is it a trend at all?"

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Responses

  1. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    There's always been underground interest in it, it just reached critical mass. There's been a fair amount of interest in the computer world about Charles Babbage and Ada [last name I can't remember] and there was a book about the analytical engine that became pretty popular, and that sort of re-evoked the nostalgia of literature from that era -- i.e., Jules Verne, and large steamships, etc.

    Also zombies seem to play into it a lot.

    I dunno. Why does anything become popular all of a sudden? A bunch of people suddenly realize a bunch of other people like what they like, and then they all like it together... ;-)

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  2. Chris Poirier (Moderator)

    Posted 7 years ago

    It's a fetish, pure and simple—in the same ways that elves or vampires or time travel are. It's just one of the ones that has some traction in the popular imagination, at the moment. My advice is not to try to analyze it too deeply—as with any fetish, either it does something for you or it doesn't. If it doesn't, ignore it.

  3. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 7 years ago

    It's funny, I really loved "The Difference Engine," the book that a lot of people point to as the beginning of the genre. It was published in the 90's. I haven't read much of the newer stuff. What I've read, I've enjoyed (Boneshaker, for example), but haven't been awed by.

    It's much like my attitude toward new Cyberpunk stuff. I enjoyed Cyberpunk in the late 80's/early 90's, and really loved some books that felt mindbending at the time (Nueromancer and Count Zero, for example), but I haven't felt much of an urge to read new versions of it.

    It would be nice to imagine that I like things that represent groundbreaking leaps for science fiction, and not re-imaginings of old visions. You know what I'm most excited about now though? Ian Banks and the other writers involved in what people are calling "the New Space Opera."

    It would be hard to find something older to re-imagine in science fiction than that.

  4. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Well Pay Me, Bug! is classic space opera. So screw those guys. ;-)

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  5. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Yeah, I've been reading about Babbage and Ada Lovelace this morning. I can see how it started out as a new skew on science fiction and then grew into a fetishized lifestyle related to goth to some extent -- and that's probably why I didn't notice until the last five years or so, becase I don't really pay attention to "trendy fringe" stuff until it hits the mainstream. It just seems like there's a lot of it online, which makes sense.

    And that's probably why it annoys me -- fetishizing genres and being derivative wears on me quickly. I can see fans of a genre enjoying seeing it continuing, but I'd rather see the fresh reinvention and not the derivations.

    Vampires, elves, wizards, they all bug me unless someone is doing something different. Superheroes will likely do that to me too soon, aside from the well-written ones. I realize it's hard to be entirely original, but at the same time people can use old tropes to say something new if they try.

  6. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    I don't think it's fair to call it fetishization. It's a sub-genre of science fiction that is currently popular, and that's that. There are people who are doing interesting things in it and people who are doing uninteresting things in it, and where the dividing line between the two is will always be a matter of some debate. Because it's currently enjoying a spurt of popularity, especially on the internet, you're going to see more of it because of the general enthusiasm behind it. If you don't care for the genre that will be off-putting, but that's the way it goes. I'm not really a big zombie or vampire fan, but I don't begrudge people who write zombie or vampire stories and wouldn't dismiss what they were doing.

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  7. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Gavin: Read "The Difference Engine" if you haven't. It's worth it. It's written by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, a couple of the major people in the Cyberpunk movement.

    To me, at least, it still feels fresh even when rereading.

  8. Chris Poirier (Moderator)

    Posted 7 years ago

    It's most definitely not a sub-genre. It's an aesthetic, one you can apply to just about any genre.

    And, to be clear, I'm not using "fetish" in a derogatory fashion. I have plenty of fetishes of my own—most people do. I'm simply saying that people are getting off on the aesthetic.

  9. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Ah, sorry, I misunderstood your original post. But is Steampunk as a whole an aesthetic, or just the sub-section where the people actually dress Steampunk. That seems more like cosplay to me, and Cyberpunk has the same sub-section of people who do essentially the same thing.

    Formally (at least, how it was explained to me), Steampunk is a form of alternate history science fiction, where technological advances occur much earlier than they did in history and were based on steam engines rather than the combustion engine, etc. (Basically the premise is Babbage actually built and demonstrated his mechanical computer, and that caused a great leap forward in what was technically possible). There are deviations from this (I believe Girl Genius takes place in an alternate world) and there have been some attempts to brand fantasy books as "steampunk" but I don't think that quite fits.

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  10. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Fantasy is magic or the impossible, science fiction is loosely tied to real science, and Robert Heinlein preferred "speculative fiction" because he liked ideas as much as scientific techniques, and projected possibilities more than reality.

    Those are specific genres where you expect to meet wizards, spells, dragons and talking animals, or aliens, space ships, teleporters and time travel. Romance is a genre where people fall in love, Horror one where they meet monsters, Mystery speaks for itself...

    "Steampunk" is an aesthetic, to use Chris's term, because it's like a costume on a story. Some are fantasy stories with steam punk accessories, some are science fiction or alternative history stories again with steam punk accessories, but it's not a genre on its own because it overlays multiple genres without having its own core.

    "Fetish" in this context means "any object, idea, etc., eliciting unquestioning reverence, respect, or devotion, example: to make a fetish of high grades." (not sexual) -- people like it for the sake of liking it, irrespective of originality. Just like vampires being trendy.

    I think good writing can come up out of trends -- I just think you have to work harder to do it. That's why I automatically deduct a star for vampires, wizards or zombies -- but good solid stories can earn those stars back if they do something thought provoking or original. I just feel like adding "steam punk" to that list because it's not necessary to good stories -- it's a gloss, an accessory.

  11. Tahjir (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Writing Excuses did a pretty good episode where they talk about Steampunk, and they even had Scott Westerfeld for it. He's doing an awesome YA series about a sort of alternate-reality first world war story with giant mechs and genetically modified zeppelin whale... things.

    http://www.writingexcuses.com/2010/12/05/writing-excuses-5-15-steampunk-with-scott-westerfeld/

    Apocalyptic Urban Fantasy
    http://hangarninetysix.wordpress.com/
  12. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Actually CM now that I think of it, I think that episode is where I got my definition. :-)

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  13. Robert Rodgers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    As someone who has a 'steampunk-styled' story posted here, ( http://webfictionguide.com/listings/arcadia-snips-and-the-steamwork-consortium/ !), just wanted to second the 'it's an aesthetic' idea. Much like noir, or western, it's best described as a series of props and story idioms used for a variety of (sometimes charming, sometimes less so) effects.

    EDIT: Maybe it should be described as a certain sort of 'smell'...!

    Anyway, I wanted to add that one of the reasons it interested me was because I'm fascinated with historical props, as well as 'alternate retro science'; science that accomplishes advanced tasks, but through means we see as otherwise primitive (the difference engine being a primary example; Flintstone's DINOSAUR-BIRD CAN-OPENER being another! So whenever you think of Steampunk, think Flintstones--the parallels are endless!).

  14. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 7 years ago

    I'd agree with people who view it as an aesthetic.

    That being said (and sorry to mention this yet again...), The Difference Engine really was a science fiction novel that extrapolated what the world might be like if Babbage's engine had been built and worked. The stories in the novel could only be told with that change, and there is no magic or zombies.

    Thus, Steampunk can be a legitimate avenue for exploring alternate history if the writer wants it to be.

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