Can someone explain "Steampunk" to me?

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  1. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    "The Difference Engine" sounds cool, and yes, being thorough about the possibilities can make for interesting science fiction and alternative history. Good science fiction thinks about social and personal ramifications as much as just the technological, and well researched history would pair up well for those purposes.

  2. Shutsumon (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I've always viewed Steampunk as being alternative history with steam power tech ala the Difference Engine or an otherworld setting with steampowered tech. Fantasy with a Victorian aesthetic is "Gaslight Fantasy". Some gaslight fantasy is also steampunk but you can keep it historical tech level pure as well.

    When people talk of Steampunk as an asthetic they generally mean Victoriana, but Steampunk doesn't have to be Victorian. Aliette de Bodard writes one setting that is Aztec Steampunk. Aztecs with high level steam tech. It's also fantasy - magic works, but it's obviously not gaslight fantasy (it's Aztec not Victoriana). For reference here's one of her stories that's available online

    There's also clockpunk which is Renaissance with clockwork Da Vinci type tech.

    There are a lot of things you can do with alternative tech for AU. What if Edison had won the war of the currents? Why did he win in the alternative reality? What would that world be like?

    I begin to digress so I'll shut up now.

  3. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Genres in fiction are established due to a need/want from an audience. It's only as a particular audience forms with an interest in a particular kind of fiction that a genre solidifies, with it's own special rules and boundaries. So the question isn't so much "What makes Steampunk Steampunk" but "Why do people like it?"

    So why do we like steampunk?

    - Aesthetically, it's pleasing. Steam implies raw motive power, workings of pipes and engines give you something concrete and solid, but at the same time, it calls to mind a time when we were (at least superficially) more civilized. Steampunk feeds the imagination with networks of pipes, plumes of smoke, and chugging engines. It's unfamiliar enough that it catches the eye, but nonetheless easy to understand, which makes steampunk an interesting element in design, fashion, architecture, etc.

    - Ethically, it's clean. Steam is clean, there's no pollution (necessarily) or noxious chemicals being poured into the atmosphere. Steam is guiltless. This may differ from setting to setting, as some steampunk does involve coal engines, but even then, it at least distances the audience and author from ideas of oil engines and global warming.

    - Technologically, it's at one of the sweet spots for fiction, as far as allowing for possibilities. By this, I mean that steampunk can allow for all or most of the tropes of pulp science fiction, but it can also allow for all or most of the tropes of the wild west, industrial age robber barons, pirates, military and fantasy. There can be golems/robots and fights atop a train. It allows for a setting where guns exist, but they're not yet so advanced that you can't have a swordfight, not so crude that they'll misfire or wildly miss half the time.

    - Steampunk rewards intelligent characters. Scientists, innovators, detectives, scoundrels, the general trappings of Steampunk society gives these people the tools they need to thrive, while keeping things dynamic and dangerous. Any of these characters can wind up on a steam powered airship that is venting too much steam. Any of them likely has the tools to deal somehow. Steampunk generally doesn't cater to thugs and brutes... which we, as a generally geeky audience, find appealing.

    - It's romantic. Steampunk in general revolves around some of the most basic human dreams. It makes it possible to take to the air (airships, flying cities). It appeals to the person who dreams of coming up with a great idea that can change the world. Getting from one place to another isn't necessarily trivial, but it's always doable... so it feeds our desire for exploration and adventure.

    At least, that's how I see it, from my limited exposure to the genre.

  4. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Well it might be clean genre-wise, but for all practical matters you needed coal in order to create enough of a fire to really get steam engines working. Sort would be a major component of any steampunk tech striving for realism. One of the reasons people moved away from steam is that the newer technologies used cleaner burning fuel.

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  5. Kess (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Wildbow - the 'steam' era was very dirty, due to all the coal being burnt. Some stories might come up with prettier alternatives to romanticise it, but it's far from a clean technology!

    I went to a writer's festival on the weekend that got into steampunk in one of the talks (Trent Jamieson, author of recently-released Roil, was one of the speakers). The authors on the panel agreed that it is largely an aesthetic movement, with some facets that lend themselves to being more than just scenery and trappings (like the technology).

    The best quote I can recall from that discussion was: "Steampunk is goths wearing brown."

  6. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Hmmm... in that case, Firefly is punks wearing brown. :-)

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