Can someone explain "Steampunk" to me?

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?"

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... ;-)

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

As someone who has a 'steampunk-styled' story posted here, ( !), 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!).

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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."