It is ridiculously hard to find steampunk info on the net, or at least information of the kind I want just now. Information on writing for steampunk is not easy to come by. The reason for this, or at least one of the reasons behind this, is that steamounk is a catch-all term for a lot more than a literary genre, and as a literary genre itsef it’s a tiny corner, sort of a sub-genre which itself is split into a tonne of sub-genres. The whole thing is a mess.
For a start, there’s steampunk furniture. The Steampunk Home has a lot of lovely things featured in the blog, if you’re into steampunk furniture.
Then there’s steampunk clothing, like this outfit here from Kat Brett photography.
People wear these outfits to conventions, and they cosplay in them. But on the other hand, there is a whole subculture of people who dress like this all the time, like goths.
So if you google steampunk, you will more than likely get something like this.
So, in literary terms, what is steampunk?
Well, that’s not easily answered. Steampunk is not that easily defined. In one sense, it’s fantasy, in another science fiction, and in a third it is horror. There is horror in that Frankenstein can be considered steampunk, and science fiction in that you can call 20,000 leagues under the sea steampunk, and fantasy because what else would you call Journey to the Centre of the Earth?
But it’s not all old stories, oh no; there’s Kenneth Oppal’s Airborne, and the sequel Skybreaker are steampunk. These feature huge zeppelins, a made up element to allow the zeplins to fly, and several weird creatures like sky cats and sky jelly fish. So, sort of fantasy, then?
But this just shows that steampunk has a bit of everything in it, so its not much use in sorting out what steampunk is. A lot of websites out there will tell you that steampunk has to have zeppelins, or steam technology or (if in our world) be set in the Victorian/Edwardian era, but that’s like saying horror has to have monsters, fantasy needs magic, and science fiction is about spaceships. These broad generalities are true in only 90% of cases (for instance, James Herberts Rats is a horror about, um, rats actually. His fog is about… fog. He’s a good writer but I have to say his titles suck.)
To truly understand steampunk, you have to look through the steam, and more into the punk. Steampunk is a rejection of modern life, of the type of culture we live in, where everything is convenience. Fast food and who gives a toss if you get fat later, you’re hungry now! Cars to go to the shop two minutes walk from your house, and who cares if every journey pollutes a little bit more? I’m writing this on a laptop, I know about 30% of how to use it, and less than 2% of how it works, and that sums up most of the technology I interact with and, let’s face it, we interact with millions of pieces of technolgy every year.
Steampunk is about rejecting this culture, and going back to a time when horse drawn carts were the most popular form of transport but CARS EXISTED. It is about the time when gas lamps lit houses, but electric lightbulbs were also in use. It is about a time when the lack of technology was mundane and every new invention was mysterious and wonderful, and shiny and new. It’s about getting back what we’ve lost and what, otherwise, we can never get back. It’s nostalgia harking back to a time before we were alive and, often, a time that never actually existed anyway.
Steampunk shows us that technology, like the oft-quoted magic, is neither good nor evil, but can be used for either. It shows us those uses, shows us the people who invented it, and why. It puts the magic back into science, the only place where we have magic left, and we all need magic in our lives.