Chris was kind enough to invite me to post a few thoughts on steampunk, so I thought I would talk a little about the genre in general. Because despite its growing popularity, its passionate fanbase, and its rapidly expanding collection of books, films, and other media, I continue to see people struggling to define it. So what is steampunk?
The following definition is one that I've been puttering around with for about two years now. I've read many modern and classic novels that various people consider steampunk, and seen more films than I can remember (because I'm over 30 and losing the ability to remember things in general).
I propose that steampunk can be identified by four essential elements. Of course, any book or film might have any number of these elements and thus be "steampunky" and so we might have a spectrum of "steampunkedness." (Note: All words in quotes are trademarked by me as of now!)
1. Steampunk Aesthetics
Like pornography, you know it when you see it. The steampunk aesthetic, or style, is often the first thing people think of when they discuss steampunk. This style includes settings like Victorian England and the American Wild West, machines such as trains and airships, clockworks, springworks, fantastic mechanical computers and prosthetic limbs, and imaginative alternate histories of people such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Electricity is exciting and new, but gasoline (petrol) is futurist nonsense and the concept of "digital" is just a gleam in Mad Babbage's eye.
Men wear suits (everywhere) and women wear elaborately conservative dresses, hats and gloves abound, and don't forget the brass goggles and leather aviator caps! But of course, to be truly steampunk this cannot simply be normal historical clothing but attire modified to reflect a fantastical pseudo-technical world. Brassworks, chains, cogs, watches, and all manners of gizmos may hide in walking sticks, top hats, long sleeves, and even a lady's bustle.
These clothes and objects are the trappings of the genre, visual markers that tell us we are in steam country. They are most conspicuous in historically oriented media such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Wild Wild West. But they can also appear in futurist materials like The Windup Girl. In fact, the steampunk aesthetic can appear in any time or place. This frees steampunk from being a narrow historical sci-fi sub-genre to a more general type of speculative fiction.
2. Steampunk Heroes
A great steampunk hero is easily recognized by two attributes: he is an inventor (or scientist) and he is some sort of independent free spirit. The first criteria is the more obvious one and we can find great examples in Jules Verne and HG Wells, as well as films ranging from the classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (CCBB) to the modern anime SteamBoy (SB). From these examples, the steampunk hero emerges as an optimistic individual who hopes to create wonderful machines that will make the world a better place. He loves science and machines for their own sake, and may also be an Absent-Minded Professor or have various lovable quirks.
The second attribute, that of independence, is less obvious but just as critical. The hero may be a youth, or a rugged individualist (in America), or the stereotypical man-in-a-shed (in England). Critically, he doesn't work for a company or the government. In CCBB, Caractacus Potts works in his barn. In SB, Ray works in his garage. This hero is probably poor in cash, but rich in family and friends.
3. Steampunk Villains
In typical literary tradition, the steampunk villain is a mirror to the hero. This villain is probably not an inventor or scientist and in fact he probably does not fully understand the technologies at the heart of the story. He may be blatantly anti-intellectual. He doesn't care how the thing works, only how he can (ab)use it. The villain does not see new technologies as wonderful improvements to the world but power to be controlled. In his hands, newfangled tools become dangerous weapons.
To this end, the villain is usually not a free agent but instead represents an establishment, such as the Baron in CCBB or the American company in SB, or the military.
4. Steampunk Themes
Steampunk plays with many classical literary (and not-so-literary) themes: Man versus Man, Technology versus Nature, Freedom versus Control, and even Communism versus Capitalism. The hero and villain primarily conflict over the role of technology in society. Will it be free for all or controlled by the government? Will it be used to make the world a better place or to kill and oppress people?
The villain is often the one advocating a radical technological future (a dirty, mechanical, war-torn autocracy) while the hero looks for a reasonable balance between the pre-Industrial world and the shiny new machines. In CCBB, the Baron takes this to a cartoonish extreme. He actually bans children (how much more anti-human can you get?) and fills his castle with mechanical toys for himself. In SB, Ray's father steals the Steam Castle to be used as a massive weapons platform despite having been built as a flying pleasure palace complete with a children's carousel.
But because the hero tends to triumph, these stories are rather hopeful and utopian. In steampunk, the hero defeats the military-industrial complex and sets the stage for a shiny new future of wonderful machines that improve all our lives.
Another important group of steampunk themes are issues of gender, race, and class. Set against an industrial revolution, many steampunk stories discuss how new technology impacts society in general. Does it create jobs or destroy them? Does it allow women to enter the work force? Does it create a new over-class of industrialists and a new under-class of factory laborers? And when these things boil out of control, don't be surprised to see a riot or two. After all, this revolution is the first great turning point in human civilization since the advent of agriculture.
What use is this?
Of course, this is a rather specific (I won't say narrow) view of steampunk. You may find steampunky stories that focus on biological MacGuffins (homunculus, Frankenstein, clones, and mutants) instead of technological ones. And the villain may be so anti-technology as to be magical or demonic. But I think these sorts of elements not only alter the villain and the aesthetic but the themes as well, pulling such stories away from steampunk and into fantasy or horror. Which can be excellent. I just don't think it's very steampunkish.
So how do we use these elements to think about books and movies? Well, let's take a quick look at Cherie Priest's recent novel, Boneshaker:
Aesthetics? Yes. Airships, mechanical limbs, gas masks, and a giant drilling machine in the Wild West.
Hero? No. Briar is not an inventor or a free agent. She's more of a typical action hero, a working-class mother who goes adventuring to save a loved one.
Villain? Yes. Minnericht uses technology to terrorize the city, and I believe it was stated that at least some of his machines were stolen from other people (correct me if I'm wrong!).
Themes? Sort of. There is definitely tension between technology and nature since the Boneshaker released the Blight. But the story focuses on a family tragedy and the ideas don't really translate to society at large.
Here we have about two and a half elements out of four, making this a fairly steampunky book on our Spectrum of Steampunkedness. Clearly, Boneshaker is also full of horror and action elements.
I think one of the best things about steampunk today is its optimism. In a world of sparkly vampire teenagers, crime dramas, medical dramas, recycled terrorist thrillers, and dystopian futurism, it's truly a breath of fresh air to read about smart heroes and heroines who literally build solutions to the world's problems.
Especially today as governments and corporations waste resources, damage the environment, hamper technological progress, and keep the masses in a state of anxiety about life in general, it's nice to think you could walk out to the garage, build a marvelous contraption, and save the world all by yourself.
Especially if you get to do it in an airship.
Joseph Robert Lewis uses all three of his names because they're each too boring and common on their own. He's the author of the forthcoming science fiction novel Ghosts of Mars (Jan 2011) and the steampunk adventure Halcyon Burning (May 2011). Visit his blog (http://josephrobertlewis.wordpress.com/) to read the random things he says about science and media.