What is Steampunk?

“Brought together by combining old and new, it is a great example
of how we humans aspire to create” (Harrington 2011: 8).

zeppelin

While steampunk is already widely known and partly acknowledged by the public in the USA, its recognition in Europe is pending. This does not imply that there are no people trying to make it more popular throughout Europe. It has potential to become the “next big thing” in popular culture.

“Steampunk is a time that never was, but one we wish that had been” (G4 Underground 2009) – as such ‘Captain’ Robert Brown, founder and front-man of the steampunk band Abney Park, describes, what is the essence of steampunk. This sentence reveals already a lot, it says that steampunk is about a certain time in the past, more precisely, the future vision of a certain past, an alternative time-line.

Let us take a closer look at the term ‘steampunk’ itself. ‘Steam’ as such is a reference to the invention of the steam engine by James Watts in the late 18th century, which led to the advancing of the Industrial Revolution and became the big ‘push’ of society towards modernity. To be more precise, the Industrial Revolution and everything connected to it is the foundation of steampunk. A special role for the virtual time setting of steampunk is the Victorian/Edwardian era and other European monarchies of the 19th century. This era is imagined as a period of peace, invention and exploration, “a time when people knew how to make things beautiful and make things last” (G4 Underground 2009).

Doc BrownThe term ‘punk’ in steampunk has nothing to do with the punk-movement of the late 70s, but refers to the mix-up of the past with the future – ‘retro-fiction’ or ‘retro-futurism’. Through this it is possible for steampunks to rewrite history. Maybe the best example to describe, what steampunk is, is the film Back to the Future 3, where the scientist Doc Brown is stranded in the Wild West of the 19th century, but has the knowledge of today, with which he can actualise different inventions of today with the materials from yesterday.

On the website of Steampunk District steampunk is described as following (Steampunk District 2012):

It is elegance with functionality. Aesthetic practicality. Victorian science-fiction trimmed with cogs, rivets, brass, and leather. It is a literary genre, a sense of style, a community, and a frame of mind. Basically, it is seeing the future with eyes from the past. However, there’s no summing steampunk up in a few short words because it can mean many different things to many different people. For some steampunk may mean fashion and style, for others it is a literary world which awakens intrigue and endless possibilities, while to others still it is all about an art form they can put their heart and hands into. Steampunk may be a way of life, an accent to a personality, or romanticism made mechanical. It’s only appropriate that so many meanings and inspirations can be born from this culture as it’s very nature suggests limitless potential and the manifestation of invention and ideas.

The Origins of Steampunk

The origins of steampunk can be found in the literature of the first science fiction writes at the fin de siècle. The visionary works by Jules Verne and Herbert George Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe, Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Arthur Conan Doyle definitely have the key inspirational role in contemporary steampunk culture. These authors had a certain vision of the future; Verne and Wells were of crucial importance for many path-breaking new technologies in the 20th century.

These two historical antecedents are generally acknowledged, though since Wells and Verne were writing about their own time period, they didn’t quite fit in with the dominant steampunk affection for creative anachronism (though some might argue that Wells’ The Time Machine [1895] could qualify as counterfactual or speculative futurism). Elsewhere Gross argues that what he calls the “varieties of steampunk experience” can also be traced back to these two authors, with the works of Verne inspiring a more kitschy, nostalgic Victoriana, while Wells’ political works influence those steampunks who make socialist statements with their work. (Onion 2008:140)

moorcockThe first novel, which could be defined as steampunk themed, could be A Nomad of the Time Streams by Michael Moorcock, published in the 1970s. It describes the unbelievable story of Oswald Bastable, an officer of the colonial army in India in 1904, who falls unconscious and wakes up in an alternative year 1974, where the British Empire is still existing and airships are the main means of transportation in the air. However, the term ‘steampunk’ did not exist yet at this time.

The genre came into its own in the late eighties and early nineties, when authors who were primarily invested in the cyberpunk genre, including K. W. Jeter, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, began to write alternate-history narratives set in familiar-yet unfamiliar Victorian times and heavy on technology and anachronism” (Onion 2008: 140).

The term ‘Steampunk’ was coined by the author J.W. Jeter, who wanted to find a common name for the works of three science fiction authors: The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers, Homunculus (1986) by James Blaylock and Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987) by himself – all these novels had in common a Victorian setting merged with futuristic ideas. In 1987 Jeter wrote the following lines to the magazine Locus: “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps…” (Sheidlower 2005). A new term was born.

From a Literature Genre to an Aesthetic

Steampunk in Film and Television

Steampunk does not exist just as a literary genre. The film industry also took part in creating its aesthetic. An important film was Walt Disney‘s adaptation of the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from 1954. Many symbols – gears and clocks for example – which are used nowadays in steampunk culture have their origin in this film.

Doctor WhoOther films in the steampunk spirit are the above mentioned Back to the Future 3, Wild Wild West and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Then there are television series as well, like The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. from the early 1990’s and the reload of the popular British series Doctor Who since 2005.

In the early 2000’s steampunk got a big push towards recognition in popular culture through the animé Steamboy (2004), “in which a boy inventor guards a powerful steamball from his corrupt inventor father” (Onion 3008: 141), the BBC-series The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (2000) and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009/2010), which were already labelled with the term ‘steampunk’. That steampunk already has its place in popular culture shows the nomination of the animated short-film The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005) for an Academy Award in 2005 (Onion 2008: 141).

Steampunk in Video Games

Video games embraced the idea of steampunk, too. Already in 1994 Final Fantasy VI had a steampunk aesthetic – in steam-powered vehicles the player has to save the world.

Thief GarrettEssential though, where the games of the Thief series, started in 1998. The main character in these games is the thief Garrett, who has to master several levels in a dark medieval environment, where the main power-source are steam engines. The series was then continued as the ingenious fan game The Dark Mod.

One of the noteworthy newer games with a steampunk background is the upcoming ego-shooter BioShock Infinite (2013).

From an Aesthetic to a Movement

Steampunk-themed Music and Victorian Re-enactment

In the first century of the new millennium steampunk came out of the shadows. The evolution of steampunk-themed music was a very important prompt towards its becoming of a movement. One of the pioneers in the musical branch of steampunk was the founder of Vernian Process, Joshua Pfeiffer, who started to make gothic/industrial influenced steampunk-themed music.

 

Abney ParkAt the same time a formerly gothic band Abney Park started to adjust their music to a steampunk aesthetic, becoming the “flagship” of the steampunk movement. “Flagship” is here also meant in the direct meaning of the word, as the musicians created alter egos/characters – the crew of the fictional airship Ophelia. Their visual appearance, dressing up like Victorian adventurers equipped with mechanical gadgets and goggles, did the rest to inspire people: Vernian Process“The concept of steampunk style gadgets and clothing in the world of fiction offered too great a temptation to fans and as such steampunk transformed itself from a dreamer’s fantasy to an actual style. Now artists, designers, sculptors, and even plain old tinkerers dedicate all of their skill and talent to the pursuit of steampunk realization” (Steampunk District 2012).

“With the very basis of steampunk being founded on invention and fantasy, no limit exists of what can be imagined and created to express this culture genre” (Steampunk District 2012), therefore, also the musical enterprises dedicated to the movement are as diverse as one can imagine. A big influence comes from the gothic scene, where Victorian and Romantic themes always played a crucial role (notable musical acts would be Vernian Process, Unextraordinary Gentlemen, The Melting Clock, Abney Park), but many musicians access steampunk through a non-gothic angle, but forging a sound influenced by cabaret, folk, classical music or even circus music (e.g. The Clockwork Dolls, Mr. Strange, The Clockwork Quartet).

The question, whether steampunk is a substantive musical genre, or there is only steampunk-”themed” music comes up many times. Ryan Genengels from the musical act The Melting Clock gave a statement on this (Genengels 2011):

I have also heard people remark that Steampunk is ‘not about the music’. It should be (at least partially) about the music. Perhaps those making the comment just haven’t dug deep enough into the music yet. I hope in some small way that the Melting Clock can help contribute to the success of Steampunk as a musical genre. Perhaps help it grow into something that is recognized as a music scene rather than a few good bands.

The Movement

Recently steampunk is a movement, hard to describe, due to its diversity. In the Range Magazine (Harrington 2011: 6) we can read the following about the aspiration of the movement:

Steampunk was not considered a subculture for a long time due to it being mostly referred to as a genre. When followers, who were mostly gamers, goths, cybergoths, industrial music fans and punks began to gather together to share their love of the genre, it became a movement of people who desired to turn it into a subculture. Steampunks began meeting wherever they could in thrown-together, Victorian-style clothing, with gears and gadgets. They began exploring the world of steampunk fashion, art, clockworks, and technology, taking today’s technology and converting it to steam, or molding it to look like that of the Victorian Era’s gadgets. Soon, a group of steampunks came together to hold the World Steam Expo, where artisans and followers, and even just lovers of the genre, could come together and mingle.

steamgirl.comSteampunks are mostly easy to identify by their fashion and gadgets related to the late 19th century, e.g. top hats, corsets, pocket watches, compasses and petticoats, where “[g]ears and goggles are associated with steampunks the most and are considered a steampunk symbol. They’re a major fashion statement to the subculture. Gears signify the inner workings of a machine, and goggles, if designed correctly, can look amazing with anyone’s costume ” (Harrington 2011: 8).

While the main steampunk scene can be found in the United States, nowadays the movement also sets foot on Europe. More and more musical groups dedicate themselves to steampunk, gothic stores sell steampunk accessories, people organize steampunk events.

Although a growing number of people find themselves a place in this movement, the figure of active participants is marginal. All in all the social acceptance is given, although it may be strange to some people to meet a Victorian couple on a Sunday walk along the river.

Because of its rich diversity it is even hard for critics of steampunk to forge a counter movement. Critics mainly decline aspects of steampunk rather than the whole culture. For people criticising the whole culture it can be hard to put their rejection into words: “in other words it’s shit. It’s some wild wild west will smith shit” (Introduction of the Facebook group goths and recovering goths against steampunk, May 27th 2012).

Though strongly connected in many ways, steampunk can be also perceived as counter movement to Cyberpunk.

Steampunk can be (and is) everything Cyberpunk wanted to be. It has a tangible essence to it that Cyberpunk lacked in a time of overwhelming superficiality and blind consumerism. It calls out for us to have a place with hand tools in it that we use, to make things we need. Things that cannot be bought” (TechnoAlchemist 2007: 4).

Within the scene there are also different opinions, if steampunk should have a message or not. Genengels on this topic: “One thing I have heard from various sources is that steampunk is a movement without a message. I think that statement is dead wrong, and I hope to help bring the message to the forefront” (Genengels 2011). Steampunk seems to seek to eradicate social hierarchies and to re-write history in a more egalitarian way, also including the equality of gender:

Though not everyone’s costume is hand-made, and though a lot are thrown together, the costumes tend to be very dated to the Victorian Era with few important details that differ. Where women would not have worn pants, Steampunks are not limited by gender prejudices, and the outfits can be all too revealing, whereas in the original Victorian Era, they would not have been. (Harrington 2011: 7)

Sources and further readings

Barrat, C. C. 2010: ‘Time Machines. Steampunk in Contemporary Art’, in: Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1, 167-188.

Blair, K. 2010: ‘The Steam Arm. Proto-Steampunk Themes in a Victorian Popular Song’, in: Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1, 196-207.

Ferguson, C. 2011: ‘Surface Tensions. Steampunk, Subculture, and the Ideology of Style ‘, in: Neo-Victorian Studies 4:2, 66-90.

G4 Underground 2009: G4 Underground with Abney Park. Online resource: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aU5rjf25stA>, reviewed May 2nd 2012.

Genengels, Ryan 2012: E-Mail correspondence.

Harrington, N. 2011: ‘Gears and Goggles. The Steampunk Subculture’, in: Range Magazine (1), Dec 2011, 6-8.

Onion, R. 2008: ‘Reclaiming the Machine. An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice’, in: Neo-Victorian Studies 1:1, 138-163.

Pecoraro, L. 2008: To the Future and Back Again: The Function of Fantasy in the Steampunk Aesthetic . Theses. Paper 73. <http://scholarship.shu.edu/theses/73>, reviewed May 21st 2012.

Sheidlower, Jesse 2005: Science Fiction Citations. Online resource: <http://www.jessesword.com/sf/view/327>, reviewed May 2nd 2012.

Steampunk District 2012: What is Steampunk? Online resource: <http://steampunkdistrict.com/what-is-steampunk>, reviewed May 29th 2012.

Yaszek, L. 2010: ‘Democratising the Past to Improve the Future. An Interview with Steampunk Godfather Paul Di Filippo ‘, in: Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1, 189-195.

 

About André Savetier

Since 2011 André Savetier is actively working as a music journalist with an expertise on contemporary new wave music phenomena.
His scientific specialization is anthropology of music and anthropology of popular culture. Savetier remains intrigued by the interplay between the aforementioned social phenomena, the told (and untold) legends of music and its roots.

2 Thoughts on “What is Steampunk?

  1. blackster on 16th January 2013 at 18:54 said:

    Thx for this concise, yet elaborate post!

  2. Pingback: A Steampunk-Themed Music Dozen - André Savetier

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