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What is Steampunk?

“. . . a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.” — Wikipedia

“Science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.” — Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“1. A genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology. 1.1 A style of design and fashion that combines historical elements with anachronistic technological features inspired by science fiction.” — Lexico.com

“1. a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world. 2. a subculture inspired by this literary and film subgenre: ‘the fashions and gadgets of steampunk.’” — Dictionary.com

As you can see, there are many definitions of steampunk, and while helpful, all miss the mark to some degree. For example, they all mention steam power, but many steampunk works do not have steam engines. Nikola Tesla is one of the icons of steampunk, and he was best known for his work with electricity.

Steampunk is often associated with the British Victorian era or the American Wild West, but some steampunk tales have been told from the perspective of cultures that were colonized by European powers. Others are set in imagined alternate worlds, or future postapocalyptic worlds that have regressed to using 19th century technology.

Many definitions of steampunk extend the historical period to the early 20th century, up through World War I. The post-WWI era is generally seen as the domain of a related genre known as “dieselpunk.”

Origins of the term

The term “steampunk” was coined in 1987 by author K.W. Jeter, who used it to describe his own stories, as well as those by his friends Tim Powers and James Blaylock that were set in the 19th century. It was derived from “cyberpunk,” a popular science fiction subgenre that explored themes related to computer technology and virtual reality. The characters in cyberpunk were often outlaws, rebels or non-conformists, hence the “punk” in the term.

Some steampunk enthusiasts see significance in the “punk” aspect, insisting that punk ideology is an essential element of the genre. Others see it more as an accident of language.

Since it was coined, the term was applied retroactively to earlier works, such as The Wild Wild West television series and Michael Moorcock’s novel Warlord of the Air, written in 1971. The works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were inspirations for steampunk, but some contend that these stories fall outside the genre because they were written from a 19th century perspective, rather than through a contemporary lens.

Steampunk culture

Over time, steampunk has evolved from a literary genre into a subculture with its own festivals, conventions, art projects, fashion, and music. It has also become an aesthetic characterized by elements of 19th century fashion and technology, including gears, goggles, gauges, top hats, and corsets (always worn on the outside). This aesthetic has seeped into popular culture and can be seen in movies, music videos, video games, and more.

In recent years, this subculture has eclipsed the literary genre. Some writers still produce steampunk works, but major publishers have shied away from it. Much of the general public is still unfamiliar with the term, so works that might be considered steampunk are sometimes labeled as “Victorian fantasy” or “Gaslamp fantasy,” or they are lumped into the larger category of alternate history.

At The Steampunk Explorer, we cast our nets broadly, covering creative works and activities that are clearly steampunk, as well as those that fall on the periphery. Our interests also extend to related topics such as costuming, maker culture, retrofuturism, historical tourism, 19th century history (especially the Industrial Revolution) and the various other “-punk” genres such as dieselpunk, raypunk and atompunk.

If you’d like to learn more about steampunk, you can begin with this Wikipedia article. We also recommend The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers, and, for a more-current perspective, Steampunk FAQ by Mike Perschon.