’Steampunk’ can be described as 'a sub-genre of speculative science fiction', one that is usually set in the burgeoning industrial age of Victorian Britain. It describes a world in which advanced but old-fashioned technologies, including steam engines or clockwork devices, are used instead of modern electrical and digital machines. The world of Steampunk quite successfully incorporates the sensibilities of the Victorians and the conquering attitudes of the British Empire with what could be considered modern technological achievements.
Mix the fictional lives of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Verne's Captain Nemo and real heroes like Grace Darling or the soldiers of the 24th Regiment of Foot (who defended Rorke's Drift) in with such amazing contraptions as dirigible dreadnaughts and fleets of airships, 'aquanef'1, clockwork radios, steam-powered robots, land ironclads and armoured steam conveyances - and other fanciful inventions such as wooden space rockets and moon bases kitted out with the latest Victorian furnishings - and you may begin to see the premise.
So why 'Steam' and 'punk'? By the late 1980s, author William Gibson had introduced the world to 'Cyberpunk' mostly through his novel Neuromancer. In it, the world has progressed so far technologically that people and machines have become a part of each other, and society is on the verge of breakdown. Gibson was therefore quickly credited with the invention of 'Steampunk' soon after the release of his novel The Difference Engine2. In its alternate Victorian era Charles Babbage's proposed steam-powered mechanical computer (which he called a difference engine) brings about a new technological age before its time.
However, when Steampunk is viewed as an extension of the fiction of HG Wells (The First Men in the Moon) and Jules Verne (Paris in the 20th Century), it hardly seems proper to credit one man with its creation. Many authors before Gibson had explored the concept of altering technological history, such as Michael Moorcock in his A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy of the 1970s, or KW Jeter in Morlock Night - a sequel to HG Wells' Time Machine. Some credit Jeter with coining the term Steampunk in a letter to Locus, one of the magazines that published his work:
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...
Steampunk has leaked into other eras besides the Victorian Age, but the genre tends to align itself with two main styles. There is the classic Steampunk, which traditionally portrays a dystopia of dark neo-gothic buildings and alleyways clothed in the perpetual pea-soupers of Jack the Ripper's London. Then there is the Steampunk of the Wild West, set around the time of Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. This is a more hopeful, bright and eclectic time where heroes interact with the fabulous inventions of zany or evil inventors. Both styles tend to play on the dichotomy between the ideals and desires of the past and the apparent ease of modern life and society.
The aesthetics of Steampunk are inspired by the Victorian sense of style, with rosewood, brass, stained glass and cast iron making up many of the design ideas. Various workshops have shown what can be bought or built by the modern-day Steampunk aficionado: brass-encased computers with levers and switches that satisfactorily clunk when you flick them, clockwork furniture, and even designs for larger buildings or transportation3.
Steampunk items will always combine elements of the old with the new - a torch with ornate brass inlays and clockwork innards, or a beautifully decorated Victorian gentleman's walking cane that doubles as a sniper's rifle! An automobile will combine steam engineering with wooden panelling and ornate ironwork, and huge floating dirigibles will have more than a passing resemblance to the remarkably ostentatious ocean liners of the late 19th Century.
Even everyday modern terms are altered in such a way as to give Steampunk the proper ambience it deserves. For example, email becomes 'electro-magneto post'. As a style, Steampunk invariably rejects the world of plastic tools and disposable ephemera for something that feels somewhat richer and more attuned to the human experience. Just as Dr Watson finds Holmes' character flaws humanise him, Steampunk allows the past to bring more life to objects and everyday items that the modern world perhaps takes for granted.
Building Up Steam!
To see what all the fuss is about, and why Steampunk is so popular, it is best to experience it first-hand. For a Hollywood view of the genre, the locomotive at the end of the film Back To The Future Part III and much of the technology present in the film Wild, Wild, West4 will give the uninitiated a brief introduction. Away from Hollywood, something a little more in the flavour of the original concept is the Japanese animated film Steamboy - a wonderful imagining of the Victorian Age Steampunk world.
For those who want to try a little literature as Steampunk was originally developed, the works of Moorcock and Jeter (as mentioned) are a good start. Then follow on with Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Greg Broadmore's Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory, or the Mortal Engines series by author Philip Reeve.
If reading isn't to your taste, though, why not assault all your senses by investigating the band Abney Park, which has embraced Steampunk wholeheartedly, taking its name from a Victorian Age cemetery.
However, if you you'd rather experience Steampunk from the relative safety of your own 'digital difference machine'5, the PC game Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura offers the chance to create a character that will interact in a world which shows a startling resemblance to a cross between the Wild West frontier, Victorian London and the creative genius of HG Wells. The game begins with an airship crash. You then have to find your way in the world of Arcanum. Just what the good doctor ordered!
Failing all of these ways of experiencing Steampunk for yourself, you could always imagine settling down in your drawing room with a nip of sherry, and trying to read your latest delivery of electro-magneto post as the heavier-than-air dirigibles thunder overhead...