What is steampunk?

I had planned to bring you a selection of ‘Who am I?/What am I doing?’ posts, but I read a great article the other day so that jumped the queue.

So, steampunk. For me, the steampunk aesthetic is very subjective. I have very little truck with the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk. For instance, my preferred flavour of steampunk is quite hard-edged, very much based in reality and lacking some of the more fantastical elements that others might employ. Does that make my work more steampunk than something like Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan series? Of course not. While we can agree that there are a number of elements which make up the aesthetic, they do not all need to be present to make a work “steampunk”, and these elements are sufficiently broad to allow everyone to play in the sandbox.

Plus, I would much rather argue with someone over whether a story/film/interpretive dance is good, rather than whether it is steampunk.

Fortunately, however, there are those out there who have given far greater thought to the question of steampunk than I have, and I would like to bring to your attention two articles which describe the steampunk aesthetic and the steampunk movement with far greater eloquence than I could ever manage:

  • Mike Perschon, the Steampunk Scholar, has dedicated a considerable portion of his life to examining steampunk works, and has come up with an Aesthetic 101 which concisely explains what it is, and why it is so fascinating. He is rather generously sharing his PhD research on steampunk, and I am fairly certain he is the most well-read of all the voices in the steampunk movement. Therefore, I pay attention. His definition is thus: “Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.” Obviously, it’s very broad, which is as it should be.
  • Diana M. Pho runs Beyond Victoriana, and if there is one steampunk website you should follow, it absolutely should be hers. I, like many steampunks,* prize a progressive and multicultural approach to the aesthetic. I personally feel that no steampunk work is really being intellectually honest without at least acknowledging the negative elements of the Victorian period it is, overtly or subtly, riffing on. The long nineteenth century was an era of staggering technological and social change for the Western world, but it was also the period of colonialism, imperialism, and industrialisation, to name but a few factors whose influences on the world are far from black and white. Steampunk is ideally placed to explore and examine such issues, and Beyond Victoriana does an excellent job of combating the Eurocentricity which is prevalent in the movement. For a brief overview of the progressive history, contemporary politics, and the on-going discussion of steampunk’s politics, you should look no further than Ms. Pho’s article over at Overland.

*(I have trouble thinking of myself as a steampunk. I’m not a Maker, nor do I really have much in the way of costumes or anything of that sort. I write steampunk fiction, but I don’t really live my life accordingly to the specific principles espoused by the movement.)

I’ll go into more detail about my own take on steampunk in the near future (given that that is pretty well bound up with the stories I am working on at the moment), but I hope you head over and read those two articles. It seems like you can’t move for “what is steampunk” cropping up in any Goodread thread / forum topic / convention hall, and maybe that is a good thing. However, these debates should be well informed, and since not all of us have the time or brain capacity to be as well-read and well-thought as the authors of these articles, they ought to be required reading.

I’ll leave it at that for today, I think. I’m working on some new pages for the website to showcase the artwork that I have kicking around for some of my work, and I will be doing a post in the next day or two to lay out for myself what I have to do for the rest of 2012. Its been a pretty busy year so far, though with precious little to show for it. But that’s the way things go, and there are plenty more things on the cards for the near future. See y’all soon!