Steampunk is a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of "the path not taken" of such technology as dirigibles or analog computers; these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or with a presumption of functionality.
Steampunk is often associated with cyberpunk and shares a similar fanbase and theme of rebellion, but developed as a separate movement (though both have considerable influence on each other). Apart from time period and level of technological development, the main difference between cyberpunk and steampunk is that steampunk settings usually tend to be less obviously dystopian than cyberpunk, or lack dystopian elements entirely.
This is an excellent description of the literary phenomenon as exemplified by Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice, James Blaylock's Homunculus and Lord Kelvin's Machine, and K.W. Jeter's Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, to name only a few examples. For a decent starting list of Steampunk works, check out this wikipedia article.
Jess Nevins has suggested that the Eddisonade literature of the late 19th and early 20th century can also be cited as progenitor to literary steampunk, along with the works of Wells and Verne. Part of my own research so far has been to investigate how Verne acts as a grandfather to Steampunk. While I don't have time to go into detail in this post (still working on my coursework for my PhD, so my articles must remain brief until May), I am very strongly of the opinion that Verne is the grandaddy of Steampunk: Wells, on the whole, relates only to Steampunk by virtue of the time in which he wrote. He lacks the retrotopic vision of Verne which Steampunk has appropriated for itself. I don't know enough to comment on Nevins' idea regarding the Eddisonades, but as he is one of the current experts on fantastic Victorian litrature, I'd be slow to ignore what he has to say.
Now, the problem, as many people who are afficianados of the aesthetic will tell you, is that the term "Steampunk" has little or nothing to do with "punk." At least, not in the same way Cyberpunk actually had something to do with music and anti-establishment ideologies. While, as stated above, Steampunk and Cyberpunk share the theme of rebellion, the way in which that theme is treated is very different. While one could posit a "type" of Cyberpunk hero, it would be more difficult to distill the protagonists of Steampunk works into the same. And what is evident very early on is that there is very little "punk" in Steampunk literature.
I recently wrote a paper on the Star Wars Steampunk works, which I'm currently shopping around to literature journals for publication. As a result, it won't be showing up in its entirety here for some time. However, in the meantime, here is an excerpt related to this discussion:
However popular Steampunk has proven as a label, it lacks a commensurate utility. While both literary and cultural manifestations of Steampunk are concerned with steam technology, there is disagreement as to what the ‘punk’ signifies. While other foreign language wikis of Steampunk are direct translations of the English wiki entry, the French wiki is entirely original, and begins by stating that Steampunk is often translated “futur à vapeur,” literally, future with vapor.The conflation of “vapor” with steampunk is appropriate. As The Encyclopedia of FantasyEF) notes, “[t]here is a growing habit whereby almost every fantasy which deals with the Gaslight Period is labeled steampunk” (390). The EF suggests that the term steampunk be limited to “what are in effect historical technofantasies…books which fit directly into the form developed by Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter and James P. Blaylock from models derived from Michael Moorcock, Christopher Priest and others – books whose principal plot-driver is technological anachronism” (391). This entry in the EF references K.W. Jeter, the man who coined the term “steampunk” in what seems to have been an offhand and informal comment. Jeter was likely making a joke, referencing the genre he had been best known for at the time, which was cyberpunk. While cyberpunk clearly contains elements of “punk” as the word relates to the late 20th century music and culture movement, “[t]here's really not much punk in steampunk” (von Busack). It would be fair to say that steampunk often contains a counter cultural aspect, a counterfactual ethos resisting Imperialism, which the rebellious implications of the term “punk” do not encompass. However, the term has stuck, and while there have been numerous attempts to define steampunk as a term, a fixed definition remains largely elusive, ephemeral as the vapeur of the French translation suggests. Even though the OED has defined steampunk as “science fiction which has a historical setting (esp. based on industrialized, nineteenth-century society) and characteristically features steam-powered, mechanized machinery rather than electronic technology; (also) such writing as a subgenre of science fiction” (OED online). Yet both the OED and the EF entries are only defining steampunk as a literary phenomenon. In neither text is there mention of the art or culture movement, save a passing reference in the OED to post-literary steampunk manifestations such as Wild, Wild West (1999). In an online forum thread, Jeff Vandermeer, science fiction author and co-editor of the Steampunk anthology explains that ““I think the key to understanding the subculture is to realize it did not come to steampunk through the literature. Instead it arose largely independent of it and is closely allied with the DIY culture” (darkfantasy.org). This is not to say that the steampunk subculture owes no debt whatsoever to the literature. In a personal interview at Steam Powered, Jeff and his wife Ann, the other co-editor of Steampunk discussed how the subculture arose from the visual steampunk aesthetic found in films and graphic novels, which themselves were inspired by the steampunk literature. The irony of this situation as Jeff Vandermeer noted, is that the resurgence in steampunk fiction has been driven by this subculture. Consequently, Jeff concludes that there is no way to determine a working definition of steampunk.Stefan Hantke limits steampunk as a form of alternate history, but notes that steampunk is unique in its consistent interest in Victorianism (246). However, this consistent interest does not result in consistency: “Victorianism, what little there is of it in the conventional sense, appears not as a historical given but as a textual construct open to manipulation and modificafion” (248). Steampunk is not an attempt to recreate the past, or even to perform counterfactual thought experiments. The neo-Victoriana of steampunk is not so much indicative of a narrative genre as it is of a textual or visual aesthetic. Jeff Vandermeer used the terms “Tool box” and “Delivery Device,” to describe this steampunk aesthetic.
It is because of the problematic nature of the very term Steampunk that I was led to suggest that the term refers less to a literary subgenre of science-fiction, than to an aesthetic which can be applied to different media, plotlines, and even genres. Consider Gail Carriger's forthcoming novel Soulless, which is described as "either Jane Austen does paranormal, or PG Wodehouse does steampunk." Austen wrote romance. Wodehouse wrote comedy. Gail is likely to be classified as steampunk, which will fall short of a full description of her novel.
Perhaps the best term for what Steampunk has become is pastiche. But it isn't a narrative pastiche so much as a visual pastiche. Steampunk fans seem to want things to look a certain way, as opposed to play out in a standard templated plot-line or collection of literary tropes.
At any rate, I come to no conclusions today, simply because this blog is an ongoing investigation. It is one part annotated bibliography, one part virtual sounding-board for those who are interested in the discussion, and one part outlet for my urge to purge through writing.
Clute, John. "Steampunk." The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New Jersey: St. Martin's Press. (1997): 895-96.
Hantke, Steffen. "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk." Extrapolation. 40 (1999): 244-254.
VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff. Personal interview. 1 November 2008.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Weblog comment. 25 October 2008. "Blog for a Beer: Steampunk." K. Tempest Bradford. Dark Fantasy.
Von Busack, Richard. "Boiling Point." Metroactive. 19 October 2008.