A sub-genre of science fiction that is the child of cyberpunk and victorian era scientific romances (such as The Time Machine by H. G. Wells and numerous works by Jules Verne. Good examples of steampunk are The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Some film examples are The City of Lost Children and Dark City.

Also a sub-style of goth fashion. Also known as NeoVictorian, after the term coined by Neal Stephenson. It is an attempt to recapture the grace and elegance of Victorian dress with the streamlining of modern clothing.

Steampunk is a tragically under-explored genre/style/premise. I am sure there are some Steampunk themed paper RPGs out there. As for computer games, The Chaos Engine and The Chaos Engine 2, Worlds of Ultima : Martian Dreams and the forthcoming Arcanum (I think?) are good examples of the style. Many other games and books incorporate other Victorian/Gothic based themes (vampires, Jules Verne, H.G.Wells, Sherlock Holmes, etc). Someone definitely needs to do the concept justice on film though. (More tenuous examples : FF6, Chrono Trigger - definitely, Sakura Wars - "post-steampunk"?, Alien 3?) Music-wise, Closer-era NIN is arguably aesthetically in the same bracket ...?

The theory behind steampunk is that most of the inventions of the modern world could have been created using the technology available during the Victorian Era. They would have been larger, of course, and less efficient; creating the Internet using Babbage engines and the telegraph would be one such example.

Lots of impossible yet usually plausible devices are prominent in steampunk. This follows directly in the traditions of HG Wells, Jules Verne, and other classic authors who gave us things like steam-powered time machines.

As a result, an entire sub-genre of alternative history fiction, mixed with sci-fi, comes into play. The name "steampunk" is directly related to the term "cyberpunk"; in both, technology is greatly accelerated, and the huge gaps between the "upper class" and the "lower class" are made evident. Of course, the lower class begins to question this, rebels a bit, and the rest should have been history.

There is a certain romance to any sufficiently outdated technology. Clockwork has a visceralness to it. It is hopelessly analogue in a digital world. It is obsolete excellence. The idea that Charles Babbage's difference engine really could perform along side a modern Cray supercomputer is strangely sexy.

What makes the steampunk genre so seductive is that an old, seemingly useless, notion can be important and interesting and fun. Since our mortal coils only get some hundred years, and our progeny only take half our DNA, it is through the meme alone that a person can influence the world after death (aside from your personal favorite flavor of afterlife, if it allows mucking around with the land of the living).

The sad thing about a meme is that it can't last forever. Nothing does. One day, you and I and everything we ever thought or believed in will be outdated. Steampunk says, "Not only is your old idea still useful, it's better than the cold, grey, sterile -shudder- modern world you sexy NeoVictorian, you."

In the Information Age we are forced to re-evaluate ourselves, not just our bodies and genes, but also our thoughts and feelings. If, 5000 years hence, it is discovered that everything you know is wrong, does that make it any less significant today?

One could almost see the steampunk style as a kind of status symbol. For instance, in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, only the very rich could afford real paper, let alone own bespoke, handcrafted clothing. Everyone else made do with nano-assembled, mass-produced materials which, while functionally equivalent and in some cases superior to a handmade product, lacked the same sort of status and elegance.

WyldWynd pointed out to me that this is already true, to a certain degree. "Automatic" watches cost upwards of US$1000, whereas quartz movement watches are so cheap as to be nearly worthless, yet are smaller, more reliable and more accurate than a clockwork timepiece.

Why would anyone want to use a timepiece with an automatic movement, when quartz movement is cheaper and superior in every way? Simple -- status, and the knowledge that true artistry went into the making of that watch. The desire to keep craftsmanship alive is essential to the steampunk ideal. After all, if one makes use of mass-produced junk, why, one is no different from (and no "better" than) the rest of the rabble. Hence bespoke. Hence the reason why followers of the steampunk and NeoVictorian styles comb through vintage clothing stores, searching for unique (and genuine) relics of a bygone age, trying to find items which bespeak elegance, grace and individuality lost in the modern age. These same people occasionally, when they have the money, go to great expense to have items crafted specifically for them.

I'm going to Ecuador in March to pick up a trenchcoat and vest that I'm having made; one-of-a-kind items, made to my measurements. Here in the United States, this would be astronomically expensive, perhaps even impossible. In Ecuador, bespoke craftsmanship still lives, and for rather more... realistic prices. Gotta love those Third World economies.

Steampunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction (or sometimes Fantasy) in which, rather than digital technology coming into being, steam-powered mechanical machines became the normal form of technology.

Many of the devices in Steampunk are, of course, gear/steam/motor oriented, and some stories, like the Difference Engine, even have television-like screens that are powered by those elementary devices. Almost everything in Steampunk is an anachronism: a time that we could have had but did not, therefore society evolved differently, yet many devices still popped up, yet at a different time.

Steampunk technically stems from Cyberpunk (hence the name), being that it has the similar bent towards hopelessly technological worlds, though many Steampunk worlds are actually almost fairytale-seeming. A vast majority of Steampunk stories mirror Victorian England in culture, with men in top hats and women in those poofy dresses, although the more interesting Steampunk stories tend to stray away from Victorian settings.

Because of the bent towards Victorian England, many Steampunk stories (such as the Difference Engine) are also classified as Alternate History, a branch of Science Fiction and Historical Fiction.

In my opinion, Steampunk is very interesting to write in, because there is something extremely attractive about steam-covered cities full of factories and exotic machines, with a Star Wars kind of romantic feel (the settings, not necessarily the stories).

One thing that interests me in many of the Steampunk stories is how such things as consumerism were still invented, and mass production (popularized in c. 1900's) becomes overblown, like in the Diamond Age.

Some examples of Steampunk-like technology in our world:

Theremins
Tanks
Radios and Telegraphs
Tesla Coils and Van de Graff Generators
Zeppelins

Some popular examples of Steampunk:

Video Games

(to an extent) Final Fantasy IV/II
Final Fantasy V
Final Fantasy VI/III
(to an extent) Final Fantasy VII (to an extent) Chrono Trigger
Rudra no Hihou
Steampunk Saga
Arcanum

Books

The Diamond Age
The Difference Engine
The Steampunk Trilogy
Celestial Matters
Many H.G. Wells and Jules Verne works

There are three aspects to the Steampunk idea which make it an interesting sub-genre of literature. Though it's become more famous for its obvious aesthetic appeal, exciting the desire to dress in Victorian finery as well as the desire to have or at least to approximate geekery and gadgetry at the same time, the speculative fiction is the more interesting.

THE STEAM PART

1. It is a vigorous demonstration of the most famous Maxim of Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan once said "The medium is the message", and most people have totally misunderstood what he meant by it. He did not use the terms media and message in their most understood sense, but instead used them to represent a technology or idea, and the social impact or advance in other fields it allowed for. To give you an example: the electric light made surgery much safer. Candlelight was insufficient for this purpose, relying on the sun to provide enough illumination is a crapshoot, and burning torches produce soot and heat, and the chance of catching volatile gases on fire. Therefore one of the messages of the medium of electric light is the capability to perform surgery in a safer and more sterile manner.

The Victorians were decidedly and profoundly affected by the technology of telegraphy, which brought the world closer together, made easy and fast communication across great distances possible, but was also a source of great consternation and societal concern. They would not have been surprised at the impact of the World Wide Web - they went through that revolution themselves. Young uneducated punks with an in demand skill getting overpaid and then getting wiped out in a crash of said industry... modern day HTML programmers in the dot com days? Yes, but also telegraph operators in the 1800s. Likewise, there were strongly worded employee/employer communications about the abuse of the telegraph system for personal use, and there were several well known cases of women running off with men they met and chatted with over the telegraph lines.

The genius of putting the notion of a telegraph internet in place in these books did two things: it made us look at a technology and its messages in a novel way, having become accustomed to them in daily life. In fact, having to transpose modern conveniences and ideas into archaic technologies makes us have to re-evaluate the messages of the technologies we have instinctively taken for granted.

Also, if you think about it, a technology implementation usually prevents a later technology and/or a better technology from implementing same. Had we been able to machine gears to the tolerances required for computing, would we now have silicon chips? Some have speculated that our present use of silicon chips has been a bad thing, and we really should have waited until we understood photonics.

2. It's a casual reminder of how ephemeral things are

In the Victorian era the currency of energy was coal, Britain with its naval power was the biggest empire in the world. London was the capital of the universe and the United States was an ascendant backwater. The fashion of the time was over-ornamented frippery, and social mores were ostensibly puritan and muscularly Christian. It's a nice refresher course on old geopolitics and fashion, with the added twist that we get to speculate as to their development.

Case in point - suppose that oil had never been used as a technology for cars, but instead we'd chosen ethanol as a fuel. It would have meant that Saudi Arabia would never have developed any kind of financial base, and Middle Eastern geopolitics would be of no concern to us. But it also would have meant a serious damper on our 20th century mobility and growth, because one would have required, for example, the equivalent of four times the size of the United States to grow enough biomass to satisfy ethanol fuel demand.

Even just in looking at implementation, the "what if" in technology can always be fun. The Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle was designed as a "what if", the designers having been told to build what they thought the Indian Motorcycle Company would have produced had it survived. This literature does the same sort of thing. What if the Victorian Age had had the ability to distribute processing power as well as data? Just as the printing press made the printing of the Marquis de Sade's work possible (because no monk would have ever transcribed such a work, which was the previous production model), it asks what would have happened to political influence, social mores and the like had the messages of the technologies of the age been married to the messages of the technologies of our own.

THE PUNK PART

3. It is still news to some people that the Victorians were sick, twisted sexual puppies

The historical perspective of the Victorian era is one of propriety and where Oscar Wilde was jailed for homosexuality and where table legs were covered so as not to inflame the passion of the menfolk. It was also the age in which child prostitution flourished, there were tons of clandestine spanker's clubs and vice rings regularly brought in top members of the clergy. The horror writing of the age hinted at the darkness behind the veil, with Dracula being a metaphor for loss of virginity and sexually transmitted disease, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde being the fear of having one's darker baser nature discovered. Doing the whole film noir trip of seedy underworld types and gritty street cops banging whores and doing drugs revisits and underlines the fact that there's really nothing new under the sun in those terms either. In fact, the Difference Engine contained some wonderful scenes that highlighted Victorian sexual and gangland slang.

Whereas a lot of folks have come away from Steampunk with a yen to make brass framed welding goggles and coal-fired zeppelins, modding their computers with typewriter keys and suchlike (and there's nothing more punk than that kind of can-do, DIY aesthetic), that would be overlooking the real value of speculative fiction. We need more genres like steampunk. Perhaps medievalpunk, edwardianpunk, atomic age punk, or what have you. And there's certainly more to be mined in the many years of Queen Victoria's reign than the events in the Difference Engine. Here's to hoping the fertile geniuses of Gibson and Sterling come up with more.

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