What Steampunk Is to Me

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll find the statement that I enjoy Steampunk a little obvious, but I learned as I read Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi that I have a very clear sense of what Steampunk is to me.

I have devoured the current Steampunk trend, delighting in the innovative designs and the literary analysis of the phenomenon. I can’t tell you how many attempts to define Steampunk I’ve read over the past couple of years. A recent one stuck with me, though, because it was a tirade against Steampunk design, a rather articulate analysis of how changing your laptop, etc. to look Victorian with a mechanical brass edge actually goes against everything Steampunk stands for. I didn’t blog it because I prefer positive over negative, and have now lost the link, but it clearly had more of an impact with me than I’d expected (had I known, I would have blogged it, negative or not).

So why, you might ask, do I feel the need–nay, the urge–to offer up my own definition of Steampunk? Well, because I’m curious about whether others feel as I do, and because, having thought it out, I want to share.

First a little history:

I was exposed to the Steampunk mentality early on with Jules Verne, read in the illustrated classics mini books with a picture on every other page. I was barely reading at that point, so my involvement is not something recent. Brisco County Junior broke my distaste with the idea of immortalizing TV shows on DVD because I wanted to share the fun with my boys, many years after it had aired. You’d have to understand how I feel about television to realize how remarkable this is. Now, we have many shows on DVD. And being an avid reader of historical romance and Russian literature since my early teens, a fascination with the Victorian Age was nothing new to me. I’ve even been known to accuse Victoria of single-handedly destroying the tradition of Russian Tsars.

Anyway, the point of that history is to say Steampunk is not something new, to me or to the world, and the elements I look for are quite distinct. Until the other day, I would have said it’s a know-it-when-I-see-it situation, but then I picked up a novel that had been recommended to me as Steampunk from a number of sources, Windup Girl. I’ll admit that it has spring-based energy storage and dirigibles (and is a wonderful novel outside of the Steampunk connection). And yet, even with several aspects that are common to Steampunk, it didn’t read like a Steampunk novel to me at all. That’s when I realized that my sense of Steampunk was not remotely vague. For me to read something as belonging in that genre, it has to contain very specific elements.

The presence of dirigibles has been used as a flag–and yes, the fascination with inflated air travel is common in Steampunk–but it fails the test of exclusivity. Hot air balloons, zeppelins, blimps even, exist outside of the Steampunk genre as well as within. Similarly, while spring-based energy storage seems steampunky because of the association of springs with gears and the like, springs by themselves do not a Steampunk make.

So what makes a story like Escapement by Jay Lake Steampunk to me while Windup Girl is not? Neither are exactly Victorian, neither are based in London, and both have “made” beings, springs and gears, and, of course, dirigibles.

I’m not going to go into specifics because I still plan to review Windup Girl on its own merits, but it all boiled down to a few simple principles.

Steampunk combines the Wild West with Victorian England. It is focused on the innovator, the explorer, the one who takes chances, gets hands dirty, and changes the world. It’s the ultimate Republican Free Market argument (old-style Republican) where people go out and create things and are responsible for said creations. It’s black and white in the sense that the nutty professor types are matched with those who create only to harm. It features invention, adventure, and a sense of moral obligation.

To me, Steampunk takes the best elements of both worlds, offering characters who believe in something and understand that they have obligations to those who share their world, but at the same time leaves them open to following their dreams, exploring beyond the limits of society, and being willing to use trial and error to discover the next great thing without any motive beyond seeing what’s over that next hill.

Sure, the gadgets are great–some are even functional–but it’s not about the gadgets exactly. It’s about the mental and physical drive to make those gadgets. To figure out a way to improve your world, visually or mechanically. It’s about expressing your individual tastes and drives in a way that enriches everyone. Oddly, for all the emphasis on individuality, on the mad genius driven to create, it’s a genre of community. Though out there, most Steampunk creators are surrounded by friends and supporters. When there is trouble to be faced, people band together to face it. Those who choose to harm are addressed by the whole. It’s not Superman who hides from everyone in order to swoop in and save the day again and again; it’s about unlikely alliances between lowly mechanics and kings, different races, different social classes, or what have you, with the focus on working together for the community, whether it’s embodied in Queen Victoria or keeping the world’s spring wound.

The reason I love Steampunk is simple. It’s a genre that glorifies the exception, the outlier, without isolating that type of person. Rather than an embittered loner, society depends on the inventor and recognizes that debt, embracing, supporting, and even loving those who think a little differently and can do things the average joe might not be able to comprehend but still can benefit from. It’s a far cry from our society, where those who are different are set apart, punished for their very nature, mocked and harassed while we reap the benefits of what they brought into the world. Even Bill Gates gets his share of scorn, and yet where would we be without Gates and Steve Jobs? In a Steampunk universe, the computer nerd equivalent is loved as an eccentric, the contribution a matter of celebration.

Wow, didn’t expect to go on so long. If you’ve read all the way to here, what do you think? Is Steampunk the ultimate in social utopia? Does it embody the optimism that drove early innovation and has become tangled up in corporate money making? Or am I just a dreamer longing after a world where we all get along?

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12 Responses to What Steampunk Is to Me

  1. Erin says:

    Having started reading the book (though I’m still not finished), I have to agree that it’s not steampunk. It’s post-apocalyptic, plain and simple. Yes, that has forced a reliance on some older technologies — but though it has many of the same tropes that the genre does (and that I love, for example, in Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld), you’re right in the tone being all off. Steampunk is adventure. It’s rewinding to a different time and taking an alternate path. It’s romance. It’s excitement. It’s discovery and invention. It’s not dystopian “We’ve already wrecked the world, and everybody is just out for what they can get.”

    • MarFisk says:

      Well, more than post-apocalyptic, I would argue it is cyberpunk. Sure, they don’t have the high-tech aspects because of the collapse, but the corporations and governments, the corruption, the … well, I’ll leave that for my review :). Still, accepting it for what it is, and ignoring what it isn’t, Windup Girl is a powerful book. I wonder what I’ll think of Leviathan. I’m pretty sure that’s on my tbr pile too :).

  2. Deirdre says:

    What I find interesting is that the objection to putting a brass border onto a laptop is anti-Steampunk still works with your definition…so I’m not sure your comment would have ended up *all* negative.

    Now building a new case using brass edges as heat dumps so you can over-clock your laptop without burning your thighs…that’s Steampunk for today.

    I’m not sure the average joe’s definition of Steampunk (or at least the average among joes who have an opinion on the subject) would include the utopian aspect, but it’s definitely about going above and beyond what is available today in order to make a better world so yeah, I think I agree with you 🙂

    Go Girl Genius go!

    Now my question is – If Scotty was figuring out ways to hook up 29th century gear to the Enterprise after she’d been thrown into the future…would that be Steampunk to the folks from the 29th century or does Steampunk *only* exist if the base technology is Victorian?

    • MarFisk says:

      Ooh, interesting question :). I’d have to say it’s not Steampunk if it doesn’t involve mechanics that anyone has the ability to construct…and steam-power is nice, but not absolutely necessary.

      And just because I said the blog post was negative didn’t mean I didn’t agree with some of it. But when written to condemn others as opposed to state your own preference…well, that bugs me.

      On the other hand, I LOVE your idea of brass sidings as a heat sink. That’s just cool.

  3. I love this part of your definition:

    “…most Steampunk creators are surrounded by friends and supporters. When there is trouble to be faced, people band together to face it. Those who choose to harm are addressed by the whole.”

    And this:

    “It

  4. Oh! I don’t know why my comment got cut off. Here’s the gist of what I wrote:

    I’m not fixed on the historical period. I call my WIP post-apocalyptic steampunk, but I accept that to others is might be straight SF. What makes a story steampunk for me is a level of technology that is mainly steam, and an element of punk – by which I mean a social and/or political tension that includes the dynamics you describe so well in this post.

    • MarFisk says:

      Cool. This is the one I’m on board to crit, right? Everytime I think I’m a curmudgeonly pessimist, I uncover something like this perspective and know it’s all a front. I love optimism and individuality within a broader social context.

      And no, I don’t think the historical period is as important as the dynamic, but then, I don’t write the rules…I just pronounce my own :). What was that about individuality?

  5. suelder says:

    You know, I’m going to name this plotbunny after you.

    My latest story has the possibility of a series. It’s a paranormal thriller that deals with people who respond to disasters. And I can see locals adapting what’s left after an earthquake or some other natural disaster in a steam-punky, McGyver fashion.

    Very interesting – I may need to give Steam Punk another chance.

  6. Hi, Margaret!

    I’m dabbling in steampunk myself, having read a few things recently that qualify. One is Thunderer by Felix Gilman, which was nominated for a Hugo Award. I enjoyed it tremendously.

    The other is an alternate history (another genre I love) by Beth Bernobich entitled Ars Memoriae, which I reviewed in detal for Tangent Online.

    As I an coming to understand, alternate history works well with steampunk, as well as magical realism, Felix’s book has features of this, as well as the steampunk. He does a lot with the concept of dystopia as well.

    I’ll keep checking in here to see what’s going on, as well as my Livejournal. I also have thread on my website forum to discuss my reviews in greater detail.

    http://www.caroleannmoleti.com/forum.html#bn-forum-1-1-4113162193/6990

    • MarFisk says:

      Hi Carole Ann :).

      I’ll have to check out your forum thread. I find myself fascinated with Steampunk, but as I said, this is nothing new for me. I also enjoy alternative history. I’d say they have a lot of potential for crossover, too. I’ll have to check out Thunderer and Ars Memoriae…maybe when my TBR pile’s a little smaller, or I get a sudden urge for Steampunk.

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