What is Steampunk?

By Stephanie Bajzik  

Steampunk is considered a sub-genre of science fiction which generally consists of steam powered machinery. The steampunk genre is especially focused on settings which are inspired by the industrialization of Western civilization such as that which occurred during the 19th century. Works of the steampunk sub-genre are typically set in an alternate history of the 1800’s famous American “Wild West.” Most often, these alternative historical accounts are placed in a post-apocalyptic future in which steam powered has reestablished itself as a mainstream source of energy.

Other possible scenarios which are popular in steampunk culture feature a fantasy world also energized largely by steam powered machinery. The science fiction sub-genre is often most recognized for its placement of anachronistic technologies or retro futuristic inventions at the forefront on the plot line just as individuals of the 19th century era may have imagined them. Steampunk seemingly stays fairly true to the Wild West era’s perspective of fashion, culture, architecture and even popular art of the time. Some of the technologies often consist of fictional machinery like that featured in the epic works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne or even more modern authors submersed in the steampunk genre.

With additional examples of steampunk now including alternative historical styled portrayals of technology such as floating airships, analog computers or even digital mechanical computers like those features in Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the acute genre has become increasingly expanded. While referring to any and all of the artistic styling, fashions or subcultures which have progressed from the aesthetics of steampunk fiction, Victorian era fiction, art nouveau design and even films from the mid 1900’s, steampunk has made a very distinguished mark on society and pop culture all over the world.

steampunk fashion

There is a vast array of modern utilitarian objects which have been developed by artisans into a pseudo Victorian mechanical style deemed as steampunk while numerous visual and musical artists have also fallen into the steampunk category. The genre itself was largely influenced by 19th century scientific romances which even include the literary works of Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein. Steampunk adopts this style from several works of both art and fiction that were significant during this era. These works were critical to the development of this intriguing and increasingly popular distinctive style.

The most pivotal works to the steampunk progression or movement have been attributed to what has widely been dubbed as the first steampunk short story, “The Aerial Burglar.” This piece was written in 1844 by Percival Leigh. Additionally, the oldest known antecedent to the genre in film is often designated as Metropolis which premiered in 1927 by Fritz Lang. To this day, it is widely renowned as the single most crucial early steampunk film which brought the stylistic genre to the forefront of pop culture.

The earliest origination of the term seemingly emerged among published articles of the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, the particulars of the term and its definition is said to have originated in the late 1980’s as a variant of the term cyberpunk which was thought to be coined by the author K.W. Jeter when attempting to discover a general word for the works of Tim Powers.