For the Atlantis Risen project, I've been doing a lot of reading and watching (more reading than watching) trying to get to the bottom of the steampunk genre. I've done a steampunk game before in Full Light, Full Steam, but that was when I was young and stupid. This time, I resolved to dig and find the roots of steampunk. Instead of doing a game that had steampunk trappings, I was going to do a game that hit on what steampunk was about. The more I dig, though, the more I just find sand that streams through my fingers.

Many hold up the Difference Engine as the foundational steampunk book, and that's a pretty fair assessment. At the time it was written, though, there was no steampunk. This book was simply speculative fiction in the alternate history vein. Turtledove material.

Going further back, people cite works like Morlock Night, which purports to be a sequel to Well's Time Machine. But this, as with many other "steampunk" works new and old, throw in all sorts of crazy shit along with gleaming brass levers. This actually fits pretty easily in the "weird fiction" genre that thrived in the heydey of the pulps.

It's also worth highlighting what might be the single greatest effort to make a steampunk anything, that being the band Abney Park. Which is… well, it's industrial rock with occasional lyrics about steam, soot, and airships.

You can scrape together a number of works (here, here, here, here, here) to try and assemble a set of steampunk exemplars, and these lists look pretty solid (and nearly all of those works are great reads). They all have fantastic steam technology, anachronistic social mores, and… very little else. The elements that knit these lists together are rather superficial — and I don't mean that disparagingly, but descriptively: the common elements are all surface details. You won't find common themes or narrative structures, just recurring motifs.

This is the best definition of steampunk I can come up with:


Image courtesy of Professor CaT Pardus

You'll note that the definition is an image and not a string of words. That's because steampunk is an aesthetic, not a genre. It's a color palette, not a subject. It's context, not content. It's the facade, not the foundation. Something is steampunk regardless of what's under the hat.

Which, again, is not to disparage steampunk or make it any less whatever. Let's be clear: steampunk is cool. I will happily eat it up with a spoon. I will read it, play it, watch it — one of the easiest ways to attract my attention is to wave the steampunk flag, and I will promptly arrive to sample whatever it is that you are serving up.

What "steampunk is not a genre, it's an aesthetic" means is not that it's somehow less important than actual genres. It just means that it works differently, is applied differently. No matter how much I search, I won't be finding any steampunk themes; I won't be figuring out what steampunk is "about," because steampunk isn't about anything, any more than lacquer is about anything or any more than interlocking couplets have themes. It also means that Full Light, Full Steam did nothing wrong; it applied the steampunk aesthetic to the space opera genre and is a whole lot of fun if I do say so, myself.

This axiom also uncovers a possibility that I am eagerly pursuing for Atlantis Risen: explicitly approaching steampunk as an aesthetic. Rather than try to build a steampunk work up from first principles that do not exist, I can tunnel down from the surface and invite players to do the same. If this works — which is always the lynchpin — it could be pretty cool.

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joshroby's picture

One Quick Rule for Comments

I'd love to hear what folks think, but if you want to tell me what steampunk really is, or how it really is a genre, please back your argument with specific works. Before I started my research I had a really good definition of what comprised the steampunk genre, but those books don't exist. So back up your generalities with specifics, please.

Also, that means your comment will help share a thing you thought was awesome, and ain't nothing wrong with that!

Abney Park

Have you checked out the preview for the Abney Park RPG? http://www.clockworkandchivalry.co.uk/2011/06/first-airship-pirates-prev... More in the vein of sharing awesome things than addressing your point.

joshroby's picture

Neat!

Thanks for sharing!

There's a Steampunk Magazine,

There's a Steampunk Magazine, available online (apologies if you referenced it; I have trouble with some links on my phone, so I didn't check all of yours). They have a workable definition if Steampunk-as-it-was-perhaps-intended, involving basically a DIY/punk mindset with technology that can be built and maintained by hand without electronics knowledge.

The definition fails to embrace thee majority of what Steampunk _is_, but speaks to what might be a theme for some works.

joshroby's picture

And I'm sure they were led to

And I'm sure they were led to the necessity of defining steampunk so that they could winnow their submissions. But as useful as the definition is for them, it's still a local definition.

Perhaps, in time, that definition could spread as with the Analog definition of science fiction. It just hasn't happened yet.

Since you're making me think

Hmm. Ok, a challenge.

I fully accept that steampunk can be used this way, but I am uncertain that means it's not a genre (or subgenre). As a counterexample, I'll steal from Daniel and cite Supers and Zombies, both of which can be used in this fashion, but they can reasonably be considered a genre and a subgenre in their own right.

As such, I'm not 100% sure that you can have an aesthetic without implicit genre (even if that genre is thin or cheesy). So with that in mind, I raise two questions:

1) What else works this way? Are there 3 other examples of genre-less literary aesthetics?

2) Are Martial Arts a genre (or subgenre)? If no, that may provide a gimmee for #1, but if Yes, there are a lot of movie's whose genre I would be obliged to ask about. Either way, it is the closest structural comparison I can think of in how it's actually applied.

-Rob D.

joshroby's picture

Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, Oh My

1) Zombies are totally an aesthetic, not a genre. While they may have come from survival horror — a distinct genre with themes, structures, and motifs — they appear elsewhere and carry their own repeating color without necessarily bringing along the themes of survival horror. In the same vein, Vampires-and-Werewolves (because one somehow always implies the other) appear in horror, in romance, in adventure, and so on (and the Parasol Protectorate books are steampunk plus vampires-and-werewolves, but is still soundly in the adventure-romance genre). Arthurian legend is a treasure trove of motifs to play with a few really and truly common themes: if Arthur appears, there's no single theme you can really count on appearing.

2) Honestly, I am not familiar enough with martial arts works to say. Are there common themes? I imagine there is some common structures, if only because one axiom is that everything gets resolved with a fight scene.

Zombies

What sub genre would you describe "The Walking Dead" to be? That it's horror is evident, but if it's not in the "Zombie" sub genre, that suggests the zombie element could be replaced with a generic threat, and I would be hard pressed to accept that assertion. Much of the drama is derived from elements specific to its "Zombie-ness" (disproportionate numbers, monsters that were once lived ones, danger of infection and so on). But, heck, I'll happily give you that one. Zombies are contentious. But I think Supers are still pretty clear cut.

Thinking further, I think the problem may be on its head. Steampunk casts bear the problems of most technical uses of the idea of genre, since it's it ultimately an expression of the idea that science is not actually relevant to science fiction. That is to say, most science fiction science is merely justified fantasy, and steam punk is basically and assertion that those justifications are so much arbitrary bullshit, as evicnced by the fact that you can just swap in gears and zeppelins in many of these stories. It's violent deconstruction on the hoof.

The problem is that I'm not sure there's any genre I couldn't play this game with. As an intellectulal exercise it's entirely possible to "prove" that star wars isn't science fiction because, hey, Hidden Fortress. You can totally tell the same story with different trappings, so the trappings are meaningless, right? But to do so is a painful expression of intellect flying in the face of experience. As a loose term, genre works just fine. As a technical term...well, how is it improving the discussion?

Put another way, I see obvious utility in the assertion fo the existence of a steam punk aesthetic. That suggests a use, and that's great and practical. THe "So what?" answers itself. But I'm not seeing the same bright line coming off the question of whether or not it's a genre (or subgenre). What use are we gettign from determining this?

This is a little bit on my mind because, for entirely unrelated reasons, I've been chewing on some of the implications of the fact that the success and ubiquity of sic fi have very much undermined it's existence as its own thing. Steampunk sort of speaks to that, albeit from a strange direction.

-Rob D.

joshroby's picture

Genre

A genre is a category, and like all categories it has supercategories and subcategories, and you can go up and down the ladder showing how no single rung is really more or less important than any other rung.

"Genre" is also a word used by a lot of folks because they encountered it in High School, and they use it to mean "those tags on the bookshelves at the library." In academia, the definition of genre is a football that gets constantly kicked around, and it has a lot of political implications much like canon.

However, genre is most useful (IMHO) when it's a distinct combination of themes, motifs, and structures — roughly, what the member works are about, what sorts of imagery they use, and the sequence of actions in the narrative. Usually each of these things is a non-exhaustive list and member works will neither have all elements of each list nor have elements exclusively from the list. Genres are strange attractors, relatively organic but nonetheless distinct.

Not every work fits into a genre, and that's fine.

But the utility is in saying, "this work participates in this genre" and communicating a rough idea of what it's about, what it's like, and how it's structured without going into all those specifics. It's like saying, "this language is object-oriented."

Saying "steampunk is not a genre" is a shorter way of saying, "there are no steampunk themes; there are no steampunk structures; there are only steampunk motifs." Which is relatively arcane, but powerfully useful if you are, say, designing a steampunk game.

JDCorley

I think it's okay to call something a subgenre even if it has very few works associated with its core.

The key element of steampunk literature is that it uses modern technology in Victorian times to emphasize similarities between our modern anxieties and theirs. This is similar to the parent subgenre, cyberpunk.

In cyberpunk, most people have thrown away their humanity in return for consumerism, corporatism and Japanification. The protagonists struggle to hold onto genuine emotions and relationships in the face of a culture that tries to wash it all away. The recognition that this is actually the core story of much of Dickens is what (I think) drove the steampunk novels forward.

We still share many of the Victorians' fears - individuality in a world where industrialization makes us all cogs in a machine, how to be genuine with each other when we are paid to be false, mercantilism versus virtue (Christianity to them). A good steampunk novel like the Difference Engine uses imaginative Victorian technology to enhance these sorts of conflicts. This is why Mieville can comfortably share the term even though he presents fantasy worlds instead of historical fantasies. As for further examples, the Wikipedia page is pretty decent: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk#Steampunk_as_popular_fiction

The steampunk aesthetic, by contrast, is pure unadulterated garbage. "Finally, an aesthetic of interest to white people!"

joshroby's picture

But…

But I've already encountered a ton of works that don't have any real focus on similarities between modern and Victorian anxieties. There's a ton of steampunk fiction out there that doesn't take place in the Anglosphere at all.

JDC Replies

Well, and there's cyberpunk-styled fiction that doesn't do what cyberpunk-the-genre focused on either. I could do a raucous adventure story in a cyberpunk-themed world, and not really explore the foundation of the genre, just play around with it. Similarly, some steampunk-themed stuff does this. The key element remains relating Victorian problems to today's problems via speculative technology. The existence of stories that don't really do that doesn't invalidate the basis for the subgenre. It just means that maybe the author missed the mark, or was not really writing a steampunk story, or it's on the border somewhere, or maybe I misinterpreted it, or maybe he was too subtle. We can no-true-Scotsman about pretty much anything that's published in any genre all day.

joshroby's picture

Not Comfortable

I'm not comfortable equating steampunk with comparisons to a certain period of English history, and a good number of authors are similarly disinclined. It's profoundly eurocentric, and exactly along the lines of your rejection of steampunk-as-aesthetic: it's all about white people.

JDC

Well, to the extent that Dickens was all about white people, yeah. That's a limitation of the genre, too. I don't fault Dickens for that, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a limitation. It is.

joshroby's picture

Then What

Then what do we call the things that N K Jemisin and Jaymee Goh write that take place in Haiti and Malaysia, respectively, and are filled with steam-powered airships and other fantastic anachronistic tech?

JDC

Do the works share concerns that Victorian literature had? I mean, just because white people had the concerns doesn't mean they're not universal?

joshroby's picture

If anything, these works

If anything, these works concern what Victorian literature elided — colonialism, racism, and other aspects of the expanding kyriarchy. You could make an argument that, by commenting on what Vic-Lit should have been concerned with, it's a commentary on Vic-Lit and therefore fits the definition, but at that point we're getting pretty tortured. ;)

Um....

But The Difference Engine was written by two of the biggest Cyberpunk writers of all time. From the very moment it was published it was refereed to as SteamPunk, it's a very obvious pun that magazine reviewers were using to describe it! Infact, might have to dig through my old games magazines, because I think either Sterling or Gibson refered to the book as 'Steampunk' in an interview for 'the Gamesmaster' magazine when the book came out...
(It is worth pointing out that cyberpunk was never really considered a genre at the time either, just a style of sci-fi, but it's generally considered one now, because you can look at a movie, or read a book, and say "that is Cyberpunk", in the same way that people can with Steampunk)

Now, if you want to get deeper and investigate when a genre becomes a genre that's a different matter, there's only so many different types of story after all and despite what people like to call them they still end up in the Sci fi/Fantasy section of bookshops at the end of the day :D

I think we're talking about

I think we're talking about two distinct things: precursors to The Difference Engine (the early and quintessential steampunk novel), and alt-Victoriana.

In the case of alt-Victoriana, it's a remapping of modern concerns on an alternate Victorian historical setting, usually mapping those concerns through the medium of technology. IOW, if the Victorians had a similar technology to use, how would things be different from actual Victorian Age history, and how would things be more like they are now?

As far as precursors go, there are a few strong contemporaries to The Difference Engine (1990), such as Hayao Miyazaki's films Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), which are both early examples of a non-electronic (i.e. not computerized) technology, and the Space: 1889 RPG (circa 1988), which is less steampunk and more alt-Victoriana. Going much further back, Fritz Lang's Metropolis is arguably "steampunk," even though it posits a dystopian *future*, as its technology seems somewhat reliant on hydraulics, but being so early in the history of science fiction stands more on its own as an exemplar of the social commentary that defines much early sci-fi.

Kate Beaton agrees

http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=266

(Top comic.)

~icecreamemperor

I've noticed that a number of

I've noticed that a number of people who are responding to this argument are having a sort of knee-jerk reaction, as if you're de-legitimizing Steampunk by saying that it isn't a genre.

This is actually something that I've struggled with for quite some time; there is nothing profoundly different in Steampunk that would make it stand out from being a sub-category of Science Fiction or Fantasy. I don't know that you could even rightly call it a sub-genre because, as you said, there's no real structure. The many similar tropes that find their way into a wide variety of Steampunk works are extremely similar to those found in non-Steampunk sci-fi or fantasy works.

This is very much like anime. Anime isn't a genre because it's just the way that the story is presented; there's no structure inherent in anime that differs from live-action, for example. Anime is just a medium through which other genres are expressed (comedy, drama, action, etc.), just like Steampunk. You can have Steampunk love stories, mysteries, whatever. And that's part of its strength! The fact that it's so adaptable means that it can be applied to nearly anything, which can make it appeal to so many different people who all want different things.

That said, I caution against getting too carried away with the idea that Steampunk is just an aesthetic. Steampunk is more than just one thing; it's made the jump from being a purely contextual (ie, in novels, films, etc.) medium to one that is literally acted out in the real world, sans context (ie, sculptures, personas, costumes, etc.). I can expand on that concept more if necessary, but basically, you can't judge Steampunk entirely by its novels, films and video games. You have to also judge it by its people, and for many of them, Steampunk has a structure, a meaning and even a philosophy, and those things are acted out on a daily basis.

Food for thought!

Josh

In a way this reminds me of japan, in that in japan an aesthetic can be tied to a set of principles but not via narrative concerns or structures; the motifs and the styles relate to an approach to the world, and tend to be present-tense-continuous.

So dickens would be "sympathy and humanism within melodramatic and darkly playful exploration of grotesqueness", it's both a creative strategy and a way of viewing the world. You can probably construct something similar for steampunk.

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