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.