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A desktop computer styled in a steampunk fashion

Steampunk is a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of "the path not taken" of such technology as dirigibles, analog computers, or digital mechanical computers (such as Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine); these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or with a presumption of functionality.

Steampunk is often associated with cyberpunk and shares a similar fanbase and theme of rebellion, but developed as a separate movement (though both have considerable influence on each other). Apart from time period and level of technological development, the main difference between cyberpunk and steampunk is that steampunk settings usually tend to be less obviously dystopian than cyberpunk, or lack dystopian elements entirely.

Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by individual craftpersons into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical "steampunk" style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk.


[edit] Steampunk technology

Steampunk design and artwork is generally devoid of advanced materials developed after approximately 1930, but may include certain modern sciences such as genetics, that could have been developed using alternate methods. It may also include what are now discredited sciences such as phlogiston theory.

  • Materials which do not exist include plastics such as nylon and styrofoam, engineered wood such as plywood and laminates, and composite materials such as fiberglass and carbon fiber.
  • Natural materials such as felt, leather, twine, shellac, mica, hemp, ivory, and glass are used prominently, as before better synthetic replacements were found.
  • Lead, asbestos, and mercury are commonly used, with the hazards unknown or poorly understood.
  • Mechanical systems are often exposed, bare, and unshielded, with gears and levers capable of tangling loose clothing or tearing off flesh, as it was before worker safety became a concern in the 1930s.
  • Where equipment does have covering, it is wrapped in bronze, brass, or steel sheet metal plates. The exposed seams, rivets, and screws are often highlighted as decorative accents.
  • Woodwork is darkly shellacced and the timbers are long, thick and heavy, as before conservation and resource depletion was an issue.
  • Lighting uses either exposed flames or bulbs, or has ornate colored glassware with metal flanges.
  • Electrical wiring is either bare on ceramic posts, or wrapped with cotton cloth over soft rubber, twisted together to keep the pairs from separating.
  • Vacuum tubes may be used but not transistors.
  • The world and equipment tends to have a more dingy appearance, with dust, dirt, lint on natural fibers, and tarnishing and corrosion of metal surfaces.
  • Plumbing is often poorly developed or non-existent, with chamberpots and sewage in the streets.

[edit] Origin

Although many works now considered seminal to the genre were published in the 1960s and 1970s, the term steampunk originated in the late 1980s as a tongue in cheek variant of cyberpunk. It seems to have been coined by the science fiction author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for works by Tim Powers (author of The Anubis Gates, 1983), James Blaylock (Homunculus, 1986) and himself (Morlock Night, 1979 and Infernal Devices, 1987) which took place in a 19th-century (usually Victorian) setting and imitated conventions of actual Victorian speculative fiction such as H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. In a letter to the science fiction magazine Locus, printed in the April 1987 issue, Jeter wrote:

Dear Locus,
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks," perhaps... —K.W. Jeter[1]

[edit] Proto-steampunk

Utopian flying machines of the previous century, France, 1890–1900 (chromolithograph trading card).
"Maison tournante aérienne" (aerial rotating house). Drawing by Albert Robida for his book Le Vingtième Siècle, a nineteenth century conception of life in the twentieth century. Ink over graphite underdrawing, c. 1883, digitally restored.

Steampunk was influenced by, and often adopts the style of the scientific romances of the 19th century, by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, and Mary Shelley.[2][3]

Although the term “steampunk” was not invented until 1987, several works of fiction significant to the development of the genre were produced before that. Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake, published in 1959, anticipated many of the tropes of steampunk.[4] Quite possibly one of the earliest mainstream manifestations to invoke the steampunk ethos was the original The Wild Wild West television series that ran on CBS from September 17, 1965 to April 4, 1969,[5] while the 1999 film remake of the series was one of the first contemporary steampunk motion pictures.[3]

Keith Laumer made an early contribution to the genre with his Imperium series[5] of which the first installment, Worlds of the Imperium, was published in 1962. Ronald W. Clark's 1967 novel, Queen Victoria's Bomb has been cited as another early influence upon the genre,[5][6] as has Michael Moorcock's 1971 Warlord of the Air [7] (the first volume of Moorcock's steampunk trilogy A Nomad of the Time Streams, continued in 1974 and completed in 1981). Harry Harrison's 1973 novel, A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, portrays a British Empire of an alternate 1973 A.D., full of atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, ornate submarines and Victorian dialogue.

Because he coined the term, K.W. Jeter's 1979 novel, Morlock Night is typically considered to have established the genre.[8]

[edit] Steampunk as popular fiction

See also List of steampunk works.
Cover of Issue 3 of Steampunk Magazine.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel The Difference Engine[9] is often credited with bringing widespread awareness of the genre among science fiction fans (although, as mentioned above, the term was coined by Jeter in 1987.[10]) This novel applies the principles of Gibson and Sterling's cyberpunk writings to an alternate Victorian era where Charles Babbage's proposed steam-powered mechanical computer, which he called a difference engine (a later, more general-purpose version was known as an analytical engine), was actually built, and led to the dawn of the information age more than a century "ahead of schedule".

The first use of the word in a title was in Paul Di Filippo's 1995 Steampunk Trilogy, consisted of three short novels: "Victoria," "Hottentots," and "Walt and Emily," which respectively imagine the replacement of Queen Victoria by a human/newt clone, an invasion of Massachusetts by Lovecraftian-type monsters, and a love affair between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's 1999 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series (and the subsequent 2003 film adaption) greatly popularized the steampunk genre and helped propel it into mainstream fiction.[11]

An anthology of steampunk fiction was released in 2008 by Tachyon Publications; edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and appropriately entitled Steampunk, it collects stories by James Blaylock, whose "Narbondo" trilogy is typically considered steampunk; Jay Lake, author of the novel Mainspring, sometimes labeled "clockpunk";[12] the aforementioned Michael Moorcock; as well as Jess Nevins, famed for his annotations to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

While most of the original steampunk works had an historical setting, later works would often place steampunk elements in a fantasy world with little relation to any specific historical era. Historical steampunk tends to be more "science fictional": presenting an alternate history; real locales and persons from history with different technology. Fantasy-world steampunk, on the other hand, presents steampunk in a completely imaginary fantasy realm, often populated by legendary creatures coexisting with steam-era or anachronistic technologies.

[edit] Historical

Steamboy, an example of steampunk anime.

In general, the category includes any recent science fiction that takes place in a recognizable historical period (sometimes an alternate-history version of an actual historical period) where the Industrial Revolution has already begun but electricity is not yet widespread, with an emphasis on steam- or spring-propelled gadgets. The most common historical steampunk settings are the Victorian and Edwardian eras, though some in this "Victorian steampunk" category can go as early as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some examples of this type include the novel The Difference Engine,[13] the comic book series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire,[3] and the roleplaying game Space: 1889,[3] . Some, such as the comic series Girl Genius,[3] have their own unique times and places despite partaking heavily of the flavor of historic times and settings.

Karel Zeman's film The Fabulous World of Jules Verne from 1958 is a very early example of cinematic steampunk. Based on Jules Verne novels which were actually futuristic science fiction when they were written, Zeman's film imagines a past based on those novels which never was.[14]

Historical steampunk usually leans more towards science fiction than fantasy, but there have been a number of historical steampunk stories that incorporated magical elements as well. For example, Morlock Nights by K. W. Jeter revolves around an attempt by the wizard Merlin to raise King Arthur to save the Britain of 1892 from an invasion of Morlocks from the future, while The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers involves a cabal of magicians among the beggers and thieves of the London underworld in the early 19th century.

[edit] Fantasy-world

Since the 1990s, the application of the steampunk label has expanded beyond works set in recognizable historical periods (usually the 19th century) to works set in fantasy worlds that rely heavily on steam- or spring-powered technology.

Fantasy steampunk settings abound in tabletop and computer role-playing games. Notable examples include the Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends,[15][16] and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura[3]

In between the historical and fantasy sub-genres of steampunk is a type which takes place in a hypothetical future or a fantasy equivalent of our future where steampunk-style technology and aesthetics have come to dominate. Examples include Disney's Treasure Planet[3] film.

[edit] Variants

John Clute and John Grant have introduced another category: gaslight romance. According to them, "steampunk stories are most commonly set in a romanticized, smoky, 19th-century London, as are Gaslight Romances. But the latter category focuses nostalgically on icons from the late years of that century and the early years of the 20th century—on Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and even Tarzan—and can normally be understood as combining supernatural fiction and recursive fantasy, though some gaslight romances can be read as fantasies of history."[17]

Another setting is "Western steampunk," which overlaps with both the Weird West and Science fiction Western subgenres.

Several other categories have arisen sharing similar naming structures. The best known of these is dieselpunk, but also includes clockpunk and many others. Most of these terms were invented as part of the GURPS roleplaying game, and are not used in other contexts.[18]

Paul St George's Telectroscope installation at London City Hall (May 24, 2008)

[edit] Art and design

Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by enthusiasts into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical "steampunk" style.[19][20] Example objects include computer keyboards and electric guitars.[21] The goal of such redesigns is to employ appropriate materials (such as polished brass, iron, and wood) with design elements and craftsmanship consistent with the Victorian era.[7][22]

The artist group Kinetic Steam Works[23] brought a working steam engine to the Burning Man festival in 2006 and 2007. The group's founding member, Sean Orlando, also created a Steampunk Tree House that has been displayed at a number of festivals.[24]

In May–June 2008, multimedia artist and sculptor Paul St George exhibited outdoor interactive video installations linking London and New York City in a Victorian era-styled telectroscope.[25][26] Evelyn Kriete, a promoter and Brass Goggles contributor, organized a trans-atlantic wave by steampunk enthusiasts from both cities,[27] briefly prior to White Mischief's Around the World in 80 Days steampunk-themed event.

[edit] Subculture

Because of the popularity of steampunk with people in the goth, punk, cybergoth, and Industrial subcultures, there is a growing movement towards establishing steampunk as a culture and lifestyle.[28] The most immediate form of steampunk subculture is the community of fans surrounding the genre. Some move beyond this, adopting a "steampunk aesthetic" through fashion, home decor, and music. This movement may also be described as "Neo-Victorianism", which is the amalgamation of Victorian aesthetic principles with modern sensibilities and technologies.[29] Other have proposed a steampunk philosophy, sometimes with punk-inspired anti-establishment sentiments,[30] and typically bolstered by optimism about human potential.[31]

"Steampunk fashion" has no set guidelines, but tends to synthesize modern styles as filtered through the Victorian era. This may include gowns, corsets, petticoats and bustles; gentlemen's suits with vests, coats and spats; or even military-inspired garments. Often, steampunk outfits will be accented with a mixture of technological and period accessories: timepieces, parasols, goggles and ray guns. Even modern accessories like cell phones or music players can be found in steampunk outfits, after being modified to give them the appearance of Victorian-made objects. Aspects of steampunk fashion have been anticipated by mainstream high fashion, the Lolita fashion and aristocrat styles, neo-Victorianism, and the romantic goth subculture.[11][29][32]

"Steampunk music" is even less defined, as Caroline Sullivan says in The Guardian, "internet debates rage about exactly what constitutes the SP sound."[26] This can be heard in the work of artists such as Abney Park,[32] Unextraordinary Gentlemen,[33] and Vernian Process.[34][35]

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Sheidlower, Jesse (2005-03-09). "Science Fiction Citations". Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  2. ^ Ottens, Nick (2008). "The darker, dirtier side". Retrieved on 2008-05-18. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Strickland, Jonathan. "Famous Steampunk Works". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved on 2008-05-18. 
  4. ^ Sophie Lewis, Lucy Daniel (ed.), The little black book: Books, "Titus Alone" p.439, Octopus publishing, (2007) US, isbn= 978-1-84403605-9
  5. ^ a b c Ottens, Nick (2008-06-11). "The origins of steampunk, Part I". Retrieved on 2008-07-12. 
  6. ^ Nevins, Jess (2003). Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Companion to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. MonkeyBrain Books. ISBN 193226504X. 
  7. ^ a b Bebergal, Peter (2007-08-26). "The age of steampunk". The Boston Globe. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  8. ^ Gross, Cory: "A History of Steampunk: Part III - The Birth of Steampunk", Voyages Extraordinaires, 2008
  9. ^ I. Csicsery-Ronay in Sci.-Fiction Studies Mar. 145, 1997
  10. ^ Word Spy (2002-07-12). "Steampunk". Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  11. ^ a b Damon Poeter (2008-07-06). "Steampunk's subculture revealed". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved on 2008-09-08. 
  12. ^ Doctorow, Cory (2007-07-08). "Jay Lake's "Mainspring": Clockpunk adventure". Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  13. ^ difference engine - book review for. Retrieved on 2009-02-13.
  14. ^ Waldrop, Howard & Person, Lawrence (2004-10-13). "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne". Locus Online. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  15. ^ Rise of legends as steampunk video game Sega's console RPG Skies of Arcadia,
  16. ^ Skies of Arcadia review on RPGnet
  17. ^ Clute, John & Grant, John, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
  18. ^ Stoddard, William H., GURPS Steampunk (2000)
  19. ^ Braiker, Brian (2007-10-31). "Steampunking Technology". Newsweek. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  20. ^ Sharon Steel (2008-05-19). "Steam dream: Steampunk bursts through its subculture roots to challenge our musical, fashion, design, and even political sensibilities". The Boston Phoenix. Retrieved on 2008-09-27. 
  21. ^ von Slatt, Jake. "The Steampunk Workshop". Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  22. ^ Farivar, Cyrus (2008-02-06). "Steampunk Brings Victorian Flair to the 21st Century". National Public Radio. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  23. ^ "Kinetic Steam Works". 2006-2008. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  24. ^ Orlando, Sean (2007-2008). "Steampunk Tree House". Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  25. ^ MELENA RYZIK (May 21, 2008). "Telescope Takes a Long View, to London". New York Times. Retrieved on 2008-08-05. 
  26. ^ a b Caroline Sullivan (2008-10-17). "Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1899". Guardian. Retrieved on 2008-10-17. 
  27. ^ Brass Goggles (2007-06-07). "Telecroscope Meeting Today (And White Mischief)". Retrieved on 2008-06-20. 
  28. ^ Kaye, Marco (2008-07-25). "Mom, Dad, I'm Into Steampunk". Retrieved on 2008-08-04. 
  29. ^ a b La Ferla, Ruth (2008-05-08). "Steampunk Moves Between 2 Worlds". New York Times. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  30. ^ "What Then, is Steampunk" (PDF). SteamPunk Magazine (1). 
  31. ^ Swerlick, Andrew (2007-05-11). "Technology Gets Steampunk'd". Retrieved on 2008-08-04. 
  32. ^ a b Andrew Ross Rowe (2008-09-29). "What Is Steampunk? A Subculture Infiltrating Films, Music, Fashion, More". MTV. Retrieved on 2008-10-14. 
  33. ^ Kim Lakin-Smith (2008-06-20). "Pump Up The Volume:The Sound of Steampunk". matrix. Retrieved on 2008-11-11. 
  34. ^ "Interview: Vernian Process". Sepia Chord. 2006-12-19. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  35. ^ "Interview with Joshua A. Pfeiffer". Aether Emporium. 2006-10-02. Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 

[edit] References

[edit] External links

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