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What Is Steampunk?

Updated December 19, 2018 1.9k views12 items

Steampunk may be alternative, but it's a popular style that extends from fashion to literature to music. Its roots are in both science fiction and historical genres and it often features steam-powered machinery as opposed to advanced technology. Steampunk has grown into an entire subculture, one filled with conventions and steampunk cosplay.  

Since it has expanded beyond its literary roots, even fans and followers of steampunk have trouble directly defining the subculture. Outsiders intrigued by the style's steam-powered pocket watches and goggles are especially prone to wondering, "What is steampunk?" 

A proper introduction to steampunk includes where the underground movement originated, how it has made its way into the mainstream, and the hallmarks of the uniquely fascinating style.

  • Steampunk Began As A Literary Subgenre

    Steampunk originated as a literary subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that generally takes its inspiration from the culture and machinery of the 19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it similarly as "a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology." 

    Given its evolution, the literal definition of steampunk may no longer be accurate. The Daily Dot suggests it has evolved into an entire culture, "encompassing fashion, music, literature, movies, DIY model-making, and gaming... [that takes] inspiration from a retrofuturistic mashup between a Victorian aesthetic and cyberpunk."

  • The Term "Steampunk" Was Coined In 1987 By Author Kevin Jeter

    In 1987, author Kevin Jeter coined the term "steampunk" in response to a review of his novel, Infernal DevicesJeter remarked, "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... Something based on the appropriate technology of the era, like 'steampunks,' perhaps."

    In an attempt to define his genre, Jeter turned "cyberpunk" into "steampunk," effectively canonizing the style.

  • Photo: Tyrus Flynn / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Steampunk Philosophy Celebrates Craftsmanship  

    Steampunk is an inclusive subculture that tends to appeal to nostalgic romantics, craftsman, and anyone interested in historical literature and fantasy. Its ideals champion the ingenuity and capabilities of the modern era while celebrating the innovation and endurance of industrialization.

    William Morris, a Victorian craftsman, summed up the steampunk philosophy with the golden rule: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

  • Steampunk Has Its Own Subgenres

    Though steampunk is a literary subgenre in its own right, its underground rise in popularity has led to several offshoots. Some examples of steampunk subgenres are: 

    Clockpunk: this genre often features advanced technology inspired by clockwork. 

    Mythpunk: this genre often incudes mythical elements and folklore. 

    Dieselpunk: rather than the Victorian era, these stories are set in the 20th century and replace the steam-powered gadgetry with gas engines.

    Biopunk: this genre generally takes place in a futuristic world that has genetically engineered creatures.