There is a lot of discussion of what is and is not quote-Steampunk-With-A-Capital-S-unquote.
Richard Castle investigates Steampunk in an episode of “Castle”.
For a while I didn’t have a good definition of my own (only that it’s “yesterday’s future, today!”), but then I had the very good luck to be put on a panel with The Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon, at the Canadian National Steampunk Expo.
J.M. Frey and The Steampunk Scholar; photo by Lex Machina
I was meant to act as Mike’s foil, both of us being smartypants. But I couldn’t disagree when I heard his rundown of what “Steampunk” IS. His explanation of how to define Steampunk was the most clever and concise version I’ve ever heard and I immediately had to agree.
Comic by Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant! Follow her on Tumblr here.
The Steampunk Scholar posits that Steampunk is not a GENRE, but an AESTHETIC. I will wait for you to fetch rotten fruit, but while you are searching for it, take a look at his article describing why: Steampunk Aesthetic 101.
In short, The Steampunk Scholar posits that these are the three pillars of Steampunk, and that each pillar must be present for the work to be considered Steampunk, but the AMOUNT of pillar that is present may vary, and that is perfectly acceptable.
Quoting from the Steampunk Scholar’s article:
Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.
Technofantasy . It’s tech that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as impulsion.
Neo-Victorian I’d have preferred something less ethnocentric, but neo-Victorian evokes an era, rather than necessarily saying it takes place in the time. It was a lot less clunky than “nineteenth century fantastic mise-en-scene.” I’m not saying it has to be British. I’m saying steampunk’s aesthetic is grounded in the Victorian period with fuzzy boundaries. It’s not a geographic or temporal limitation, save as inspiration.
Retrofuturism: The way the past viewed the future, or more important in steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future. The idea of steampunk anachronism is flawed, because in texts where it’s a secondary world, there’s nothing anachronistic about your technology. It belongs in that fabricated world. There are steampunk texts that use anachronisms (again, The Difference Engine), but it’s really retrofuturism that runs across the board. Retrofuturism should be understood as more than technological: there is social retrofuturism as well, when we make the past in our image, as we do whenever a nineteenth century woman isn’t slowly going crazy in a room with psychedelic wallpaper.
These three features, in combination, seem to be what constitutes the steampunk aesthetic—since Moorcock and the California Triumvirate, right up until now. Steampunk texts and artworks do not belong to the same genre, but rather draw from the same aesthetic. Maybe that’s just semantics to some, but so long as we keep viewing steampunk as the stuff in the container, we’re going to miss that it was the container we should have been talking about. Steampunk is the glass - and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass - art, film, or lifestyle - and steampunk it.
I would also add that as a sort of flying buttress to these pillers, but not a piller unto itself, is the notion of Exposure of Inner Workings - corsets on the outside, mechanical guts showing, social anarchy, the ability to look at the Problematics of the era that is celebrated (racism, genderism, colonialism, etc.) and work with them and on them, etc.
You can read The Steampunk Scholar’s review of the CNSE convention here.
I am quoted in this article on Steampunk in the Torontoist, which gives a decent overview of my thoughts on Steampunk As Aesthetic: Steampunk And The City
For my followers, some thoughts:
The exposure of inner workings is crucial. From a literary perspective you are exposing the inner workings of 19th and early 20th centuries in order to critique them. We all know that all that is wrong with the 19th century is leading to 1914 and mechanized war, so a light needs to be shone on that. On the other hand, I love the way steampunk celebrates a very British style of technology - celebrating beauty in function, celebrating engineering for its own sake (something, incidentally, today’s UK has abandoned in favour of mass-buying modern ‘Apple’ California shine.). In Philip Reeve’s Larklight we see the kind of plucky, DIY aesthetic that would have distinguished any 19th century British space programme.