Over the past two years, I’ve been on panels at several literary conventions that attempt to define Steampunk. I think one of the things that makes a clear definition elusive is that Steampunk is not just a literary subgenre. It’s really a subculture with strong crafting, music, costuming and lifestyle components as well. Because it’s a subculture, the elements that make Steampunk are often those items that are accepted by members of the subculture.
That said, there is a clear nineteenth century aesthetic that runs through the Steampunk subculture, but it’s not just that. The aesthetic is driven by the way nineteenth century people viewed the future. My friend David Oakes has attended a few of the panels I’ve been on and has combined some of my observations with several of his own to create an interesting definition of Steampunk. Here is his short essay on the subject, presented with his permission:
“If someone put a gun to your head, told you that you couldn’t describe any elements of the setting, that you couldn’t give a physical description of any of the characters, and demanded that you explain Steampunk only by the stories you would tell, what would you say?”
In two words?
Not the lust for life that characterizes an Adventure story, though it is often present. Not the lust between characters in a normal Romance, though that can be there too. And not just the lust for tools and technology that drives the modern Techno-thriller either. Rather the lust for Knowledge. Even more than that, the lust for Understanding. The lust for the process of understanding that is Science.
The Technology is obviously important. But it cannot be a cold, impersonal Technology. It cannot be the sterile perfection of the “Better Living Through Chemistry” 1950s. Where Technology is once again taken out of the hands of the masses and restricted to the elite warrior-priest class of Scientists. Turned from a tool to make your life easier into one that promises to make your life better. To make you better. A goal of religious purification, the sanctification of existence through Engineering.
In Steampunk, you must be romanced by the Science. The Technology needs to be warm and inviting. It makes you want to use it because you want to use it. Not because you feel you must just to keep up, to run faster and faster and work harder and harder just to stay in place. Steampunk Technology may have its flaws, its imperfections. But that only gives it character and makes you want to love it even more.
But even more than wanting to use it, you want to get to know it. Intimately. Steampunk Technology is approachable. You can connect with it on a personal level. It invites you to look under the hood and see what makes it tick. And you can understand it. The processes are those that happen only in the heart of massive stars in distant galaxies, or at scales so microscopic that they defy common sense. No, Steampunk Technology is as easy to wrap your head around as it is to wrap your hand around. For they are one and the same. The operating principles are things you have already encountered every day of your life. The forces involved are as familiar to you as the levers in your hand or the bellows of your breathing. As natural as the wind and the rain. And for drama, the lightning. Material forces that can be understood by a physical being rather than theoretical possibilities knowable only by metaphor.
Steampunk is the stuff that Life is made of.
One of the things that really hit home for me about David’s essay is that Steampunk involves a love of Science not controlled by the “warrior-priest class of Scientists.” It struck me how well that explains the importance of Fatemeh Karimi’s character in my novel Owl Dance. She belongs to the Bahá’í Faith, a religion that eschews a priesthood, encouraging its members to know God through their own study. I like the idea that she serves as a metaphor for a genre—for an entire subculture—that encourages people to know science and technology for themselves. You can learn more about Owl Dance at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#owldance
David Oakes and I would love to hear what you think about his essay defining Steampunk. Is it close? Does it miss something critical? Let us know what you think!