Literary Subgenre or Subculture?
What is steampunk? Is it a literary subgenre or is it a subculture? Or is it both?
Steampunk started as a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. In some ways, it was a response to cyberpunk. But instead of looking to a dystopian future in which evil corporations rule and everybody is connected to cyberspace, steampunk is about retro-futuristic sensibilities and a world in which mankind control machinery and not the other way around.
Steampunk may have started around 1987 and the phrase may have been coined by author K. W. Jeter but it soon became a movement.
Indeed, there is a steampunk world fair, clothing lines, musical genre, architectural style, and jewelry based on steampunk designs (among others). Steampunk has moved from the speculative fiction pages and has become a fashion statement, design cool, and a cultural movement. Hence a subculture itself.
Despite the whole subculture movement thing, steampunk is, and still remains, a literary subgenre.
However, there is something about steampunk that speaks to me and many others. What is it?
Today’s technology is all about computers, power by electricity and highly complicated. You would need an engineering degree (or several) to understand how it works. And there is hardly any craftsmanship to it.
Steampunk technology is comparatively simpler and easier to comprehend. It is based on gears and cogs and uses steam for power. Also, steampunk uses modern technologies (like computers, vehicles, and robots) but reimagine them using 19th-century technology.
In other words, anachronistic technology.
As mentioned above, there is a lot of craftsmanship that goes into steampunk. Everything is so elaborate and ornamental, just like two centuries ago. Also, as it befits a genre as popular as steampunk, it has accumulated in its short history a series of cliches and tropes.
For example, gas lamps, goggles, brass finishes (polished, of course), corsets, use of woods and iron as materials, lots of gears, mad scientists (is there any other kind?) airship pirates and steam-powered guns.
By the way, is it not steampunk fashion the best?
Why Do We Love Steampunk?
I have stated several times I love steampunk. I have even partaken on steampunk cosplay. It is my favorite genre to read. I have reviewed several steampunk novels.
The biggest moment of the past year for me was meeting in person and getting photos and autographs at Philcon of two steampunk writers I idolize: Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine.
We love steampunk for several reasons. Perhaps, we yearn for the days of the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution, when it seems science will solve all our problems and the sky was the limit.
There is a certain romanticism associated with the whole steampunk movement. The fashions and technology were more user-friendly, simple and stylish. Gentlemen were gentlemen and ladies were sexy, fierce, but lady-like in manners. Everyone was polite and proper.
Likewise, the technology was in the service of mankind, rather than supplanting and in some ways, enslaving us (who doesn’t feel naked without his cell phone or attached to its computer?).
Steampunk is here to stay. It offers, in my opinion, a nice counterbalance to cyberpunk, which despite being cooler, it is rather depressive. As long as we long for simpler and more optimistic times, steampunk will endure.
In the meantime, let me dress like a proper Victorian gentleman, sip some tea while I attached my goggles and a pocket watch (brass polished, of course), grab my steam gun and go fight some mad scientist and zombies. I will fly my airship through the foggy skies and gaslight streets, seeking adventure.
Honestly, as a reader, what is not to love? Long live steampunk!
Reader, are you a steampunk fan? What about steampunk attracts you?