What makes steampunk unique?

I’ve had some vague sense that steampunk involves anachronism. Technologies out of place for their time. It might mean parallel universes since it entails a world with much of what our world has, but some alternative history took place, leaving steam trains alongside advanced tech. I decided I really must research it since I need to know if there are flavors of it in my writing.

I found that the definitions are: a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology; and a style of design and fashion that combines historical elements with anachronistic technological features inspired by science fiction. The essence of steampunk is homage to vintage fashion with a modern twist. So it’s going back to a time of steam-powered locomotion and old-fashioned dress yet it’s modern. There might be touches of it in sci fi I’ve read. That happens easily as authors like Marion Zimmer Bradley invent a world that becomes separated from any other planets and much re-invent the world using whatever resources they find, yet have some gadgetry that came on the original spaceship. For some reason people end up building castles and returning to royal families and chivalry and so on.

An example that comes to mind is the Sherlock Holmes series with Cumberbatch. The fashions are 19th or early 20th century, there are steam engines, yet there’s modern tech. What appeals to us about that combination? I think some long for qualities of life that are no longer in vogue: parasols, velvet coats and button-up shoes. The film Hugo also comes to my mind. The steam train and station are very central. There’s a humunculus that is both technological and magical. Beyond magical, it’s numinous, for it carries the boy’s father’s spirit.

According to Cora Foerstner, a scifi/fantasy author, steampunk began in the 1970s with science fiction novels set in Victorian London. She calls it a “dark, humorous, bizarre genre.” Steampunk is rooted in and influenced by cyberpunk, a postmodern fist raised in rebellion against a repressive culture dominated by computers. What Steampunk gives us is the past unveiled, dystopian societies and unusual protagonists. “Steam” because the stories are primarily set in Victorian and Edwardian eras when the industrial revolution changed the world. “Punk” because it rebels against earlier writings that glorified the Victorian period, ignoring the underbelly of colonialism, slavery and the roots of today’s quagmire in the industrial revolution.

I have read and loved something considered steampunk: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The trilogy is far more than satisfying fantasy. In the midst of an alternate Victorian England, Pullman’s engaging story addresses important contemporary issues, not shying away from ugly, horrifying sides of life.


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