Every once in a while I get asked, "What is steampunk?"
In order to help facilitate answering this question, I have created this journal entry so that I might link to it whenever this question comes up again in the future.
At its most basic, steampunk is a science-fiction sub-genre involving the introduction of advanced technology into the era when steam-power was most prevalent, that being the mid-to-late 19th century. The most typical settings are Victorian England and Wild West America, though some variation does occur.
Now, when I say "advanced technology", this includes any
tech that came out after the age of steam. Modern is most common, but there is no shortage of both futuristic and older styles of equipment. The most important thing about this tech is that it is not how we know it to be today, but created as if it were made with the limited resources and knowledge of the day. Virtually everything is run by steam power, heavy cogs and springs and pipes are prevalent, plastics are generally unheard of, the microchip doesn't exist, and so on.
Ultimately, this is not future technology brought whole to the past. You won't find a modern laptop computer in a steampunk setting. Instead you will find a portable analytical engine, probably the size of a large briefcase, running on clockwork, storing information in an etherbox, and featuring a display made of clacking, flipping, multicolored tiles. It would be a laptop as denizens of the 19th century would have envisioned it after having the concept of a laptop described to them.
The steampunk sub-genre solidified in the 1980's, around the same time as its cousin cyberpunk - from which, in fact, it derives the "punk" part of its name. Its roots, however, reach much further back than that, to the age of steam itself. The writings of science-fiction authors of the time - such as Jules Verne, who might be considered the great-granddaddy of steampunk - had a heavy influence on the modern writers and artists that started developing the setting in the 60's and 70's.
Though steampunk covers an immense variety of stories, drawings, music, and other artworks, all with many different elements, there are some themes that many of them have in common. For example, the prominence of engineers, those people who develop, build, and repair the machines so prevalent in the sub-genre. Some steampunk stories feature a substance known as "ether", "aether", or "ęther", which has many unique properties that allow various technologies to exist, allowing the writer to merely add onto the laws of physics without strictly breaking or supplanting them. The colors of steampunk - especially obvious in the artwork - are brown, black, bronze, copper, grey, and various shades thereof. Zeppelins are a popular form of air travel, which is much more widely used and has given rise to the often romanticized notion of sky pirates. Because of both this popularity of air travel and the fact that the air is heavily polluted with coal smoke and other eye-irritating vectors (especially when using the Victorian Britain setting), goggles are a popular accessory. Often a form of meritocracy has taken form, where those with the most knowledge or the best gadgets are afforded the greatest respect. And so forth and so on.
Examples of steampunk literature, movies, music, and art can be found all over the place, and it is almost certain that even those not familiar with the term itself and/or those who don't realize that it is a "thing" have already been exposed to at least one bit of steampunk, and quite likely many more. A short list of these examples include The Difference Engine
by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
by Alan More and Kevin O'Neill, Sherlock Holmes
featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
featuring Bruce Campbell, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
by Troika Games and Sierra Entertainment.
The next and probably most natural question most people would ask, I think, is . . . why combine steampunk with My Little Pony
? This is a fair question, and aside from the obvious answer that both of these things are awesome and together they are double the awesome, there are many reasons for this. I did an informal survey of the group members a while back regarding this very question. You may peruse the answers given here
, and please feel free to add your own if you'd like.
Hopefully this will answer the question of what steampunk is well enough for folks. If not, I shall modify and add onto this journal entry as needed to help further clarify any point as it becomes necessary. In the meantime, here is a list of other resources regarding steampunk and other related categories.Steampunk
on WikipediaList of Steampunk Works
on WikipediaSteam Punk
on TV TropesPunk Punk
(a listing of the various other -punk subgenres) on TV TropesSteampunk WikiSteampunk Fashion