So I’m taking a Steampunk class through an online writer’s community (6 months to a Steampunk novel class, actually) and when I posted this information on Facebook, I got a question from a friend. Pardon the stupid question, she said, but what is Steampunk?
Warehouse 13, I said. Gail Carriger’s Soulless series. She looked at me blankly. Ah, then, I shall attempt to explain. Strictly as a student, mind you, and one who has yet to begin the class.
What is Steampunk? Put simply, a mood. A genre founded in the feeling and ideas of the last great age of Western civilization – the Edwardian/Victorian era – mixed up with modern sensibilities and technology in a mix that is uniquely its own. You can take whatever part of those eras you like and mix them with whatever part of modern you like, and if the hybrid works and smells of delightful gadgets, steam-powered everything, amazing wonders and terrible dangers, you’ve got a Steampunk. There’s a lot of room to steal from different parts of the era, but think strongly of class systems, the Industrial Revolution with all the wonders and terrors thereof, the world that brought forth Frankenstein and Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and Francis Hodgeson Burnett, Heart of Darkness and Jekyll and Hyde, blimps to rule the world and machines that could carry you anywhere and do anything.
And there’s the operative word. Machines. Not gadgets in the modern sense, but gears. Gears and steam, glass and rivets, wonders and possibilities breathing the same air as terrors and evil, machines that are loved as well as feared, that may kill you – or take your arm – as easily as provide food for your family. Rich men’s playthings. A caste system with servants and masters and poor people who knew their place in the world and could never aspire to more. The first blush of the Dream, the old American (and British) Dream – not the car and the house and the 2.5 children but a chance to work from a shoe-shine boy to a Carnegie steel fortune. The horrors of tenements. The indulgence of the Scrooges of the world, the rich men and the stripes they bled from those who worked for them. The machines, and the people stuck in these huge cogs of machines that made up the whole world.
Because don’t forget, this is the mechanized world of the Deists. The idea that God set up the whole Earth, the whole system – including classes, masters and slaves – like one great machines with hundreds of cogs, and then stepped back. That the world runs literally like clockwork, like the internal gears of a clock, understandable and explainable and inevitable in turn. The wonder and terror of the birth of Science fit into this idea – that if you could understand the clockwork, well, then what? You could change the world perhaps, for good or for ill, or destroy it. Or perhaps do nothing but see your own death.
Steampunk is taking all of this – the good and the bad, the philosophy, and above all the Mechanized World – and adding the modern, the future, the bigness of our current world. Making the steam – and the gears and machines – come forward, with all the wonders and terrors therein.
I hope this answers the question. What is Steampunk to you, dear reader?