How do you define “steampunk”?

This post originally appeared on the Contact – Infinite Futures SF blog on June 17, 2012.

Next weekend I’ll be at ConTemporal, a new sci-fi convention in North Carolina that is “planting its roots in Steampunk,” according to its website. Guests will include steampunk authors Cherie PriestClay and Susan Griffith, and John Claude Bemis, and steampunk artists from Brute Force StudiosHatton Cross Steampunk and Penny Dreadful Productions.

And me. I’ll be in the bazaar selling my steampunk art books and wares, and on a panel talking about steampunk costuming accessories, Victorian Era jewelry and period style trends.

Robert Appleton mentions Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when discussing his steampunk novel, The Mysterious Lady Law. He notes that Cindy Spencer Pape’s Gaslight Chronicles series includes magic-and-fantasy. Island of Icarus by Christine Danse is a Male/Male romance. Like Clockwork by Bonnie Dee is a mystery involving automatons, and Christine Bell’s The Twisted Tale of Stormy Gale is a time-traveling pirate adventure.

With so much variation, then what makes “steampunk” STEAMPUNK?

Answers vary. “It’s retro-futurism or a steam-powered alternate reality.” “It’s gears and goggles, Nikola Tesla and zeppelins.” “It’s Blade Runner meets Jane Eyre.” “It’s DIY craftsmanship and rayguns — with corsets and pith helmets.”

To distinguish classic steampunk (if there is such a thing) from other varieties, there are terms such as weird west, dieselpunk, clockpunk, burlesque, and gaslight/gaslamp. The Steampunk Overlord in the picture above describes himself as circus punk or “cirquepunk”

I often hear, “Steampunk is Victorian science fiction.” But then I run into people wearing bits and pieces of WWI, WWII, Art Deco, and Edwardian gear and calling themselves “steampunk” — when, in fact, all of those things came along after Queen Victoria died in 1901. Or then I read something such as Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman by Balogun Ojetade, or The Nine Pound Hammer by John Claude Bemis, which are not Victorian. Or, rather, not British. They’re alternate realities set within the United States, but don’t fall under the “Weird West” variety of steampunk either. Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter, anyone? Are Mark Twain and steamboats also steampunk-alicious?

Some steampunk enthusiasts prefer to embrace the Victorian Era — and/or the American Civil War and Wild West period with which it coincides — then they slightly tweak or “punk” historical accuracy when it comes to clothing, tech and literature. While others want to leave the genre a wide open free-for-all where anything goes, so long as it feels steampunky …whatever that might mean, to them. Thus, we end up with everything from this freaking amazing steampunk house or an actual steam-powered phonograph … to “steampunk” dreamcatchers and “steampunk” plastic Jesus clock faces.

Or steampunk can be a verb — as in steampunking alaptop, a Nerf gunDisney princesses or a Star Wars character.

How do you define steampunk? How much do you base your definition on historical fact or Victorian period literature — and how much on the current trends? What is it that makes something steampunk?

~ J.L. Hilton

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