Originally posted 2011-09-23 by Wayfinder Wishbringer
Steampunk has been given many definitions... likely none of which is entirely accurate or all-encompassing. The generally-friendly debate on "what is steampunk?" and what "isn't"... is as diverse as "Which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars?". Very divergent thoughts.
For purpose of this article, Steampunk is defined as "An alternate world in which the Victorian age never ended and the digital age was never discovered." So while Steampunk has huge steam-driven vessels, computational devices and airships... it lacks digital computers, nuclear energy, gasoline engines or space travel. The clothing is beautiful and elaborate, or alternately grungy and leather. The creations are brass and copper, iron and wood. Power is steam and Tesla-electricity based. Overall, Steampunk is elegant.
There have been many books written in the Steampunk genre. The movie THE GOLDEN COMPASS was very steampunk. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was steampunk to an extent (but I believe the Nautilus was powered by nuclear energy... so... questionable there). I'd mention several more, but right now my memory is a little fuzzed. I'm sure others can name other really good steampunk-based movies. However, I don't think books and movies should be the definitive authority of Steampunk. Those are single authors / production companies-- and there are few that could be considered the authority on the genre. (In comparison, Tolkien is the authority on Elves and Orcs. McCaffrey is the authority on Pern Dragons. I just don't know of anyone in Steampunk that can make similar claim).
There are several kinds of Steampunk. There are the "purist" forms... and the "way out there" forms. While not a purist, I tend to lean more toward the basic Steampunk genre simply because it appeals to me... and very much because of the name of the genre: STEAM meaning relying on steam as the primary power source, and PUNK meaning a touch of anarchy thrown in.
There is a known and recognized difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk. Dieselpunk is Steampunk, but with oil allowed as a power source. MAD MAX might be considered Dieselpunk (but to many is more post-apocalyptic, which I personally don't consider to be Steampunk or Dieselpunk at all). Despite the similarity of genre, Dieselpunk is not Steampunk. That's an important distinction in the debate of what is and isn't Steampunk. To be frank, for it to be Steampunk... it has to be steam-based.
I find Steampunk divided into three areas: creativity... industry (note: not technology)... and society.
CREATIVITY. Real-life steampunkers are very creative. For example, some people have created "steampunk-look" CD players, computer enclosures and other home appliances. They tend to dress in Victorian clothing... which they often make themselves. People make their own steampunk goggles (a necessity if one is riding in an airship of course), create steampunk guns (Nerf guns are a popular base from which to start-- paint in gold, brass and silver), make their own canes, hats, and many other things. They wear pocket watches rather than wrist-watches. Real-life steampunk fans revel in making contrivances that fit the genre. Just look up STEAMPUNK on the net to see a wide variety of amazingly-creative devices.
INDUSTRY: The primary fuel source is two fold: steam and Tesla-based electricity. But that electricity itself is created by steam-powered engines. Those engines are not fueled by oil or gasoline, but by wood and coal. Steampunk is iron and steel and brass and copper. It's large, ornate, marble buildings (think 1920s and 1930s US architecture). It is cage-front elevators and electrical arc power generators and huge, gigantic steam engines powering an entire city. There is almost no "technology" however. The digital age simply never arrived. They never discovered transistors, much less silicon chips. There are computers and robots... but they are run by steam and gears, not digital circuits.
There are elements of Steampunk that border on the fantasy. For example, some robots are semi-sentient. Now we know that is fairly impossible without some kind of digital or neuro-circuitry... but in the Steampunk world the gears and differential engines are so advanced... the robots are as smart if not smarter than in our digital age. So it's not unusual for Steampunk robots to speak, do meanial jobs, act as delivery machines, and even hold rudimentary conversations with people. In this, there is a touch of science-fantasy in the Steampunk genre.
Purist Steampunk industry allows for airships... but not rocket ships (they haven't discovered combustible fuel). There aren't spaceships (note-- some "steampunk" books feature spaceships... but they usually go somewhat beyond basic "steampunk" concepts). There have been steam-powered rocket ships (Jules Vern) but of course, such are totally unrealistic from a scientific standpoint. So most Steampunk enthusiasts will agree: Steampunk is limited to airships (but there is of course, some debate on that).
Steampunk airships are usually helium / propeller driven, large, slow and beautiful. There is no "rush" in the steampunk world... no need to hurry. That's one of the delights of the genre. It is a slower, calmer age.
SOCIETY. As far as I've been able to tell, steampunk society is divided primarily into specific areas:
1. THE SOCIAL ELITE. Think British society, the upper-crust, all prim and proper, long dresses and parasols, gents top hats and tails, vests and pocket watches, bustles and petticoats. Polite to the extreme, modest, very Victorian. They usually drive horses and buggies but sometimes will drive steam-powered vehicles. They are wealthy, elite, polite. They look down on those against social order.
2. THE MODERNS. These are similar society, but not quite so prim and proper. Their dresses may be a little shorter (gasp... knee-length!)... their necklines a little lower, their manners a little more flippant. Think of the "flappers" of the 1920s but a little more "British". They're still "prim and proper"... but just not quite so prudish and reserved. They are from middle-class to wealthy, a younger generation, and often the movers-and shakers. The Elite tolerate them to an extent, but view them much as any older generation has viewed the younger generation.
3. THE ANARCHISTS. These are the true "punks" of Steampunk. Women can wear (gasp) pants! They wear nose rings and leather and their symbol is the "circle A" Anarchy symbol. They are anti-establishment, anti-elite, consider the "Moderns" as tolerable but "yuppies" (in our terms). The anarchists are wild and prone to throw monkey-wrenches into the works... especially where they see the steam-barons overpowering personal free-will. The Anarchists are everything you might expect an anarchist to be. Don't mistake them however, for modern-day punk society. They still are very much victorian-style in dress. Their dresses may be a lot shorter, they may wear pants (shocking!), but their garments are definitely Victorian in style (though highly altered). Their hairdos are individual, but far from what we would consider "punk" or "technopunk".
4. THE "WRENCH WENCHES". This is a term affectionately applied mainly to women who do hard, manual labor, but the concept applies to males as well. These are the workers, the laborers. Their common dress is tough leather, overalls, leather hats, goggles and tool belts. They may work to make a living, or they may be the geniuses who form the foundation of steampunk society. They may be wealthy or poor, but they're the ones that use their hands, backs and wits to keep society going. They're not interested in bookkeeping, anarchy or business. They love the machines and keeping things running, inventing new things, and are the backbone of steampunk society. Without them, the society would quickly crumble, as no one else has the skills to keep the machinery going. In this social area, women are considered the equal of men, just as skilled, just as creative and valuable. There is no "social niche" here; your value is based on your skills and nothing else.
5. THE MILITARY. Steampunk is well known for its incredible machine-based wars. So of course the military often hold heavy rule. This will differ from storyline to storyline, so there are no absolutes here.
There is in truth, far more to Steampunk than the short (personal opinion) outline I've given here. The above things mentioned are what you will likely most often find when you search for "Steampunk" on the Internet. There are wide debates as to what steampunk is and isn't. That's part of what makes it fun. Since Steampunk isn't "real"... it's a fantasy world you can make your own. What steampunk means to you... is what steampunk becomes for you. Just as in Elf Clan we've created our own style of fantasy, in steampunk you can create your own style of society.
Elf Clan and our friends are creating an entire Steampunk region on Isle of Alchemy. Feel free to explore. It's still under construction but progressing nicely.