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I've long been confused about what exactly comprises the steampunk genre. Of course I realise that genres aren't usually things for which one can pin down exact definitions, but I don't even have a proper 'feel' for the steampunk genre or where its boundaries are.

The Wikipedia article is full of citation-needed notes, and I'm somewhat suspicious of its attempts at defining the genre. For example, it cites steam power as being a required part of steampunk stories (which also makes sense given the name steampunk, of course), but I'm pretty sure that many 'steampunk' things are actually based on other technologies such as clockwork: gears are a common device used to make objects steampunky. But I'm not really sure where else to look to get a proper idea (if not a rigorous definition) of what it means to be steampunk.

What is steampunk, really? What makes a work of literature steampunk or not?

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The term was coined by science fiction author K. W. Jeter in a letter to Locus in April 1987:

Dear Locus:

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it to Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like "steampunks," perhaps….

—K.W. Jeter

(Here "gonzo" means a style of writing "characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style" [OED] popularized by the journalist Hunter S. Thompson.)

Jeter modelled the term "steampunk" after "cyberpunk", which was coined by Bruce Bethke and used as the title of a novel first published in 1983.

The "punk" part of the word comes from the rock’n’roll terminology of the 1970s, "punk" meaning in this context young, streetwise, aggressive, alienated and offensive to the Establishment. A punk disillusion, often multiple—with progressive layers of illusion being peeled away—is a major component of these works. [Peter Nicholls, Science Fiction Encyclopedia]

So Jeter’s "steampunk" is "Victorian fantasy" written in the "gonzo-historical manner", and with a "punk" attitude, the exemplars being:

  1. Jeter’s own Morlock Night (1979), a sequel to H. G. WellsThe Time Machine (1895) in which the Morlocks travel back from the far future of Wells’ story to Victorian London.

  2. The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers, a fantasy combining time travel, Egyptian gods and the English Romantic poets. (The historical part is set in the Regency rather than the Victorian era.)

  3. Lord Kelvin’s Machine’ (1985) by James P. Blaylock, set in Victorian Europe and featuring a time machine created by Lord Kelvin.

Of course, an original manifesto like this doesn’t necessarily capture the ways in which a subgenre evolves. Peter Nicholls and Dave Langford, writing in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, describe three key features that characterized steampunk as it developed:

  1. An atmosphere derived from Victorian Gothic literature, and especially the works of Charles Dickens:

    These recall not so much the actual nineteenth-century as a nineteenth century seen through the creatively distorting lens of Charles Dickens, whose congested, pullulating nineteenth-century landscapes—mostly of London, though the industrial Midlands nightmare exposed in Hard Times (1854) is also germane—were the foul rag-and-bone shop of history from which the technological world, and hence the world of sf, originally sprang. Somewhere behind most early steampunk visions are filthy coal heaps or driving pistons

  2. The Victorian era as a branching point for an alternate history:

    It is as if, for a handful of sf writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a Jonbar Point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry (though there was actually more industry in the midlands and the north), science, Technology, commerce and above all finance, where the modern world was being born. At the same time it was a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor.

  3. Victorian design as a source of retro aesthetic:

    Steampunk by circa 2007 was also becoming a genre of couture, describing a clothing style with retro elements, most commonly from the Victorian era with such retro-tech accessories as motorists’ or pilots’ goggles (preferably brass-framed) and clockwork components. This design aesthetic fed back into art objects, paintings, and more books—often young-adult—which attracted more young writers. Steampunk in this expanded sense became a widespread phenomenon that is still current. […] From being an insignificant and very small subgenre in 1987, by 2011 Steampunk had developed into a way of life, just as comparable terms for style, such as "punk" and "goth", had done before it.

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UrbanDictionary.com provides as good a range of definitions as any, as many as 11 by a current count.

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=steampunk

Here's the top voted response:

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan "What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner." It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes. Medieval Steampunk: Speculative fiction set during the Middle Ages. Victorian Steampunk: A modern Science Fiction work (post-1930s) that is set in the early parts of the industrial revolution. Western Steampunk: Science fiction set in the American Old West. Industrial/Modern Steampunk: Science fiction taking place in the late industrial age, early modern age; i.e. World War 1, World War 2
Examples of steampunk: Wild Wild West, Final Fantasy 7, Van Helsing, The Time Machine, Hellboy, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

The second most popular definition hits on several elements that are essential to a full understanding:

(contains) prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date

Interestingly, in 2013 an IBM group's Social Sentiment Index prediction of cultural trends claimed that steampunk was soon to emerge as a mainstream pop culture force. E.g., see this blog post ... https://cultureby.com/2014/08/steampunk-cometh.html IBM was wrong as this Google Trends graphic based on steampunk as a keyword demonstrates: enter image description here

The metric spikes kind of cyclically around Halloween each year after 2013 but clearly shows a relentlessly downward trend.

That said there are more interesting examples in cultural production where steampunk aesthetics have played a role. These include:

William Gibson's novels, Beastie Boys' Pauls Boutique, Lang's Metropolis, Riddick, Mad Max: Fury Road, Cirque du Soleil Kurious, John Wick 2, Eiffel Tower, David Lynch Dune, Barcelona’s Umbraculo, a vast greenhouse in the Parc de la Ciutadella, steampunk Shakespeare: TNT’s Will, Game of Thrones, The Mummy (2017), The Dark Tower (2017)

Finally, there's this Youtube vi, What’s so punk about steampunk?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJkIhEhApdc

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    Urban Dictionary? :-/ Even if it provides a good definition in this case, that site is mostly known for its bad definitions, e.g. giving definitions for all sorts of innocuous words in terms of weird sexual acts. It's hardly a reliable source. – Rand al'Thor Apr 20 '18 at 6:52
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    @Randal'Thor That's a sweeping judgment that parallels the opinion held by many about the value of Wikipedia articles. In neither case do I agree, preferring to view such arguments as elitist and snobby. Reliability (whatever that means) aside, both resources are useful as preliminary stakes-in-the-ground. This has particular relevance for something as informal and pop culture-ish as steampunk. We may agree on one thing about their use and that's caveat emptor. – DJohnson Apr 20 '18 at 11:33

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