Why Steampunk?

Four Steampunks cosplaying at Gen Con, August 2015
Four Steampunks cosplaying at Gen Con, August 2015

Because I’m a fan of Steampunk — both the literary movement and Steampunk-oriented fandom — I get asked from time to time to define steampunk as concept. To quote Reference.com:

“Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction literature that uses the aesthetics and technology from 19th-century industrial times. At its core, it maintains the idea that science and technology never developed beyond steam-powered energy. Steampunk can take place either in present day or in the 19th century. The term steampunk originates from the 1980s as a variant of cyberpunk, though some literature written in the 1960s and 1970s is now considered influential to the genre. Science fiction author K.W. Jeter first used the word steampunk as a way to categorize works by not only himself, but also James Blaylock and Tim Powers.”

So that’s why Steampunk is associated with top hats and corsets: it borrows heavily from the time when steam power was king — the mid- to late-1800s –roughly corresponding with the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria.

So why has steampunk caught on? Maybe it’s because of the clothes. People can get really creative, fashion-wise. Interestingly, men’s fashions haven’t changed all that much in 120 years, so many of the styles prevalent in Victoria-era England and the United States can still be readily found today — in thrift shops and even off the rack. I’m fortunate in that we have a local formal wear chain that holds a warehouse sale every October — just in time for Halloween and TeslaCon — and I’m frequently able to find new accessories — cravats, bow ties, shirts and pocket squares — to spruce up my existing wardrobe.

Which leads me to my next point: Steampunk isn’t cheap. It CAN be done relatively inexpensively, but if time to put together an outfit or wardrobe is an issue, then money needs to make an appearance to solve that issue. Also, steampunk conventions are not as ubiquitous as gaming or sci-fi conventions: people in many parts of the country will need to travel — sometimes extensively — to get to their closest event, and there’s still the necessity of renting a hotel room for the duration, which can also tax the budget. Living in the Upper Midwest as I do, I’m fortunate in that there are a number of quality steampunk events within less than a day’s drive, and most are spaced out well enough that I can attend several with breaks in between to refresh my funds.

For the most part, the steampunk community is fairly welcoming of new people. There are those who feel the need to dictate what is and isn’t steampunk, but in general those folks should be avoided for their toxic attitudes. Since steampunk is based on an alternate history concept to begin with, it seems silly and exclusionary to try to codify what is and isn’t appropriate to steampunk, be it attire, literature, or even made-up technology.


Steampunks Capt. Moriba and Ceebee pose for a photo, Motor City Steam, July 2016

Steampunk has become a part of pop culture. Besides steampunk-themed episodes of shows like “Castle” and “CSI”, there have been more than a few steampunk-related items in other media as well. In literature, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne are commonly accepted as steampunk novels, even though steam power isn’t a significant factor in either story.

More recently, an effort has been made to make steampunk a more inclusive community. Anthologies like Steampunk World from Alliteration Ink, Rosarium Publishing’s The Sea Is Ours and MV Media Publishing’s Steamfunk! strive to bring greater awareness and acceptance to the steampunk community of people from the world outside of the common conception of Victorian England.

Conventions are the lifeblood of the steampunk community. Finding others who share the same passions can be invigorating, which explains in part why the steampunk community continues to grow. This list is far from complete, but highlights several of the events I’ve attended (or hope to attend):
Perhaps the best (certainly so in my humble opinion) is TeslaCon, held each year in Middleton, Wisconsin in late autumn. Another in Wisconsin, held in March, is Geneva Steam. Geneva Steam is a smaller event in a more intimate setting. Steampunk Symposium, held in Cincinatti, is one of the largest congregations of steampunk on the calendar, and one I’ve yet to attend, though I have hopes for the coming years. Motor City Steam is possibly the newest event, but if their first year in 2016 is any indication, they’ll have many more years of hosting a wonderful event ahead of them.

For those who can’t get enough steampunk from the convention circuit, there are also several steampunk-themed tabletop roleplaying games I’d like to recommend. My favorite is Victoriana, but other strong contenders with solid game systems include Brass & Steel, and the first of the steampunk RPGs, Space 1889, in the new edition by Clockwork Publishing.

One popular aspect of steampunk in which I haven’t dabbled yet is being a maker. For many people, the allure of steampunk is the ability to exercise their creativity, turning Nerf weapons and common household items into works of wonder. various types of glue is often involved, and a certain amount of skill with tools is highly useful. I admire the many steampunks out there who spend hours modding devices to create many amusing and inspiring props and articles of equipment, and envy them their skills and knowledge.

Last but not least, there are two webs sites I wish to recommend as go-to places for news and information about steampunk in general, and the community at large. The first is Steampunk Chronicle, which every year hands out prestigious awards for excellence in various categories throughout steampunk. The second is The Airship Ambassador, who offers frequent interviews with authors, artists, and other steampunk personalities on his weekly blog.

I hope this post will inspire you to check out steampunk to see whether or not it’s something you might enjoy.

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