What Is the Origin of Steampunk?

Steampunk describes a literary form and a design sensibility.
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Steampunk is a subset of the science fiction genre that poses an alternative history where 20th century technology operates in the 19th century Victorian age, portraying a world of modern machines in an age of steam power. Steampunk stories are often set in a dystopic London. The word “steampunk” was originally coined in 1987 by fiction writer K.W. Jeter but the term has gained wide appeal not only to describe literature and film but to denote a retro-future design sensibility. Examples of proto-Steampunk can be found in the 1970s with the work of Ronald Clark and Michael Moorcock, and although the movement gained prominence in the 1980s with writers such as James Blaylock ("Homunculus"), K.W. Jeter ("Morlock Night"), Tim Powers ("The Anubis Gates"), Bruce Sterling and William Gibson ("The Difference Engine"), it is actually a response to the literary conventions and ideologies of the dime store magazine stories called Edisonades.

1 The Edisonade

According to science fiction and fantasy critic John Clute, the Edisonade defined a certain kind of American story popular in the late 1800s. The stories revolved around a central protagonist who through his inventive spirit created a steam machine of some kind -- usually in the form of a man -- using it to travel and explore the “uncivilized” frontier, engaging and killing Native Americans, and then returning to the city with great wealth. According to Jess Nevins in his essay “The 19th Century Roots of Steampunk,” the Edisonade’s essential characteristics were “technological optimism, exploitative capitalism,” and the superiority of the dominant class over the Native American population.

2 Punk Rebellion

The “punk” in Steampunk comes from an attitude of rebellion inherent in a critique of mainstream, American capitalistic ideology propagated by the Edisonade. Whereas the writers of the Edisonades were unaware of the damage wrought by technology and colonialism, Steampunk writers are all too aware of the effects wrought by mass production, run-away urbanization, and corporate greed and control. Steampunk is a literature that is set in a world that has been affected negatively by its machines. It is aware of its loss of innocence.

3 Why the Victorians?

It is paradoxical that the Steampunk genre that begins as an American form criticizing its own nationalism and power is set in the Victorian era (1837-1901), itself a source of Western dominant ideology. According to Nevins, the Victorian era mirrors our own sensibilities. This fact allows ideological critiques of class, race, religion, gender and imperialism. Victorian England allows Steampunk writers to criticize the politics and society of modern America while also creating a fictional, alternate setting that is strange but familiar enough to in which to embed these critiques. The late 19th century was a time of massive upheaval when science and technology began stretching what we knew to be possible.

4 Debates About Definition

According to Peter Nicholls, although the term’s origin was literary, the definition of Steampunk has broadened to include a style of clothing with “retro-tech accessories” such as brass goggles and clockwork gears. This sensibility has extended to conventions, paintings, computer keyboards and monitors, as well as film, examples of which would include "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "Van Helsing," and "The Golden Compass." Those in favor of a traditional definition would disagree with the term’s application wherever it lacks the “punk” critique of Western capitalism and dominance. In its broader use, Steampunk refers to a certain visual style and look that lacks the social critique.

John Conway is a professor and writer who has been teaching for more than 15 years. He has written about a variety of subjects, including technology, science, literary theory, online education and culture. Conway holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in English.