Earlier this month, I was a panelist at the Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention in Tucson, Arizona. During the convention, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with K.W. Jeter, the man who coined the word “steampunk” in a 1987 letter to Locus Magazine. In the letter, he spoke about fantasies set in the Victorian era he’d written along with those written by Tim Powers and James Blaylock. He coined the term as a tongue-in-cheek play on cyberpunk, which was popular at the time. Ever since this time, people have been trying to decide exactly what the steampunk “genre” is.
There are steampunk mysteries, steampunk suspense, and steampunk romance. There is steampunk fantasy and even science fictional steampunk. Relevant to this blog’s subject matter, authors like Gail Carriger have given us steampunk vampires and Cherie Priest infested Seattle with steampunk zombies. My own stories have even appeared in anthologies that have featured techno-Victorian-infused horror. So, what actually characterizes the “steampunk genre”?
Jeter had an interesting perspective on this question. His take is that “steampunk” isn’t a genre at all. It’s an “aesthetic” and you can write almost any story you would like using that aesthetic. Now, I had been used to the idea of a steampunk aesthetic for some time. After all, people attend steampunk conventions dressed in Victorian finery with assorted technical flourishes. I know people who have decorated rooms in their houses with steampunk motifs. However, this was really the first time I had considered “steampunk” as a dressing for a story.
That said, it makes a lot of sense to write horror in a Victorian or Victorian-like setting. The 1930’s movie Frankenstein with all its period costumes and gadgets almost feels like a steampunk piece. By the same token, the Hammer vampire films with their Victorian sets almost feel steampunk. Weird Western stories, which can be close cousins to steampunk, are often horror stories. So, yes, if you’re telling a horror story set almost anywhere in the world during the Victorian era, you’re already much of the way to telling a steampunk story. At the very least, you’ve told a story set in the “steam” era. But what about the “punk” part of steampunk?
Many people who have thought about steampunk often dismiss “punk” as just silliness on Jeter’s part. He was just playing on cyberpunk after all during a time when any slightly new science fictional trapping was being dubbed everything from biopunk to nanopunk. However, in recent years, numerous authors have embraced the “punk” suffix and taken it seriously.
During another panel at Wild Wild West Con, the authors and I discussed how to put the “punk” into steampunk. In a sense, it can be as simple as adding in a science fictional or technical aspect. However, it can also be related to steampunk as a flavor of “postmodernism.” I was first introduced to postmodernism through Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Since then Pynchon has even written his own steampunk piece, Against the Day.
Wikipedia defines postmodernism as literature characterized by the use of metafiction (using a narrative structure that reminds the audience this is fiction), unreliable narration, and inter-textuality. It’s often written to reflect or comment on an era’s political structures or uses these political structures to comment on contemporary issues. Steampunk often comments on today’s race, culture, and gender issues through the lens of Victorian attitudes.
I have long enjoyed writing stories with the steampunk aesthetic. Setting my stories in or near the Victorian era reminds me of stories I grew up with. Given my technical background, I love asking what might have been possible, so it allows me to toss in that science fictional component. However, one of the basic reasons I write is to think about and process the world around me. I can do that through the lens of steampunk and see things from a new perspective. Do you have some favorite examples of steampunk-infused horror? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
2 responses to “The Steampunk Aesthetic”
Couldn’t agree more! When I was with Writing.com, I taught a course on steampunk, and the first hurdle was always to convince the students that steampunk isn’t a genre. If you’re writing romance, there’d better be some smoochin’. If you’re writing horror, you’re sort of obligated to trot out a vampire, or a zombie, or a twi-night double header… Something horrible, in short. My analogy was always that steampunk was the canvas that the picture was painted on. Write your horror, write your romance, whatever, but set it on the dirigible, the submarine, the fancy “high-tech” train crossing Europe. Unlike almost any other genre, it’s the background that makes it steampunk.
Thanks for posting your take on this. Maybe they’ll listen to you!
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Thank you! Yes, I have to admit, I’d been thinking of it as a genre for a long time, but when Jeter referred to it as a background or an aesthetic, it suddenly made a lot of sense and a lot of things fell into place for me.
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