Starting Out in Steampunk:Part 1 – What Is Steampunk Anyway?

Featured Image: Time Travellers and Extraordinaires – An exhibition and book by Samuel Metcalfe. Image by Fair Visions Photography

 One of the first questions Steampunks often get asked, is “What is Steampunk?”. And I completely understand why; to the casual observer, the whole idea of Steampunk can seem really rather odd. But once the bafflement has passed, most people find themselves curious about this bunch of spiffingly-dressed eccentrics, and they inevitably approach to ask the question. “What is this?”.

It’s a simple enough question. But the problem is, there is no simple answer for it. Let me try to explain why.

At it’s core, Steampunk is a sub-culture born from literary fiction featuring Victorian and alternate-history themes; the term “Steampunk” was coined in 1987 by K.W. Jeter as a general term to describe works of fiction written by himself, James Blaylock and Tim Powers. It was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek variant of cyberpunk, but the term quickly gained momentum in general use.
The primary aesthetics of Steampunk are heavily influenced by Victorian Britain, American Wild West, steam-power, and retro-futuristic technology. It also dips it’s toes into the waters of mystical fantasy, space exploration, horror and speculative historical fiction.
From it’s humble beginnings as a nameless sub-genre of science-fiction pre-1987, Steampunk has evolved into a buzzing cultural phenomena supporting fashion design, artistic style, music, literature, interior design, product design and even architecture. Steampunk also regularly stands by the ideals of “be splendid” (treating everyone with respect and dignity), supporting small businesses, re-use/recycle/upcycle and promoting creative industries.

But that’s not really the end of it. It’s not even the beginning of it. Let’s put it this way: while the base ethic remains the same, the “soul” of Steampunk is a completely different thing for different people. The adage goes “Ask ten Steampunks what Steampunk is, and you’ll get 100 different answers”. And they aren’t joking!

The reality of Steampunk, is that it is mutable. It changes based on the feelings of the person at the time. It is a culture, a fashion, art style, music and a social movement. It’s an escape, a place of freedom, a release from the mundane of the everyday. It is both a visual thing, and a state of mind. But the combination of things, the reasons for being a Steampunk, and the way that you incorporate Steampunk into your life as a whole, can be different from one person to the next. It is a flexible sub-culture that allows everyone to put their own individual streak upon it, and to take from it what they want or need without getting bogged down in things like “rules”. There are no rules. There is only you, and what you believe Steampunk to be.

For me, Steampunk is who I am. I believe that no matter the time of day, I am a Steampunk. Everything I do in life reflects on the Steampunk Community as a whole, and I believe that causing damage to that community is like damaging a part of yourself. It’s not just a fashion fad or cosplay, it’s a full on culture – a sense of being and self that allows you to express yourself in ways outside of the “Popular Culture” norm. It’s society, culture, art, music, fashion and expression.

Others may have a different view on what Steampunk really is. Some see it as a fashion trend and nothing more, while others consider it a form of artistic expression, rather than a culture. Some people see Steampunk as being a political movement; a way to fight back against the Pop-Culture establishment and the poor treatment of the masses in favour of the elite few. However, within Steampunk there are people of many political ideals, so others feel that it is distinctly not political, but instead a social movement attempting to revive the ideals of manners, respect and dignity.
There are many different interpretations of Steampunk, but that doesn’t make any of their ideas wrong. The beauty of Steampunk is that everyone can be completely different, yet united under a common banner.

When starting out in Steampunk, rather than simply asking others “what is Steampunk?”, at some point you should instead ask yourself “what is Steampunk to me?”. And if you don’t yet know what Steampunk means to you, then don’t worry! Finding the answer to that question is part of the fun! Just get involved and enjoy the adventure.

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