Thursday, February 19, 2015

Defining Steampunk(or not)

As I noted in a previous article, Dianna Gunn approached me with the idea of writing a few blog posts about steampunk.  I enjoy this genre both as a writer and as a reader.  I am happy to share ideas about this type of speculative fiction with a caveat: I am simply one author among many talking about how to create a story world in a genre I enjoy.  I welcome comments and observations from others who enjoy steampunk and all types of speculative fiction.

In 1987 K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine.  Jeter used the term to qualify the neo-Victorian writings that he, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers, were producing.  This term was in part a play on the term “cyberpunk,” which was a popular genre in the late 1980s.  Interestingly, this term was embraced for this type of speculative fiction and was applied retroactively.  Starting with the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, more and more historical works were included in the steampunk genre.  

In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), John Clute and John Grant comment that “every fantasy which deals with the Gaslight Period is labeled steampunk” (http://sf-encyclopedia.uk/fe.php?nm=gaslight_romance).  For many critics the inclusive nature of the term seems to be a deterrent to recognizing “steampunk” as a legitimate literary genre.  Yet I would argue that the inclusive nature of the genre is really what makes it unique.  Steampunk is intriguing because of all of the elements that make it difficult to define.

Steampunk is still a work-in-progress; this is the first issue to be faced when trying to create a definition.  It is still evolving.  There are new stories to be told and new writers to be discovered that will add their distinctive voices to the mix.  New steampunk novels are being envisioned as I write this article (and as you read these words).  Perhaps these writers will add heretofore unimagined innovations to the genre.  How can a definition be created when those steampunk writers’ words have not yet been committed to the page (or the screen)?

The process of creating a definition for the term “steampunk” faces an additional challenge when we move beyond the pure literary term to embrace the other artistic and technological elements that surround it.  Although it began with the written word, the concept progressed beyond literature when craft aficionados, fashion designers, and inventors began to create aeronaut goggles, cog-and-rivet laced millinery, modern technology that has been transformed by Industrial Revolution sprockets and pipes, and other curiosities.  The “Do-It-Yourself” aspect to these items is a key component.  Craftsmanship and the ability to understand how the items are assembled—how the technology works—is a primary part of the aesthetic.  Items that are handmade, rather than mass-produced, are venerated.

Another challenge to defining the term deals with the social nature of “steampunk.”  With its emphasis on craftsmanship and the “do-it-yourself” philosophy, creators of steampunk crafts, fashions, and technology enjoy discussing and sharing elements of their creations.  Many fans of steampunk enjoy learning how things work and then putting this knowledge into practice.  For example, recently I read a post on Facebook which included a picture of a New York Fire Department steam pumper.  The post was shared in a group (where I am a member) called Steampunk Tendencies (https://www.facebook.com/groups/steampunktendencies/).  Several of the comments dealt with how much people enjoyed “seeing” the working parts of the engine.  Several commented on possibly building their own version of the engine.  This is a common theme with comments on this site, and on other such groups.  Not only is there an enthusiastic appreciation of a crafted item or piece of technology, there is a desire to create a similar one—with perhaps a few “tweaks” included to suit the personality of the artist/inventor.

Can a definition be achieved for a literary genre/cultural phenomenon that is still evolving?  Rather than trying to create a definition, I suggest that it is more useful to consider the principles that writers, readers, and artistic creators of steampunk practice and endorse.  The visual markers that constitute the “look” popularly understood as steampunk are only a part of the story; people continue to give fresh resonance to the term with every story, book, movie, craft, fashion design, and piece of technology they create.

Chris Pavesic lives in the Midwestern United States and loves Kona coffee, steampunk, fairy tales, and all types of speculative fiction. Her short story, “Heart and Mind,” is currently available for free on Kindle Unlimited. Her first steampunk novel with Musa, The Caelimane Operation, was published in January, 2015. Between writing projects, Chris can most often be found reading, gaming, gardening, working on an endless list of DIY household projects, or hanging out with friends.

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