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Steampunk is a retro-futuristic science fiction sub-genre and aesthetic movement that depicts an alternate universe of the Victorian era or the American Wild West where steam power is the dominant source of energy. Steampunk is often associated with being optimistic and playful, albeit unrealistic. Objects made in this fashion can be either remakes of modern day items such as computers, or imagined structures including jetpacks. The steampunk often incorporates the Victorian period clothing with various engineering inventions and enhancements made of wood and brass, and has a preference for industrialism.
The steampunk genre is heavily influenced by early science fiction authors including H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Expanding upon their work, Mervyn Peake published the novel Titus Alone in 1959, which is considered the main predecessor of the genre, anticipating the genre’s tradition of an alternate timeline in technology creation. These tropes were popularized by various novels, television shows, and movies that were released in the 1960s but did not take off until the mid-1980s when the term was coined.
The movement took its name from the cyberpunk genre, a conceptually similar movement which focuses on the technological advancement of futuristic dystopias. The word “steampunk” was coined by Kevin Wayne Jeter, an American science fiction and horror author. Jeter invented the term to describe a series of works other writers had produced that were set in a modified Victorian Era. It was popularized via a letter published in the science fiction magazine Locus in 1987:
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…
At the time of the letter, Jeter wanted to find a term for this imaginative style of historical fiction he and his fellow authors James Blaylock and Tim Powers had been pursuing since 1979. In 1990, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published The Difference Engine, which was nominated for the British Science Fiction Award that year. It became the first steampunk novel to receive critical attention, putting a spotlight on the genre.
The Victorian Era
The Victorian Era is the primary inspiration for steampunk writers, covering the period from 1837 to 1901 in England. Named for the reign of Queen Victoria, the period is known for being a time of rapid change. As the Industrial Revolution had come into full swing, small towns were turned into massive industrial metropolises, bringing about the modern working class. It was also a time of technological revolution, as new machines and devices were being constantly developed. The light bulb, telegraph, telephone, elevator, and steam-powered ship were all invented during this era.
Steampunk began its rise to prominence in 2006 when Steampunk Magazine was initially published. The first steampunk convention, SalonCon, was also held that year. In June of 2007, Wired was one of the first tech blogs to feature a gallery of modified steampunk items.
Online communities focused on the genre include The Steampunk Forum, Steampunk Fashion and Steampunk Canada. In 2010, The Steampunk Empire, a social networking site for steampunk enthusiasts was created. A Facebook fan page has over 168,000 likes as of March 2012.
There are also several online shops that exclusively carry Steampunk inspired clothing and accessories including Gentleman’s Emporium and Victoriana. Finally, there is TV Tropes index for steampunk, which collects information on typical characters, settings, and concepts that come up in works throughout the genre.
Steampunk has also become popular in fan art, with artists transforming their favorite characters and locations into their steampunk equivalents. A common trick is to take a futuristic setting with advanced technology and design steam-powered devices that look and function the same way. Guns, watches, and prosthetic limbs are quite common choices for steampunk transformation. There are over 208,000 pieces of artwork related to steampunk, ranging from drawn works to photographs, on deviantART.
Though steampunk began as a literary movement, it has branched off in many directions. In addition to steampunk novels, comic books, and literary magazines, there are now steampunk video games, art, tabletop games, sculptures and music.
Steampunk fans are a diverse bunch. There is a great many of Steampunk fansites and communities online. The activities of these sites include writing, artwork, and even distributing blueprints for Steampunk technology. Steampunk is such a common fandom that it has been accepted by the mainstream media; that is to say, Steampunk design is widespread and popular IRL.
Methods of steampunk cosplay often include affixing themselves with steampunk arms and other false prosthetics, wearing Victorian era clothing, and carrying steampunk weapons and accessories. Some fans have will also bring modified modern technology, including computers, along with them to conventions to fit the theme.
The 2001 RPG Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura by Sierra Entertainment was set in a fantasy-steampunk environment. World of Warcraft has long used a steampunk-inspired designs for its technology, especially in the equipment and mounts used by goblin and gnome races. The 2012 first-person shooter BioShock Infinate takes place on the steampunk air-city of Columbia. Additionally, MMO Hut has compiled several MMORPGs with a steampunk setting.
In August 2011, filmmaker Jeremy Nortiz put a $1.75 million dollar steampunk themed loft apartment up for sale in New York City. Inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Noritz took two years to transform the Chelsea apartment, which includes a 32-foot zeppelin and various installations of gears and cogs.
Since steampunk became more mainstream, similar movements have arisen including clockpunk (using clockwork technology, below left), biopunk (using genetic modification, below center), and dieselpunk (using diesel technology, below right).
Search queries for “steampunk” have been climbing in volume since January of 2007, with higher peaks occurring annually in October, coinciding with Halloween. Search hit an all-time high in October 2011.
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