Steampunk: What Might Have Been?
What is it?
Many people might have heard of Steampunk but have no idea what it is. There are two facets to it. Most visible is the ascetic and stylistic movement. Machines with wooden casings and brass fittings, neo Victorian costuming with clockwork accoutrement. These are steampunks most visible face. The inspiration for them comes from steampunk fiction. Stories ranging from The Difference Engine to “Lady Mechanica” that are often set in alternate realities where technology took a different path.
The steampunk ascetic revolves around the Victorian era style with modern and science fiction concepts. Some artists have even recast popular science fiction and comic books into a steampunk style. Others create original works where airships replace starships and brass fitted pneumatics run all the machinery. Some like the set designers of “Warehouse 13” try to fit the stylized steampunk machinery into the modern world. Others recast modern and futuristic ideas so that they look as they might have been conceived in a bygone age. A great deal of steampunk emphasizes the visual style over the functional aspect. A laptop for example might contain the latest internal electronics but a wooden case, decorative clockworks and brass keys to make it fit the style. Much of steampunk fashion features gears and goggles that look cool but have no real function. While it's Victorian inspired there are elements of the fashion ascetic that would have raised eyebrows if not ire in all but the roughest corners of that era. The inspiration for the style may be of a bygone age, but the sensibilities behind it are definitely modern.
If steampunks ascetic comes from the Victorian era it's fiction contains a mix of abandoned ideas and disproven theories from the same period. In reality, although Charles Babbage proposed designs for steam driven general purpose mechanical computing devices, no one ever actually built one. In reality, the aether was proven never to exist by the Micaelson-Morley experiment. In steampunk though, mechanical computers can plot the courses of aether sailing spacecraft. Clockwork automatons serve the function of robots in more conventional science fiction. Steampunk fiction couples modern science fiction concepts with the comprehension of the 1800's. In most ways this genre is actually closer to fantasy than science fiction. Where fantasy is based on the question, “What if old superstitions were true.” Steampunk is based on, “What if old scientific theory were true.”
Like more conventional science fantasy, steampunk is a rather broad field. Some tales like The Difference Engine occur in a world that seems to have paralleled actual history until the recent introduction of anachronistic technology. As a result the politics and many historical figures will be familiar to the audience. Others like the web-comic “Girl Genius,” have the real worlds geography but the history, political boundaries and power brokers are entirely different. There are also worlds like that of “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” and it's sequel “The Legend of Kora,” that mix oriental fantasy with steampunk style in a world with a completely unique geography and political structure. Although most steampunk is based entirely on earth (or an earth-like world) it is also written in such a way that a visit to Burroughs Barsoom or from H.G. Wells Martian tripods would not be out of the question. Indeed War of the Worlds: Goliath is a steampunk sequel to H.G. Wells work.
Potentially steampunk can go anywhere and cover any theme more conventional science fantasy does. The basic premises though offer some limitations. Victorian astronomy was unfamiliar with concepts like other galaxies nor was their biology familiar with D.N.A.. On the other hand a steampunk solar system has as much diversity as a conventional sci-fi galaxy with life on every planet and moon. Then again in steampunk the Earth itself is still a broad canvas to paint stories in. Though the steam locomotive was starting to shrink the world there were still many corners unfamiliar to western civilization. Although the Victorian world lacked our modern understanding of microbiology one need only refer to Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moraeu to see that people were at least considering how to manipulate life. While the Victorian inspiration offers no electronics for stories about robots, the steampunk idea of a clockwork automaton with Babbage calculating engine brains would probably fit in well in Oz next to Tic-Tock.
Steampunk robot head
The lure of steampunk
A shorthand explanation of steampunk might well be modern science fiction as it might have been envisioned Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Throw in bio-tech as described by Marry Shelly, computers by Charles Babbage and robots by Frank L. Baum and you have an even more complete picture. It has many lures. For many the perception of a more elegant ascetic and a more civil society are enough. For others it is the exploration of what might have been had different theories been proven correct. For a few it may be that steampunk presents a world with all our worlds benefits but fewer complications. Whatever the reason anyone enjoys steampunk it has certainly added something unique to our popular culture.