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Seven Steampunk Fallacies

Updated on April 6, 2015

Are you interested in getting into steampunk, but feeling a bit overwhelmed?

You may have heard of steampunk recently or you may just want to know a bit more. It can be intimidating trying to find information, but it really shouldn't be. There are an awful lot of conflicting bits of information out there. Let's clear up a few fallacies that you may have heard.

1. "Steampunk is anything you want it to be."

You are going to hear that sometimes, but does it really make sense? If steampunk is anything at all, then it is meaningless. As a popular trend, it has become a label people want to exploit. You will find items for sale on etsy labeled steampunk that make everyone scratch their heads. "How the heck do they think that a macramé dolphin is steampunk?" Well, it's not unless "steampunk is anything you want it to be." So anyone can call anything steampunk?

Some people feel it should not be defined, but words and terms have definitions. I can't help you understand steampunk without defining it. So let's do that.

Steampunk is a genre of science fiction/fantasy based in the Victorian era, the steam age or an equivalent technological age in an alternate world. It is the past as envisioned by the Victorians, but it is written by modern authors. K. W Jeter coined the term in the late 80's. You can have steampunk in a different time in history as long as history has altered from what actually happened to keep steam power as the main power source. It is important that diesel power does not become prevalent, because that would then be dieselpunk, which is a separate genre. Steampunk can extend into the Edwardian era, but generally stops at the beginning of World War I, because the war accelerates the rise of diesel power. Steampunk doesn't have to have steam either. It can have clockwork or a made up power source, but the technology is of an equivalent level.

People are always pointing to something historical and calling it steampunk, like an antique car. Steampunk doesn't mean old. The object in question isn't science fiction or fantasy. It actually existed and was used. It isn't steam powered. To them it looks "steampunk", but that's where a real definition comes in handy.

So simply put steampunk is Victorian science fiction/fantasy. Just because it has a definition doesn't mean there isn't room for creativity. You and I can envision steampunk a lot differently but still agree that it's steampunk.

2. "Steampunk must have "punk" in it."

When most people hear the word "punk", they think of punk rock music and the punk scene; raucous music, Sid and Nancy, leather jackets and mohawks. Steampunk was coined as a play on words based on "cyberpunk" which was a popular genre of science fiction at the time. Cyberpunk does have some connection to punk rock and it's subculture, but the genre of steampunk does not. Not in the literal sense that some people aim for. There is absolutely no need for safety pins, plaid, or mohawks in steampunk. Well, you can certainly incorporate plaid and mohawks into your steampunk look if you want to, but what I'm saying is that they aren't an essential element.

I feel that the "punk" in steampunk refers to the way the author changes history. It's the "what if" or make believe in steampunk. Steampunk is often counter culture and rebellious. Almost all science fiction/fantasy is on the fringes of society. Its characters are explorers, rebels and quite often societal outsiders. It pushes boundaries and explores human interfaces. It's the same with steampunk.

3. "Victorian re-creation is all you need."

Dressing in strictly Victorian re-creation is like dressing as a muggle from a Harry Potter book. While it is a good base, it doesn't really qualify as steampunk. Someone looking at you wouldn't see it as a steampunk outfit. You really need at least a small amount of gear, gadgetry or anachronism to make the look steampunk. You need an addition to the outfit that brings it away from simply historical re-enactment.

For more on this take a look at one of my other lenses: http://www.squidoo.com/dressingsteampunk

4. "You must make it all yourself."

There are those who will sneer if you don't make your own props, but not everyone has the skills, time or desire to make everything from scratch. If you can make your own things, that is fantastic. While we applaud the efforts of those in the community who do make things, these individuals generally need people to purchase their wares. If not, they will very likely not be able to continue being creative.

Most of us will simply ask you where you got that particular widget or jacket so that we can go and buy one as well.

5. "Well, MY gear all works!"

Oh really? Your science fiction based apparatus actually disrupts matter?! You have a working time machine?! I call shenanigans. People who feel that if the gears don't turn or the lights don't blink, your gadget isn't good enough, need to get over themselves. There are many different levels of bodgery (a bodger is a person who makes things in steampunk speak.) Sure, a more sophisticated gadget is cool, but creativity comes in many different shapes and styles just like people who create. Don't feel that you shouldn't try to be creative just because someone else is doing it better. Everyone has to start somewhere. Not everyone will be able to make the thingamajig go whir, but that doesn't make that thingamajig any less worthy.

6. "If it isn't metal, it's crap!"

This is another variation on the argument above, but there are people who will tell you that your prop is inferior because it's made of plastic and not brass or copper. Let me tell you, the brass is very nice, but I really can't afford their gadgets. I can make my own plastic props, so I do. I get satisfaction from it. From a short distance or in a photograph, the difference is hardly noticeable. And best of all, at the end of the day, my arm doesn't ache from hoisting forty pounds of metal around.

7. "Don't wear goggles!"

Sure, goggles are everywhere. They have become a symbol for steampunk, although there are others who wear goggles so it isn't a definitive sign. Wearing goggles on your hat has become a trademark of steampunk, like our not so secret handshake. We love our goggles.

Can you have steampunk without goggles? Absolutely. Should you avoid goggles? Well, take some time to think if you would be wearing goggles with this particular look. Even if you are fairly well dressed, perhaps you just flew in on an ornithopter and needed the eye protection for instance.

The goggles should be era appropriate. Cup type welding goggles work best. Single lenses look much too modern. Swim goggles are right out. Be warned, just adding goggles to ren fair garb or a pirate outfit doesn't make it steampunk; it's still the wrong era unless you are a lost time traveler. Also, just because post apocalypse looks often have goggles doesn't make them steampunk either.

And a bonus one: "Steampunks take themselves very seriously."

The other day I read a response to some criticism of steampunk and the commenter said "...if steampunks want to be taken seriously..." Ha! I don't know any steampunks that take it all that seriously. It's a fairly fun and lighthearted endeavor in truth. Octopus bustles? Balloon airship races? Do these sound serious to you? It's escapism. Fantasy. We don't expect anyone to take us seriously, because we certainly don't.

The point is to have fun. I think that is why so many people are attracted to steampunk. Sure, you can do tons of historical research and have all the details completely correct, but it's "alternate history"! I coined the term "Steampunk needs historical accuracy like a dirigible needs a goldfish" to point out that it isn't necessary. It's "what if" and make believe. Have fun with it.

So, we've called shenanigans on some misconceptions.

These are just some observations that I have made over the past few years of being in the steampunk community. I am not saying that I have all the answers, but I hope that I helped provoke some thought. I hope that they help you understand steampunk a little bit. Mostly, I hope that you will join us for a cuppa tea and a balloon airship race.


I hope this cleared a few things up. Let me know if you got a bit braver after reading this.

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    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Love it... well spoke... fun is the key and escape is the key or why the hell do it!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I really liked reading this. Though, I would argue that Steampunk has now evolved beyond the pages of fiction into a fully-fledged aesthetic and that the "punk" of Steampunk inherently lies in the highly individualistic mangling of Victorian tropes. But really, it's all about having a silly time and looking good while doing it, right?

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Oooh! I love your article! Thank you so much. I've been painting Steampunk pin-up girls and portraits (www.jessicavanhulle.com) for about 3 years. I have seen huge expansion of the community, which is great, but I too have seen what I call "elitist subculture attitude" and also people who don't care at all about Steampunk, but who just want to make money on a "trend." Your article is very helpful for describing and defining SP, while remaining welcoming and open minded.

      Thanks again for a fun and educational experience, I'll send some readers your way.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Didn't need to get braver, been to both Steamcons and hang with the 'Rats at Chocolati most Monday nights... Nicely said! Bravo! I'm inclined to tell people that movies like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are Steampunk-ish... they give you the feel, even if there IS a car and, sorry, no balloon airship races...

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      Noellehardy 6 years ago

      Pasty people in corsets with brass guns belts - they don't call it the "Empire on which the sun never sets' for a reason. I would also feel free to include "others" who were not British (UK) in the mix who assimilated to Victorian culture. Steampunk for all!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      The only one I disagree with is the first one, and I only disagree slightly. Yes, there need to be some boundaries in order for a subculture to have meaning. That said, one of the things I love so much about steampunk is that everything within those boundaries is open to interpretation. Unlike standard punk and goth, which have been around long enough to solidify into something almost as strict as popular fashion, steampunk is young enough that people can use their imagination and incorporate a wide variety of ideas into their work. Lots of people would probably scratch their heads if I told them that Torchwood was steampunk, but to me it is - and dozens of folks at Steamcon were eager to agree.

    • Diana Vick profile image
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      Diana Vick 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      @Noellehardy: It's an excellent point but not really on topic. I know a lot of folks who do multicultural steampunk. If you read my steampunk litmus test, I do say that the setting doesn't have to be London, like some folks like to insist.

    • Diana Vick profile image
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      Diana Vick 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      @anonymous: I prefer the comic book. The movie was a little too cheesy and the Nautilus versus the Venice canals was a bit ludicrous.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Loved the article - I can't think of anything I would take issue with. The bit about someone saying "If steampunks want to be taken seriously" made me laugh out loud - I'd say that's possibly the last thing we want! I enjoy my steampunk 'cos it is fun - I'd definitely take up something else if it became serious!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I agree with everything in this article and thank you for posting it, but don't like one little part of number one. You DID say Steam-powered or equivalent technologies are acceptable, and I appreciate that open-endedness, but the "steam" half of the name is as arbitrary as the "punk" half, both just a play on 'cyberpunk', so things need not necessarily be Steam-powered. My personal idea of Steampunk is a lot of Tesla technology not necessarily involving Steam, but if someone wants to take that more literally it's good, too!

    • UKGhostwriter profile image

      UKGhostwriter 6 years ago

      I like it

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I disagree to an extent with #5.....no, it's not necessary to have moving parts, but dear oh dear please make it look like they COULD. If you're just gluing down gears and levers at random, without any thought about how they mesh together, you're not paying homage to the age of machinery. Your laziness is disrespectful of the craftsmanship that went into the original parts, and this makes Chas Babbage's ghost very sad.

      Here's a fun resource -- 507 mechanisms, some of which are bizarrely wacky, but at least in theory would work in real life:

      http://www.archive.org/details/fivehundredseven00b...

      (Also available in paperback from the usual sources for Really Cheap)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Love the article. I've always described Steampunk to people as punked up Victorian and as an active member of the Victoriana Society of South Australia, I have a lot of garments to play with thank goodness. Will definitely steer friends to your article.

      Cheers

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      A very informative article and very clarifying. I particularly enjoyed the point about the Goggles, I have a picture of myself in 'gear' entitled "In the Library" and I was looking at it one day and wondered 'why am I wearing goggles in the library... with a Fez, am I expecting a Sandstorm while I read?" Then again, maybe it's a Potterian Library, where you really get to "Experience" the story and Goggles are necessary.

      Regardless, I enjoyed the article.

    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 6 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      Very helpful, thank you I am interested in creating some steampunk craft projects and I am researching what was (to me) an unknown genre until a few days ago.

    • profile image

      dpettigrew 6 years ago

      Need to try to incorporate steampunk into paintball. With the non-conformist look most of us devise, this shouldn't be a problem. And a heck of a lot of fun. Great site.

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 5 years ago from New York

      positively fearless :-)

      Blessed on the Squid Angels Epic Back To School Bus Trip Quest. Your lens will be featured on âWing-ing it on Squidoo,â our lensography of some of the best Squidoo has to offer, as soon as the quest has been completed.

    • DuCiel LM profile image

      DuCiel LM 5 years ago

      And here I find the answer to a question I left on your other lens. I'm glad to see something like this out there, as you said "steampunk is anything" isn't much of a jumping off point.

    • agoofyidea profile image

      agoofyidea 5 years ago

      Great lens. Steampunk shouldn't be hard, it should be fun. Great lens.

    • profile image

      agent009 5 years ago

      This is an interesting subculture, I like how some people have made modern products with steampunk as a theme.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Well said.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Good on you my friend! ~ Dr Brassy

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      You did a great job! Thanks for the insight and point of view.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Thank you so much on all you posts about Steampunk you made me understand it much better. I plan to visit a convention some time in the year :)

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      BeardedDalek 22 months ago

      Whil I agree with most of this, I disagree about the swim goggles. I frequently see them used well, not significantly distinguishable from alternative bases. Of course, you cannot leave it in modern neon colors, but that is true of anything. The forward tapered style is less functional (limiting peripheral vision), but it still suits the purpose attributed to goggles in steampunk, and there are even similarly shaped riding goggles from the industrial era steampunk is inspired from.

      @Noellehardy - I have also seen several that assumed peaceful trade or a reversal of historical losses bringing steam into their non-European culture.

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