A Brief History of Steampunk

Steampunk is a movement in popular culture which has broken free of its dirigible moorings and crossed over into everything from film to music. Steampunk started as a sub-genre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. Although its literary origins are sometimes associated with the cyberpunk genre, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. However, steampunk and Neo-Victorian are different in that the Neo-Victorian movement does not extrapolate on technology and embraces the positive aspects of the Victorian era’s culture and philosophy – Kim Newman’s early Anno Dracula work, for example, roots itself in Victorian Britain and surrounds itself with notable characters from the era, but has them behaving in the manner of the time.


Steampunk most recognisably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Such technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or of the modern authors such as Philip Pullman. Other examples of steampunk contain alternative-history-style presentations of such technology as steam cannons, lighter-than-air airships, analogue computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.


The first known appearance of the term steampunk was in 1987, though it now retroactively refers to many works of fiction created as far back as the 1950s or 1960s. It can occasionally become entwined with other sub-genres, such as H.P.Lovecraft’s world of Old Ones and humans in peril. Steampunk has also come to refer to any of the artistic styles, clothing fashions, or subcultures that have developed from the aesthetics of steampunk fiction, Victorian-era fiction, art nouveau design, and films from the mid-20th century. The most recent entrant to this world has been music, the Steampunk Records label putting together an entire roster of bands who subscribe to the artistic ethics of the genre. As well as putting out albums of the bands, they have also performed concerts around the UK, seeing audiences attend the shows dressed, as the bands do, in suitably neo-Victorian style. As a movement, it succeeds largely as there are no boundaries relating to age or genre, the inclusivity and the fact that it is already deliberately slightly dated, meaning that it has a longevity that many movements which have been and gone have lacked.

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