Steampunk, the repurposing of Victorian culture and technology for contemporary fun and profit, is so ubiquitous -- in media, books, fashion, music, cosplay, and maker culture -- that we tend to imagine its superficial aspects are all that define it. But there's more to the mode than is first apparent. Here are five overlooked aspects of this playful co-opting of all things nineteenth century -- some observations both broad and particular, public and personal -- that might serve to enlighten the average fan of the genre, whose familiarity could extend no further than brass goggles and leather corsets.
1. Technically and logically speaking, actual Victorian science fiction writers cannot be dubbed "steampunks." Although they utilized many of the same tropes and touchstones employed later by twenty-first-century writers of steampunk, in their contemporary hands these devices represented state-of-the-art speculation. Writers such as Kipling, Verne and Wells were the Arthur C. Clarkes of their era, not the Gail Carrigers (The Parasol Protectorate series), and possessed none of the ironic, retrospective, transformative touch of those who adopted and refashioned their Victorian toys into steampunk. Nonetheless, scholar and editor Mike Ashley has managed to assemble an anthology, Steampunk Prime, which reprints actual Victorian stories that bear an uncanny resemblance to the current product.
2. The term "steampunk" itself, now a badge of honor, began as a putdown, a joke. But like "Big Bang" in cosmology, the diss became the standard. At the height of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction, in the middle of the 1980s, when the trendy suffix "-punk" seemed in danger of overuse and dilution, noted writer K. W. Jeter speculated -- with a mild sneer, in a printed letter to Locus magazine from April 1987 -- that the next big thing would be "steampunk." But by casting a jaundiced eye backwards to the vital, imperishable roots of our current age, Jeter instead drew attention to a rich and resonant source of heroism, adventure, weird technology, odd beliefs and cool clothing that would help fuel science fiction's insatiable need for new themes, mannerisms and topics.
3. I began my own steampunk novella, Victoria, in June of 1988, a year after Jeter's letter appeared. Assembled with two others -- Hottentots and Walt and Emily -- as The Steampunk Trilogy, my book would become the first publication explicitly identified as steampunk, leading many to surmise incorrectly that I had invented the label.
My composition of Victoria was aided by blasting the Kinks song of the same title continuously through my headphones as I wrote. As one of the great proto-punk bands of the 1960s, the Kinks therefore rank high as unacknowledged forefathers of the steampunk genre. Of course, their 1968 concept album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, also represents a forerunner of this retro-sensibility.
4. Steampunk has always displayed a split personality. In the brilliant hands of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, who produced The Difference Engine (1990), it was a serious and hard-edged speculative tool used to analyze sociopolitical and industrial forces. But at roughly the same time, the early work of Tim Powers -- The Anubis Gates (1983) -- and James Blaylock -- The Digging Leviathan (1984) -- emphasized the fantastical, occult and gonzo apects of the genre. Today, the latter faction seems to predominate, rendering steampunk a sillier, more flighty and less utilitarian mode -- although a talented writer like Cherie Priest, with her Clockwork Century series, offers a fusion of both streams.
5. Alan Moore's superb graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and its sequels (never mention the horrid movie adaptation to any true fan!) certainly represent the extreme heights to which steampunk will go in its tendency to appropriate past fiction into itself. The mode is often a very winking, metafictional game. Along with favorite real-life historical figures such as Charles Dickens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain and Charles Babbage, Wells's Martians, for instance, have inhabited, on the same existential level, dozens of steampunk tales, as have Holmes and Moriarty, despite the disparate "realness" amongst such a crowd of invented and documented persons.
So copious are Moore's allusions and Easter eggs that scholar and critic Jess Nevins has produced volumes of annotations that chart Moore's encyclopedic mash-ups.
Additionally, Nevins has compiled The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, an essential sourcebook for any fan or writer interested in playing this vast and seemingly eternal Great Game dubbed steampunk.