Steampunk is NOT Victorian Science Fiction

"One does not simply" meme
Boromir

This article is one of several that are an attempt to address the problems within the steampunk community. These problems are not the doing of steampunks who enjoy the culture, but of those who wish to only make profit from it.

It’s a common misconception that steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction. I fully believed this misconception until I discovered what I believe to be the truth. I believe this because it makes a lot more logical sense. This description of steampunk has been hidden under a veil of deceit by clever people who simply want to further their own career. It’s done by convincing you that their opinion of steampunk is the correct opinion and removing any that disagree.

It’s true that steampunk is based in the Victorian/Edwardian era when steam power was at it’s most prominent. However, a major difference between the Victorian era and steampunk – and certainly a difference that many people seem to have trouble getting to grips with – is that before 1987, steampunk didn’t exist. There may be steampunk styled films or novels or music before then, but as a name, it didn’t exist. It certainly didn’t exist in the Victorian era.

As steampunks, we all know that it’s a very real culture followed by millions of people around the world. Yet so many of us are blindly following a description of it without really questioning the source.

The reason this is happening is because if you search steampunk online it’s likely you’ll hit certain pages that have a certain way of making you perceive it. Because steampunk is such a free concept, it’s open to exploitation and that’s essentially what has happened.

What is steampunk if not Victorian Science Fiction?
The answer is so incredibly easy that I kicked myself when the penny dropped after reading some conversations online. Quite simply; steampunk is Victorian Inspired Science Fiction. It’s incredible that one word can make such a difference, but when you analyse those three words, it really does.

Once it’s understood where steampunk lies against Victorian Science Fiction, all the arguments on social media seem to be irrelevant. HG Wells and Jules Verne are superb authors. Their vision and creativity is laudable even today.

Let’s look at it from their viewpoint. Wells or Verne were sat in their study in the Victorian era thinking about what fantastical adventures, vehicles and inventions may happen in the future. They wrote about them and this is Victorian Science Fiction. That is to say, it’s Science Fiction written in the Victorian era by a Victorian author.

Steampunk is Science Fiction that has a Victorian theme such as steam powered vehicles or technology that hasn’t moved forward. Fashion may still be stuck in the 19th century. It is inevitably inspired by the great authors of the actual time and that’s why steampunk isn’t Victorian Science Fiction. That being said, you don’t have to stick to this ideal and more articles will cover this in the near future.

Like I mentioned before, steampunk has been exploited and because there are no rules, if someone says “This is my interpretation of steampunk” then no-one can disagree and quite right. However, your own interpretation of steampunk should remain just that, yet in some cases these personal interpretations have been published and forced upon people so much that it’s changed our perception of what it really is. By following someone else’s interpretation of steampunk, not only are you forging the culture into something else, you’re also not sticking to the punk element of the name. You’re essentially conforming and not thinking for yourself.

Why isn’t anyone allowed say what steampunk is or isn’t?
It’s not that anyone isn’t allowed to say something isn’t steampunk. It’s your right to say what you like. It’s important to bear in mind that if someone posts a picture of something they’ve created and we all popped up slating it for not being steampunk, you can hurt that person’s feelings. For all we know they could be new to steampunk and have spent what little money they have creating something from their head. Who are we to say it’s not what they say it is? It may be exactly what they had in mind, or it might even be incomplete.

“If someone builds something and does what they can with the materials and money they have, they should be commended and encouraged. Not brought down.”

I’ve seen a lot of people find steampunk because it’s all encompassing and they feel welcomed whereas they may normally be shunned. We’re a welcoming bunch and don’t judge people on their differences.

KW Jeter had already written Morlock Night in 1979 before releasing Infernal Devices in 1984. It was with this book that he coined the term “Steam Punk” in a note to Locus magazine in 1987. It’s important to keep that in mind that this didn’t happen in 1887, it was 100 years later. Interestingly, when people discuss the great steampunk authors, Jeter is rarely listed. In fact, in a recent internet meme, he was missed off completely and replaced with H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe. The latter actually being considered more part of the American Romantic Movement.

Steampunk isn’t Victorian Science Fiction and if you’re new to the culture then you need to keep this in mind. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be adding more to this topic and I welcome any input from readers who would like to say what steampunk means to them and whether you agree or disagree. Feel free to put across your point of view. After all, I’ve changed my mind once about how I view steampunk, there’s no reason why it can’t be done again.

This is a great article about steampunk books: Nine novels that defined steampunk

15 thoughts on “Steampunk is NOT Victorian Science Fiction

  1. Excellent article. I have been saying this on forums in discussions for a long time and most of the time i have been shunned. I look at the state of the UK Steampunk scene and I feel that many of the individuals and wouldbe businesses ride too much on the victorian thing. Down that historic costume reenactment route.

    Of course as you say each to their own. But the victorian mannerisms come with it and all this talk of British Empire etc which to be frank drives me bonkers. What about the other elements? What about the future from now. Phillip Reeves Mortal Engines and Toby Frosts Space Captain Smith to mention a few. What about modern tech and devices re packaged into the steampunk aesthetic like the work of Datamancer. It goes on.

    It may seem like a contradiction in terms when you tell this and preach the punk individualism and DIY ethics but at the end of the day, what you state in this article is an historic fact. And thats how generations of the future will see it.

  2. Well… a very interesting article though one I’ll disagree with quite a bit. Methinks you need to do some more sitting and thinking, good sir.

    Let us begin with “before 1987, steampunk didn’t exist.” Truly? So before a label is invented something can not exist?

    Ah, but before I progress I must also take umbrage with your statement “These problems are not the doing of steampunks who enjoy the culture, but of those who wish to only make profit from it.” As one who does not profit from Steampunk I find that there is as much or, perhaps, more argument about its definition from others who do not make coin on its back. Those who DO profit from it… merely do so. They write or draw, they craft or create… they make their offerings and people pay their money for it. It is that simple.

    And is it a culture or merely an aesthetic?

    Then you state ” there are no rules”. Again I must ask if you truly believe this for, if you do, then anything and everything may be steampunk in your view which leads to the inevitable argument concerning Dr. Who being Steampunk or similar.

    While I shall support your right to speak as you wish you do seem to be trying to convince people of your ‘truth’… and to that, good sir, I’m afraid I must say that this is just a whole fistful of confused poppycock.

    Oh, and as someone who lived through the punk years and was part of that subculture… you don’t seem to understand the ‘punk’ part of steampunk. I would refer you to offer that a little more thought and consideration.

    1. I didn’t expect everyone to agree so that’s perfectly ok for you to say that. I did quite clearly state that as a name steampunk didn’t exist before 1987 and it’s a poke at articles that say that Verne and Wells were steampunk authors. They were Victorian Science Fiction writers and steampunk is inspired from them. I also mentioned that I’m aware that films, books and the like were being released in the style.
      Sadly there are not just people who invent, create, sell, repeat. Some wish to change your perception of steampunk in order to sell there wares and that’s wrong.
      My article and the related work will only serve to help people who are new or in the dark. I feel Victorian Inspired Science Fiction is a much more logical description than Victorian Science Fiction and wish people to consider it.
      As for punk, please enlighten me. I was young during the punk period and have had to research it instead. I’ve based my reasoning on descriptions of what punk stands for such as the DIY element, anti establishment and non conformity among other traits. 🙂

  3. We have explained that Jeter coined the phrase Steampunk but that the fiction existed already HG and Verne etc.
    I’ve had people say nothing before Jeter because he said Steampunk first.
    I’ve had people say nothing before Jeter because he wrote of society rather than one off inventions.
    I’ve had people say nothing before Jeter because he wrote of our past as it developed after a certain point where Steam remained King and it had to be distopian.
    Now back to nothing before Jeter because he named SP so call it Victorian Sci-fi.
    I would say you name an era once an invention comes along! We called it the nuclear age when the first bomb was dropped, a first man in the moon or a time machine would be just such an important invention. Steampunk is popular, we run a group we don’t do it for profit we do it for fun, we encourage inclusion and support other subcultures and interests we like Dr Who, Sherlock Holmes and cosplay an include them in our events list and organized events. We also do Steampunk versions of display and DR Who.
    There seems to be an old school Steampunk that wish it to stay pure brass and newer Steampunks that what to include other interests. Let’s throw some Goth back in the mix too, support our Goth brethren as they have ‘had’ to accept the take over of their events, support them to come to ours.
    I found like many I had Steampunk interests when I found that all my favorite films and books were on the list. Should I now call myself a Victorian Science Fiction fan? Its more descriptive than Steampunk, and if Steampunk becomes a label that means ridgidity and stagnation then you can keep it.

  4. I’ve used “Victorian science fiction” a lot as a term simply to help people who are outside the fandom wrap their heads about a general neighborhood of ideas. They ask me, “What is steampunk in three words?” And that’s what I tell them. However, I always add the historical bit, that steampunk didn’t exist in Vernes/Welles’ day, and that steampunk as a modern movement encompasses attempts to do work inspired by these great authors and the era in which they lived. I like the addition of the word, “-Inspired” very much.

    That being said … I find that most discussions about not defining steampunk are … at some level … defining in and of themselves. By telling people that they shouldn’t be defining steampunk, we are in fact restricting their attempts to be steampunk and figure out a definition for themselves. If people ask me what steampunk is, I tell them what it is from my perspective–and I don’t apologize for that. Wouldn’t ask anyone else to, either.

  5. This post also has an interesting definition: neo-Victorian retro-futurism. http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/2010/05/defining-steampunk-as-aesthetic.html

    I like “Victorian inspired” too. I enjoy that there are some common ideas about the major elements of steampunk without anyone getting too picky about how you express or play with them.

    It could be argued that terms are coined *after* the creation of something new because we need to see it and understand it in order to give it a name… so maybe there was steampunk before 1987, but enough to form the critical mass that demanded a name for it. 🙂

    Thanks for your post – interesting thoughts!

  6. I think the easiest way to explain it is “alternative history”. It’s not Victorian inspired because that excludes the rest of the world. Just like people don’t look into the name, no one looks at the historical factors that make things “steampunk.” Looking at historical factors, this alternative history takes place from the 1750’s (when the steam engine came into existence) until before WWII when we as a civilization would inevitably (and did) shift to a new source of power. Victorian/Edwardian steampunk is a part of steampunk, but that excludes wild west steam, oriental steam, etc. It is not location based, it is time based. This is why alternative history is the best description.

  7. Conflating past futurists with modern retro-future is a common issue, and I disagree that Jules Verne and other Victorian science fiction authors are exempt from the “steampunk” category simply for predating it. Their audience and perspective were different, but their method, goal and result were the same, and they stand as archetypes that much of steampunk looks to. Tellingly, fans of steampunk tend to be fans of Victorian science fiction. That said, I agree with the sentiment you have. To me, it seems like book-ending the genre too much for it to be “punk”.

    One of the things that troubles me about steampunk-as-it-stands is that it is almost always “set” during the period it is supposed to be drawing from. Instead of diverging from history to build upon the era of steam, it rewrites the history of the era of steam to inject characters and situations. When I was originally drawn to the genre, my thought was that the aesthetic and technologies carried forward and culture became more ingenious with steam and brass rather than delving into steel and gasoline. I have yet to see anyone treat it as being 2015 when airships dominate the sky, instead of injecting them purely into 18XX.

  8. Conflating past futurists with modern retro-future is a common issue, and I disagree that Jules Verne and other Victorian science fiction authors are exempt from the “steampunk” category simply for predating it. Their audience and perspective were different, but their method, goal and result were the same, and they stand as archetypes that much of steampunk looks to. Tellingly, fans of steampunk tend to be fans of Victorian science fiction. That said, I agree with the sentiment you have. To me, it seems like book-ending the genre too much for it to be “punk”.

    One of the things that troubles me about steampunk-as-it-stands is that it is almost always “set” during the period it is supposed to be drawing from. Instead of diverging from history to build upon the era of steam, it rewrites the history of the era of steam to inject characters and situations. When I was originally drawn to the genre, my thought was that the aesthetic and technologies carried forward and culture became more ingenious with steam and brass rather than delving into steel and gasoline. I have yet to see anyone treat it as being 2015 when airships dominate the sky, instead of injecting them purely into 18XX.

  9. Nice article 🙂 On my site I like to review classic sci-fi as well as contemporary literature, and I post them all under the umbrella of “Steampunk Book Reviews”. I posted a review the other day for Journey to the Center of the Earth and got a comment telling me I was incorrect for including Verne in this series. This was a funny exercise in semantics, because what he read was “Steampunk Book” – Review, when what I was thinking was I am a person reviewing a book through a Steampunk lens, more like “Steampunk reviewing a book”. When I describe Steampunk to the unintiated, I always include the word “inspired” in regards to its relationship to Victorian Sci-fi. And when I write about classic sci-fi, I often include links and references to contemporary things that are clearly inspired by these particular books. This seems like an effective way to highlight the interchange between the past and how it is inspiring people in the present. I wrote an article awhile back looking at defining steampunk from an anthropological point of view as an act of identity-building, perhaps other people would interested in it as well, http://forwhomthegearturns.com/2014/04/22/making-it-to-the-party-early-does-not-make-it-your-party/

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