Today is a day for musing. 12 hours at work, running day camp and walking dogs and home to my husband and the cats I sit wondering why it is we are drawn to Steampunk. When you read discussions about Steampunk, especially from non-Steampunk people, you see at first a certainty of its briefness, and now bafflement in its longevity and growth. Why is that shocking I wonder. The other thing I see is a complaint that it is poorly defined. Genres and sub-genres are rarely defined, specified, structured and then developed – they just happen and grow. Natural growth is what creates a genre and what keeps it alive and thriving through time. It is an oddity of human nature I think to want to define, categorize, and label everything.
This seems one of the very things Steampunk is rebelling against – the strict categorization of life, science, religion, people, and culture. When those in Steampunk fight this, they could be leading themselves into a frustrating pattern. Does this mean there are no boundaries? Of course not, but it is a concept, a theme, a style, a need, a creativity that by its nature reaches into several other genres at least.
What I see is that Steampunk, by its very nature cannot be a sub-genre, it reaches into too many genres even without leaving the written and cinematic focus.
Cyberpunk is strong and clear but it doesn’t have the potential reach and longevity of Steampunk for several reasons. One, it is based in present and future. Present issues and technologies are not as well known, not universally relatable or understood, not pervasive, and not connected to an emotional part of people. Future is nebulous and potential not universally agreed upon or accepted. On the other hand, Steampunk has its core in a period known very well and deeply connected to cultures around the world by the very nature of what went on in that time. Key terms like Victorian evoke immediate imagery, feelings, and thoughts in everyone even if they are widely varied. This is another reason it will remain varied and branching in styles and focus. Two, the basis of what might have been is very different and emotional to people than what is going on or where we are going shown in darkness. Don’t get me wrong, I love Cyberpunk in every form I have dealt with it, but sentiment of what might have been or what could have been is natural to most people. In their personal lives or families people often speculate on that very thing, thus drawing on a strong natural sentiment anyway, Steampunk has a good chance of touching them if they give it half a chance. Three, simple aesthetic appeal cannot be ignored. Cyberpunk has a strong, deep impact and visual strength; but it is not a universal appeal. Steampunk on the other hand has elements to appeal to a hugely diverse audience. The materials, the style, the ethics, the creativity, the science, the culture, the mad-scientists, the history, the reality blended with wild fantasy these reach out and find their targets and touch minds, hearts, and imaginations.
Almost Victorian is really a better description than Victorian, and that is why it is appealing – the differences are just out enough to draw you in.
Individual achievement, individual ability, individual strength, individual rights, individual identities are all incredibly important in Steampunk. People in need of something will often find this appealing. People already holding these concepts as important are obviously going to see the appeal. Why are they important in Steampunk? Scientific development, scientific leaps, acts of heroism, and creative actions are done by individuals not committees. A person willing to step out of the boxes of others, and leap into an idea will risk more but has great potential. Risk is inherent to the point of almost being irrelevant in Steampunk – of course one willing to step out is under more risk, why discuss it. Some say Steampunk is hopeful and ignores the ills of society, but I do not agree, it simply focuses on those people acting, doing, changing, developing not on those destroying, wallowing, following, or changing from within the box. If you focus on society you are not focusing on Steampunk, you are using Steampunk in a fiction about society. Yes the dark reality is there, but what might have been? Besides, there is always people at every level of society, which ones have the materials or funds to actually build Steampunk devises in most periods the stories are set in? You cannot break the logic of the story to create a false focus. It is a what-if not what was or what is, just accept that and work within that and you could get a more realistic view of reality.