Monday, March 21, 2011

We Are Steampunk

Despite the fact that Steampunk is nearly mainstream in SF circles and has even begun to creep into the mundane world, there is still a lot of confusion about the genre.  I hope to throw a little petrol onto the fire by over-answering the question.

Steampunk takes place in the Victorian Era, but with alternate history and alternate technology.  Imagine a world where Jules Verne actually invented his ideas, much like Edison or where the rules of thermodynamics were a lot more forgiving than they are here.  Image a galaxy where aether allowed you to span the gulfs of space in an Edgar Rice Burroughs flyer or that time travel was really possible or any of a million possibilities but set in the Victorian Era.
Private Pooh
Camel Gatling Gun with Airship
There is a lot of discussion about what is Steampunk and you won’t get exactly the same description from any two dedicated fans.  I found that the Wikipedia article on Steampunk that gives a good background about Steampunk’s evolution as a genre and its growth from a nameless movement as well as a nice early bibliography of Steampunk readings.

A little more exhaustive is the definition(s) from some excellent sites: The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles and are pretty well along with the many subtle variations of steampunkatude.

“Steampunk is a genre of fiction set somewhere in the 1800’s during the Victorian Era. The fictional part comes in that technology has gone a bit skewed - though the exact methods vary, generally steam-powered devices that would have been impossible or unfeasible at the time are found to exist. Examples include steam-robots, flying castles, under-water bases, moon rockets, time machines etc.”
On Campaign
Now that you are starting to get a grip on the genre, here comes the bucket of petrol on the bonfire with more definitions and subgenres from the same source:
Victorian Science Fiction - Steampunk by any other name, though possibly leaning more towards fiction actually written in Victorian era, as opposed to fiction retroactively set in Victorian times.
Gaslamp Fantasy - The Girl Genius equivalent of Steampunk, with more leeway for very tight bodices, slapstick comedy and non-humans.
Steampulp - Perhaps if I had the opportunity to rename Steampunk, it would be to Steampulp - the -punk suffix causes a lot of confusion amongst those who imagine it means strife and rebellion.
Fireside Science Fiction - A warm and cozy alternative name where decent Victorian gentlefolk may begin their adventure around a fireplace with a small brandy, but could end up on the moon or beyond!
Neo-Victoriania - A Japanese originated alternative where the aim is to recreate certain Victorian aspects of life using modern tools and ways. Elegant Gothic Lolita is a variety of Neo-Victoriania, and were this some kind of many limbed diagram, we’d be at our closest point to Gothic in Neo-Victoriania.
Wild/Weird West - Specifically focused on the American West in the 19th Century, and you’ll find cowboys and scientists alongside saloon girls and giant mechanical spiders.  Think Wild, Wild West TV series.
Voyages Extraordinaire - The title of the series of works of Jules Verne, when he decided to explore the wonders and potential of science and exploration in his tales of adventure. Now almost synonymous with Victorian adventures with a larger than life twist.
Scientific Romance - An early, mostly British, name for science fiction, that fell out of fashion, but was also used to describe Verne’s works. Now being used more for nostalgic Victorian based science fiction

Take into account that the actual Victorian era ran from 1837 to 1901, but most people seem to be more comfortable with the 1860s to the 1890s. I prefer to be more challenging and run games from the 1840s to the early 1870s. It requires more from both the GM and the players and gets them off the popular, generic Victorian paradigm. I also like games that are lighter on Steampunk gimmicks and longer on character resourcefulness and thought.

Although a number of games touched on the genre, the earliest Steampunk RPGs was Space 1889, which was published in 1988. Since then, a number of RPGs have covered the subject, generally to a greater or lesser degree.

The above video may give you a bit of a better idea about the philosophy and aesthetic of steampunk:  A classic animated Steampunk video from YouTube.
UPDATE:  This steampunk video was brought to my attention by a friend.  It pretty clearly explains (in barbershop quartet/rap) about the aesthetics of steampunk.  That’s not to say that there is complete consensus as to what constitutes steampunk and being an arbitrary collection of individuals, there is a lot of  discussion among the ranks.

UPDATE THE SECOND:  Sepiachord has published a "Steampunk Scholar's Must-Have Primary Texts" on their blog 9/27/2012 with a pretty good list of basic steampunk texts.  I highly recommend their music and their blog to persons interested in steampunk.

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