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A Steampunk Society

July 21, 2010

So, writer Juanita McConnachie (alias Writer’s Block NZ) sent me an interesting question last week:

I was wondering if I could pick your brains on steampunk… Do you know if a ‘steampunk’ society would have any particular values?

Frankly, I was intrigued by the question.  I’m not really sure I’ve seen something like this addressed anywhere before.  On the contrary, I’ve seen some work out there that has refuted the idea that steampunk can inherrently be tied to any specific values or themes at all.  But, I thought a full and fair answer to that question requires a little bit of thinking about the history and development of the steampunk genre, and an identification of what it is.

First of all, Steampunk has been described by people smarter than I in the subject not as a genre but as an “aesthetic” (see: “Steampunk Scholar“).  I’ve even seen the steampunk aesthetic described as “goth discovers brown“.  The idea behind defining it thus is that you can skin the steampunk look on something from virtually any other genre – fantasy or sci fi and beyond – and describe the result as “steampunk”.  This is a half-truth, though, because you can skin the components of advanced technology and space exploration over anything and call it sci-fi or of magic and pointy-eared humans over anything and call it fantasy.  But the thrust of this argument is that a proper “genre” of fiction touches on certain consistent and discernable thematic elements.
 
Regardless, what we characterize as steampunk tends to adhere to Victorian-era aesthetic sensibilities, and describes the “future” as it then may have appeared.  (Steampunk has also had the alternate label of “neo-victorianism“, a label which adheres more strictly to the “aesthetic” argument, since neo-victorianism is purely a commentary on the victorian aesthetic and not on plot or theme or story elements at all.)  So in seeking to understand the culture and mores of a steampunk society, one good place to start would be in understanding the culture and mores of Victorian England.  So, we might describe such a society as comparatively conservative (compared to our time) but newly liberal for its own time.  It was largely publicly optimistic, but one in which a lot of the dark undercurrents were swept under the rug and kept from polite society.  So it’s one of political and social upheaval – which means a society in which morals and values are in flux.  This naturally suggests conflicts between the more conservative and the more liberal parts of this society.  The dark undercurrents I mentioned are likely related to the rapid urbanization of society (and the attendant poverty) made possible by the new technologies.  So, if you’re writing a story that occurs during a steampunk era, one question you’ll have to consider for your steampunk-inspired society is the degree to which technology is changing, because that will be directly reflected in the degree to which societal mores, norms, and values are changing.
 
Another approach to the question of steampunk values is to consider the source of steampunk as a genre-evolution.  The name was obviously borrowed from the “cyberpunk” genre, which itself was amalgamated from “cyber” referring to the encroachment of technology into the personal space (wearable technology, technological amplification of or replacement of humanity, VR, the web, etc.) married with the ideals of the “punk” movement of the 1970s and 80s.  The “punk” moral system was largely about fighting against large, powerful and entrenched interests and defending the interests of the poor, the dispossessed, and the cast-offs of society.  Punk is often characterized by anger, by a sense of despair, and a yearning or wanting for something better, for justice or equality, from a place where true justice and equality seems impossible.  Punk values and sensibilities may run a large gamut, but they are largely the ideals of the disenfranchised, which naturally implies a society that differentiates the enfranchised and the disenfranchised – the haves and the have-nots.
 
So, while cyberpunk tells stories from the point-of-view of the have-nots (or the soon-to-be have-nots) of society and various social outcasts and misfits in a world where technology and corporate interests have run rampant, and humanity is expendable and replaceable by corporate-owned technology, the steampunk genre is largely a reflection of this genre from the context or point-of-view of the developments of the Victorian era: rapid industrialization of the Industrial Revolution, Steam technology, mass exploitation of the impoverished, and so on.  It should come as little surprise, then, that one of the most famous and celebrated real-world author of the real-world steampunk era was Charles Dickens.  And those “punk” ideals mentioned earlier are very much at the heart-and-soul of Dickens’s work.  (Two other great authors, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, are more frequently cited as inspriations for the Steampunk genre, but the latter actually wrote in a slightly later era – namely the Edwardian era, which is sometimes also linked to Steampunk, and the World Wars period, which author Scott Westerfeld successfully links to the steampunk genre in his recent novel Leviathan.  Nevertheless, the work of these two writers were definitely a major source of retroactive inspiration for the modern steampunk genre.)

So… my analysis of the question of values in a steampunk-based society boils down to this: a steampunk society is one of social stratification in which powerful and conservative, moneyed-interests (the Ebenezer Scrooges of society) exploit the advances in technology and urbanization to enhance their own wealth, at the expense of the less-wealthy parts of society.  This is a society in tension: one in which various influences are working to enhance the status of the poor, to liberalize the society’s values, and to spread the welfare of technological advances to all, but in which these forces come into direct conflict with those who are best able to take advantage of those advances.  Answering this question comes down to deciding which of these two primary interest groups holds the most sway over society – and analyzing what ideas and ideals would benefit the interests of each of these groups.

Ultimately, I believe, what characterizes Steampunk as a genre and differentiates it from the Cyberpunk source material, more than the level of technology apparent in the former versus the latter, is that Steampunk is more optimistic than Cyberpunk.  Both deal with the same themes of social disorder and technological change, but whereas Cyberpunk is ultimately dystopian and pessimistic about the future, Steampunk posits the belief that mankind can overcome these problems and achieve higher ideals.  Steampunk relishes in the idea that technology can make things better.

And, ultimately, Steampunk does this with style.  It looks good while overthrowing the old social order!

Happy Writing.

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 2:36 pm

    I love this article! I love the question! I will narrow my thoughts in a nutshell or I could write a book to add to this message only :) Gothic Punk love anything that celebrates death. I said I would put it in a nut shell….So Steampunk loves machines or technology of machines robots, etc. Both at the surface seem cool or OK. Wrong! If you really see the depths of meanings both are inspired fashions to symbolize something deeper and obscure and transmits these messages through symbols since most young people will love it without understanding the meanings or intentions of this “Memetic” they have achieve their goals to pass it as just fashions in society specially in youth. So, the symbols heavily represent in most cases symbols used in the Illuminati or NWO such as the only one seeing eye which does not represent GOD but that we are blind and see only half truths and this the eye of Horus Pagan God. This elite group and sometimes masons 33 degree are told who they worship Lucifer or Baphomet only in the 33 degree some are told and some are not told at the end the ones who are told that their Lord is Lucifer they get invited usually to join the Illuminati. Summary Steampunk loves to dehumanize the humans and use mixtures of machine style with Illuminati symbols such as their jewelry. I know it sounds wacho to the average folk but once you do research I pray the the Lord jehovah to his mercy and love open your eyes to see beyond with your two eyes. Check this out! Vigilant Citizen what he says about Christina a perfect use of steampunk dehumanization. http://vigilantcitizen.com/?p=3825

    • July 21, 2010 2:55 pm

      Hey M,

      Thanks for commenting, but I’m not so sure that site has anything to do with “steampunk” per se. Steampunk is a genre of fiction where stories take place in a place and time that’s getting it’s first dose of the “industrial revolution” that occurred in the real world during from the early 1800s and early 1900s. (The “steampunk” period roughly corresponds to the “Victorian era”, or more broadly to the periods between the 1810s and the 1910s.) So Steampunk has more to do with the technology of the past (steam engines, trains, dirigibles, etc.) than the technology of the present or future (robots, etc.)

      Inherrent in the genre, I think, is a natural tension between industrial technology (as exemplified by the ubiquity of the steam-powered engine in Steampunk stories) and the value of humanity – which is the tension I describe in my post. But whereas the more modern punk movement (if anything from the 70s and 80s can still be called modern) was pessimistic, I really think that steampunk as a genre of fiction is ultimately optimistic. A steampunk world is one which, ultimately, believes that humanity will win out in the end.

      Of course, any genre of fiction can have its common themes and tropes subverted – that’s the nature of the game. But if someone writes a steampunk story that’s more pessimistic and dystopian, that’s his/her perogative. Still, I think the examples in our steampunk prototypes – Verne, Wells, Dickens, et al. – provide a very positive, human-centric guiding light for the genre today.

      • July 21, 2010 3:45 pm

        Yes, I agree the site has nothing to do with steampunk but the style Christina wears was my point the pictures in their article. I believe steampunk has a essence of dehumanization. Now, I like it when it doe not have the darker agenda per se. I love the goggles too. I love the colors and the old watches as jewelry. I try to look deeper into things and could not find pictures that were nice enough but the site has several machine like effects on the face of Christina Aguilera and it’s steampunk style! You are correct that style is very expensive. I don’t like the steampunk mixed with darker meaning symbols. Symbols meaning depends on the meaning a person gives it and I know that too. Yet for me if a group of people give evil meaning to a symbol, I will stay away from it once I find out and I will not wear it. This is my point. No matter the style, know what you wear. Gang members sometimes even kill innocent people not related to gangs at all just because a person wears their enemies color or symbols. Dumb but it happens. Some jewelry examples for example I do not like the machines around the cross…but some things are cool

      • July 21, 2010 4:06 pm

        I think I see your point, now. But I’m slightly less ambivalent than you about the use of symbols. We infuse symbols with meaning by our own action. If we treat a symbol with fear, it becomes something to be feared. If we treat it as a source of joy and revel, it becomes such. The only real problem comes when there’s dissonance between the way one group uses a symbol and another group uses a symbol (and then those two groups come into conflict). Your gang example illustrates that point.

        On the other hand, I don’t think we’re at a stage in the game, with regard to steampunk aesthetics, where it represents anything overtly or powerfully symbolic to anyone, yet, except the notion of steampunk as a genre and a medium of self-expression. Most people who are into steampunk as a fashion aesthetic are typically already into either fantasy or science fiction as a story-telling genre already. That’s in part because, although the genre has definable roots in speculative fiction, there hasn’t yet been a full exploration of those roots within the medium itself. Although it’s been around for several years, now, as a genre of fiction it’s still relatively young and new.

      • July 21, 2010 4:14 pm

        P.S. Yes… some of the things in that video are very cool. :)

  2. July 21, 2010 2:51 pm

    Style it certainly has in spades. I think that’s partially why it is becoming so popular. Steampunk worlds are at once reminiscent of the past, but are still new and different. Good points in your article above! I don’t think I can add anything more.

    • July 21, 2010 2:57 pm

      If I could wear aviator goggles everywhere, I would!

      Except to the renn fest. (Which I’ve never actually been to.) Then it’s doublets for me! (As if I could afford that stuff… those cool costumes are expensive.)

      • July 21, 2010 3:17 pm

        What an exhaustive discussion of Steam Punk! You did great!!!

        I think you should wear aviator goggles, T.S. should use a parasol, and I’ll strap a gauge-covered rocket to my back and wear a leather vest. We’ll start a trend. Ha ha. :-)

      • July 21, 2010 3:26 pm

        Man I wish. Where am I gonna get a pair of aviator goggles at this hour?

      • July 21, 2010 3:25 pm

        Yeah I looked into costumes, and whew! The good stuff is not cheap. You know though I think we were beat to the trend. My friend posted this stuff up on her blog. There was a steampunk convention just blocks from my apartment and I had no idea!

      • July 21, 2010 3:28 pm

        Yeah… we’d be johnny-come-latelies in all honesty. One of the webcomics I read regularly is a steampunk comic, and the notes frequently mention some steampunk conventions.

        Reminds me… in the near-ish future I need to do a post on webcomics. I lurve me some webcomics.

      • July 21, 2010 3:31 pm

        Doncha hate it when people think of all the good stuff before you?

        Well, I suppose a rocket would be kind of tedious in the summer anyhow…unless it had a timed mechanism that blew cold steam on me every fifteen seconds…that would be pretty cool, huh?

        That’s just awful T.S.! :-(

      • July 21, 2010 3:35 pm

        Cold steam?

        LOL.

      • July 21, 2010 3:40 pm

        Sure! The modern wonders of technology are…modern wonders.

        I think you could make cold steam with supersonic pulses, or something. ?

      • July 21, 2010 3:41 pm

        Bam! It’s like the future all over again.

      • July 23, 2010 12:27 am

        I’ve got a number of friends who make their RenFaire (ok, I made my RenFaire costume by hand; or at least helped in it’s construction) and Steampunk outfits; it drops the price to the price of fabric. (Victorian ballgowns are still very expensive for women, but that’s because of all the fabric in them + the corset.)

      • July 23, 2010 8:39 am

        Of course, that depends on having the skill to make these outfits by hand – not all of us are gifted seamsters/seamstresses.

  3. July 21, 2010 4:09 pm

    Firstly, thanks for answering my steampunk question Stephen (and then all the subsequent ones I had in relation to my novel!) – it was great to get an opinion on the matter and its given me a ton of ideas that I am busy implementing. This article is extremely in depth and hugely informative. Secondly, and more randomly, I made my own steampunk ring hehe: http://yfrog.com/3qrehjj

    • July 21, 2010 4:17 pm

      No problem. It was cool because it allowed me to do some research and do a great write-up for my site. I haven’t done a “Genre Critique” article on my site in ages… so it was good to get back to that theme.

      Also… Cool ring. That’s part of what makes all the steampunk accessories so expensive to buy: it’s all DIY, hand-made stuff, and you gotta pay for that sort of special attention.

      It’s ironic, maybe, that fashions representing a genre that is about the tension between industrialization and humanity is all hand-made instead of machine-made.

    • July 21, 2010 4:17 pm

      Also, good luck working on/revising your novel. Keep us posted on its progress!

  4. July 22, 2010 3:05 pm

    I don’t have a lot of background in this genre (aside from having read a little Dickens) so you’ve given me a great deal of food for thought. I may have to do a little further investigating to see if I can get my hands a book or two.

    • July 22, 2010 3:47 pm

      Well, I hope you can find something in the genre that you enjoy. Besides Dickens, of course, there are classic authors H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. For more modern bits of steampunk fiction, there’s Mainspring by Jay Lake, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, to name a few. I haven’t read any of those, as yet, so cannot attest to their quality – but they’re all on my reading list.

    • July 22, 2010 3:56 pm

      I should also point out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a possible example of some classic fiction that can serve, via modern interpolation, as proto-Steampunk. Both his Sherlock Holmes and his Professor Challenger books. Good reads, all.

  5. July 23, 2010 12:28 am

    I don’t think it ever clicked for me that cyberpunk was an overlap with the punk rock culture. This article rocked.

    • July 23, 2010 8:41 am

      Thanks!

      Yeah, you have to scratch a little deeper than the surface to get at some of these. The punk rock to cyberpunk connection wasn’t my own, though. I don’t know who first made these observations.

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