What is Steampunk?
The term "steampunk" originally referred to works set in the 19th-century Victorian period, particularly in London, where the beginnings of industrial society were sketched out. An American journalist, Douglas Fetherling, defined it as a genre that imagines "how different the past might have been if the future had arrived earlier", which is somewhat similar to the definition of uchrony. Nevertheless, Steampunk does not bother with scientific plausibility, and therefore does not need the so-called point of divergence that characterizes uchrony to exist.
Who invented Steampunk?
The term Steampunk was born in the 1980's as a joke, between three American authors, in reaction to the Cyberpunk then very popular at the time. Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W Jeters, young writers and former students of Victorian literature, often met to discuss literature in a restaurant and share their writings. They imagined a type of novel set in Victorian England with advanced technology. Inspired by the writers Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, they coined the word "Steampunk" by accident and mockery, and wrote the novels that started the genre: Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, K.W. Jeter's Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, and James Blaylock's Homonculus.
Why "Steam Punk?"
We can see the interest in the word steam, which refers to steam engines of the industrial revolution, but the word punk remains more mysterious: what could a punk do in the 19th century?
The origins: Cyberpunk
The term cyberpunk became popular in 1984. It is a genre at the crossroads of noir and science fiction. It is an urban, futuristic and dark genre. There are many fusions between the human body and machines; the film Blade Runner influenced the aesthetics by Ridley Scott (1982). The prefix cyber (from the term cyberpunk) comes from cyberspace: a virtual world in which the protagonist can project himself. The movie Matrix was strongly inspired by it. The punk of the word cyberpunk is a direct influence of punk musicians of the 1970s, since it is a revolt against society. Cyberpunk characters are generally in opposition to any form of oppression.
Don't be too serious!
Steampunk keeps punk, but it is more to underline with ironic humor that it is a subculture; it is far from having the same commitment as cyberpunk and its libertarian ideology. Steampunk is much less "serious" than Cyberpunk because of its humor, anachronisms, and colorful (sometimes grotesque) characters present in the books of the trio of authors we just mentioned.
"Gaslight romance", is sometimes considered as a synonym of Steampunk, but used exclusively to describe purely fantastic stories taking place in the Victorian era and having a dark and sub-romantic atmosphere.
The term "Steampunk" is not very well known, yet everyone knows how to recognize it.
Steampunk aesthetics represent a fantasized 19th century, particularly present in the collective imagination. Steampunk revisits the imagery of this era and, through an evocation of the past, manages to revive its atmosphere exaggeratedly. That's why when we discover a steampunk universe for the first time, we already have preconceived ideas, and we have no difficulty conceiving this world's logic, while remaining disoriented by technology. It is indeed a retro-futuristic aesthetic. Moreover, unlike science fiction, steampunk does not need to explain perfectly the technology used to make the reader dream. It often contains an element of mystery, like the inventions of Jules Verne.
Steampunk in pop culture
Steampunk has long since gone beyond the barriers of literature to touch other media such as comics, manga, movies, and games. It is an exceptionally visual genre that introduces a particular aesthetic into the story: cogs, steam engines, a mixture of time and technology. The singular graphic design does not fail to inspire artists and directors. In comics, the series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill is essential since it has all the steampunk mechanisms. However, the public is more familiar with the film adaptation by Stephen Norrigton (2003) with Sean Connery. Japan has also been affected by the steampunk wave. Hayao Miyazaki's animated films The Castle in the Sky (1986) and The Moving Castle (2004) have a strong steampunk aesthetic. Games inspired by steampunk are numerous, from video games like BioShock with a strong steampunk aesthetic, to role-playing games like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (a role-playing game for computer developed by Troika Games and published by Sierra since 2001). Regarding children's literature, we cannot avoid the excellent trilogy At the Crossroads of Worlds by Philip Pullman (1995 - 2000), part of which takes place in a parallel universe resembling our 19th century.
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