WHAT IS STEAMPUNK?

I find it a fascinating exercise in personal taste to have something you’ve always liked in a certain way fully defined. For example, I never knew I was a vampire snob until someone wanted me to watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer series. Despite their various points on why the show was great (including excellent arguments on the quality of the writing), I just couldn’t get into it…because I like my vampires as horrific, supernatural beings, where you lose a little of your sanity when you encounter one (you can tell I really like Cthulhu, right?)…and the genre twist of angst-ridden High School vampires I just couldn’t accept…something that apparently I’ve no issues with when it comes to cowboys in space because I can’t get enough of Firefly.

So how does this apply to steampunk? Well, I’ve always loved the aesthetic, I just didn’t have name for it. From the moment I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds 20+ years ago sitting in Scott’s house with Tony, Chad and some other friends, I knew whatever ‘that’ aesthetic was, I loved it!

Fast forward two decades and the term “steampunk” had been coined and risen enough in popularity that I had a name to apply to one of my varied “tastes.” And of course as I began working on Leviathans three years ago, I delved into the background and development of steampunk heavily, both to understand its history so I could convey it appropriately, but also to best comprehend how Leviathans fit into that aesthetic.

But that brings us back to what steampunk actually is, right? Many of you reading this will obviously be answering this already…but there’s still plenty of people just now finding this wonderful aesthetic and are interested in Leviathans, so I thought it worthwhile to dig in to provide a little bit of context.

At its core, steampunk is a subgenre of fantasy literature that includes technology powered by archaic methods (often, but not exclusively, steam) and an emphasis on hand-crafted, individually produced mechanical artifacts.

The actual application of steampunk in a medium (clothing, movies, games, literature and more) is wildly divergent. The roots of this genre revolve around the Victorian/Edwardian time frame; today’s technology seen through the eyes of the late 1800s/early 1900s, a time when science embraced the hope of the future.

The golden century of science fiction (the mid-20th century) promised awesome technological gadgets and the hope of a better tomorrow with less human misery and more triumph. Yet while today’s world has brought much of that technology into reality, the hope has vanished as our tomorrows look even darker than our today. Steampunk celebrates the concept of turning back the wheel, yet retaining the technology we love…of figuring out what went wrong and then doing it right.

In addition, the rising, broad appeal of steampunk is that it can be adapted to a variety of styles, from alternate history settings depicting “the future that might have been” of a 1900s golden age, to the dark, gritty 1960s-based Bioshock that mixes in a hefty dollop of the bleak dystopian view usually reserved for cyperpunk.

All of this has given rise to a host of “sub-subgenre” names that try and provide better frames of reference for where a particular setting/style might fall: gaslamp fantasy, weird west, dieselpunk, clockpunk, steamgoth, and so on.

In other words, I believe no single definition covers steampunk anymore; instead, it is a collage of concepts and ideas, even if the core remains the same. This type of “mix it and make it yours” mentality fits flawlessly with the “now” generation’s YouTube and iTunes mindset of taking what someone else has created and bringing your own desires to the table as you find what you like in it (the very reason we made the decision to release Leviathans under Creative Commons).

So if it’s so varied, how do you tell if it’s “steampunk?” I think you have to fall back to the old saying, “How do you tell art from pornography? I can’t define it for you, but when I see it, I know what it is.” Despite its huge variances, when you see certain aesthetics mixed in, you just know.

The following are just a sampling of movies/TVs/computer games you may have seen/played/heard of, all of which have some aspects that makes them fall into “yeah, that’s steampunk”, as I see it:

    Movies/TV: Howl’s Moving Castle, The Prestige, The Golden Compass, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, 9, War of the Worlds: Goliath, Warhouse 13

    Computer Games: Space: 1889, Final Fantasy IX (many in the series carried the aesthetic, but it’s most prevalent here), Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, Bioshock, Arcanum; even World of Warcraft has a touch of steampunk.

How does all of this fit into Leviathans? Only a few years ago most people would’ve used “Edwardian Science Fiction” to define the aesthetics of Leviathans at a glance. Now, however, I believe the term “steampunk” has become the de-facto nomenclature that most people are going to understand and so instead of trying to push Leviathans down into one of those sub-subgenres, we simply describe it as “alternate history/steampunk” and leave you, the fans, to embrace it in whatever way you’ll enjoy the most.

See ya next duty shift!

Randall

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