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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Genre Talk: Letting Off Some Steampunk

Steampunk is something that not a lot of people are familiar with.  It's grown in notoriety over the past several years, but it's still kind of on the borders of social awareness.  There are a lot of things that have steampunk elements  but aren't really steampunk.  So let's start with breaking that word into its two main components.

NUMBER ONE: What's the "Steam"?

Steampunk, real steampunk, is a lot like cyberpunk.  Both deal heavily with the use or pursuit or discovery of some new technology.  In cyberpunk, it's something, well, cybernetic or in cyberspace or something like that.  Think Blade Runner by Ridley Scott or Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson.  Except in steampunk, it's steam-based technology or something similar.  There's a sub-genre of steampunk called "gaslamp fantasy" that focuses more on supernatural elements and less on tech, and was made to differentiate from steampunk.

So what's this look like in an actual steampunk story?  I'm going to be pointing to one of my all-time favorite steampunk books as an example: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.  In PSS, there's a professor named Isaac Grimnebulin, and through much of the book, he's pursuing a new energy source he refers to as "crisis energy," and how to harness this and make a sort of crisis engine to put it to use. This search leads into the main problem of the book that involves some very nasty critters I may have mentioned before.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson is all about Victorian Era Britain after Charles Babbage invents a mechanical computer.  The story follows several characters as they pursue computer punch cards, or pieces of technology.

The movie Steamboy revolves around the creation of and the pursuit to find and utilize a "steam sphere," a powerful source of energy.  Scientists and military men and spies are all after this piece of steam technology for their own ends.  

What so many current steampunk works forget is the technology.  They just slap gears on top hats and corsets and call it good.  Steampunk is becoming less of a specific sub-genre of sci-fi and fantasy and more of a catch-all term for an aesthetic.  I've heard people describe something as "Looking steampunky."  Which is fine when you're just applying the term to somebody in a costume or something, but it's sort of lame to do it for literature that doesn't really fit the criteria for a real steampunk story.

I realize that's kind of splitting hairs, but steampunk's a genre I like, and it's annoying to see something labeled as such when it isn't.

Next time we'll be look at the "Punk" half of this equation.