Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Meaning of Steampunk

I was watching the eddies of conversation collide today on twitter, as you do, and I spotted a mini steampunk discussion. Given that I’ll be involved in a podcast on the subject this Saturday at Alt.Fiction, it caught my eye and now has me contemplating the actual meaning of the term “steampunk”.

            Adam Christopher (also podcasting on goggles and airships this weekend) mentioned that he couldn’t see how The Anubis Gates was a steampunk book, as there are no steam-based technologies in the story. In fact, the catalyst behind what is, quite frankly, a fantastic book is ancient Egyptian magic and time travel (also magical) that has nothing to do with Victorian steam-tech at all.

            This is a fair point. The reason it’s interesting to point this out with The Anubis Gates in particular is that Tim Powers is one of those mentioned in the famous letter to Locus magazine that coined the phrase in the first place.

…Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks", perhaps...

—K.W. Jeter


So if The Anubis Gates isn’t steampunk, then what is? What does it actually mean? Personally I like to think of the sub-genre as Historical Science Fantasy, but even that is a bit wobbly if we want it to cover TAG. Where is the science, really? This got me thinking though- do we really take the “steam” in steampunk to refer only to outlandish steam powered technology, such as Abraham Lincoln robots or flying machines? Or is steam actually a shorthand way of referring to a certain period of history, namely the Victorian era? (Whether or not we uproot that era and place it elsewhere, I think that’s really the heart of the genre). In other words, is steam actually just referring to the time of the industrial revolution, regardless of how much unlikely tech you’ve got in your Victorian Fantasy?


I’d love to know what you all think! So put on your best automated top hat, fire up the steampowered abacus and tell me what you think the term steampunk actually means.

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