Steampunk (A Mini Manifesto)

: space and time travel, steam, Victorian sensibilities, and various other diverse rudiments melded into anachronistic combinations

: a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy literature emphasizing steam-powered and clockwork technology

: a past built from known history and what might have been to create a world that never was


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Steampunk—as a genre, aesthetic, fashion, lifestyle— is difficult to define. Perhaps this is because unlike other terms, it can be any and all of those listed items at once. It’s recognized by the popular image of top hats and goggles, Victorian dress accessorized with practicality (or impracticality just as often). But it is much more than this. Steampunk is a realm of explorers, artists, airship pilots, scientists (mad and sane), tinkers, librarians, dreamers…anything you can imagine.

Regardless if one falls more on the steam side (cogs, brass goggles, and sky pirates) or the punk side (activism, revolution against social norms, do-it-yourself mentality), the idea calls from the winding coasts of imagination and draws us into the jungles, deserts, volcanoes, and moors of adventure to confront obstacles, defend honor, discover courage, and build hope. Whether these ventures take place in one’s backyard or a conference meeting, found on city streets or the pages of a book, they are all important. Steampunk, though often set in a past that does not exist, is very much about the now we live in.

“But the Victorians!” you might say. “They were stiff and full of imperialism. What can we learn from them?”

As most any steampunk and historian will tell you, quite a bit. The Victorian era was and is much more than its reputation for stuffy manners and too much wardrobe. This was the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, a Silk Road bazaar of ideas and connections with new parts of the world. Like all history, there are warnings and lessons to take from this time, but the part that steampunk wishes to reclaim is the sense of wonder evoked by a time when science could be found by anyone with eyes to see it, discovery was for the curious, and creation for the dedicated mind.

People were motivated to build, to try, and to question without worrying if they were qualified to do so. They learned languages and culture. They took notes on what they saw and wrote books to share it with others. In this time, we find medical doctors pursuing meteorology, botanists recording ethnographies, and host of other combinations that might befuddle contemporary standards of an “expert.” This is where steampunk begins, you see—in combinations that provoke our curiosity and shake us from our expectations. Cogs and lace are merely the beginning.

Just as steampunk is not limited to Victorian England, we are not limited to one category, one interest, one favorite thing. We are thesauruses with a hundred facets to a single word used to describe us. We are hybrids, citizens of multiple worlds and more infinitely complex than simple explanations would have us believe. Steampunk is not the only way to see this. It is one of many lenses through which to view people, places, and time, but it is one particular lens that I choose to write with. Steampunk has multiple definitions, but as I write, looking at things through these brass goggles, I’m shaping my own idea of what it means. It is the chance to imagine and a place to reinvent attitudes towards each other. It is the opportunity to face each day with the knowledge that in whatever we face and whatever we do, we are creative, curious, and capable.

I’m curious to hear–what is steampunk to you?

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