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Steampunk: An Overview

Posted August 26, 2009 to photo album "Steampunk: An Overview"

In anticipation of the release of Shane Acker’s steampunk-influenced animation 9, Jeff Vandermeer presents a primer on the fantasy subgenre.

Slide 1: An Introduction
Slide 2: Jules Verne
Slide 3: The American "Edisonade"
Slide 4: The Rise of Modern Steampunk
Slide 5: The Role of
Slide 6: The Aesthetic Influence on Movies
Slide 7: The Role of DIY Fashion
Slide 8: Steampunk Art
Slide 9: Reimagining Technology Through the Maker Movement
Slide 10: The Future of Steampunk
Slide 5: The Role of

Slide 5: The Role of "Victoriana Technology"

The Steampunk love for outdated and “baroque” technologies tends to focus on the real and fanciful evolution of “big concepts” like airships and robots. By 1987, however, very real technological extrapolations envisioned for better or worse by Verne and in the gung-ho Edisonades had mostly come to naught. (For example, the Hindenberg disaster that killed the dirigible as a viable competitor to the airplane.)  Thus, this fixation on the machines of yesteryear means that modern Steampunk fiction always runs the risk of descending into irrelevance. The tension between the real and the unreal has created works with a sense of irony and loss, but it’s also created works that operate by way of nostalgia and that achieve their effects using Steampunk images without any accompanying “weight of the real” behind them.

As Michael Moorcock says, once Steampunk was named, “I was shocked when the tools I'd selected to tell [my Nomads of the Air stories] were taken up by many others merely (in my view) to tell cool adventure stories where airships buzzed about the skies and had big fights and stuff in a world, say, where World War II was still being fought or whatever. The very nostalgia I had attacked was celebrated!” 

By contrast, the most vibrant parts of the Steampunk subculture—which remains somewhat apart from the literature—tend to use this type of extrapolation about technology as a necessary antidote to the seamless, unattainable technology of modern times, in which none of us can fix our own cars, for example. One aspect of steam technology that makes it of interest, then, is that it seems less inscrutable—you can see how it works, down to the gears and spouts and widgets.

As Steampunk has spread into different media and different contexts than fiction, it has correspondingly changed in texture and in intent. However, it has always retained a fascination with Victorian-era technology.