What is Steampunk ?
Steampunk is a literary genre, or least a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction or rebellion against parts of it (the punk).
The line between steampunk and period Victorian is narrow and smudged leaving much open to interpretation. In a nutshell it is the appropriation of futuristic technology, gizmos and gadgets assembled into elegant 19th century attire, but also encompasses retro-futuristic styling, technology, philosophy and scientific theory in literature, movies, lifestyle, home decor, recreation (conventions and roleplaying) and philosophical outlook. It’s all about mixing old and new: fusing the usability of modern technology with the design aesthetic and philosophy of the Victorian age. Or as US young fiction author Caitlin Kittredge put it: “It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans…”
For example, steampunk stories may:
Take place in the Victorian era but include advanced machines based on 19th century technology (e.g. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling);
Include the supernatural as well (e.g. The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger);
Include the supernatural and forego the technology (e.g. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, one of the works that inspired the term ‘steampunk’);
Include the advanced machines, but take place later than the Victorian period, thereby assuming that the predomination by electricity and petroleum never happens or
Take place in an another world altogether, but featuring Victorian-like technology (e.g. Mainspring by Jay Lake).
People from the Victorian era imagined all sorts of modern technology such as submarines, space travel and aircrafts. Yet their fantasies looked very different from how these technologies have developed in reality.
The emphasis on steam references a world that may have been completely built on steam power. It is this idea of reimagining the present or future as the Victorians would have – often with a dystopian mindset – that is at the core of steampunk.
Many subcultures such as Goth, neo-Victorian, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic and some fandoms identify with elements of steampunk. As a result it can also be thought of as a super-culture as opposed to a mere sub-culture.