Steampunk: What Are We Punking and Why?

One of the biggest sub-genres in the sci-fi/fantasy world right now is steampunk. In fact, the steampunk phenomenon has grown so large that non-sci-fi/fantasy shows have addressed the topic in some way, shape, or form. But why are we so obsessed with this punk culture?

I put extra emphasis on the word “punk” because there are multiple types of punk beyond steampunk, such as dieselpunk, cyberpunk, and biopunk.

So how does this punk-word-combo-game work?

For the most part, adding “punk” to the word implies alternative history. The first part of the word indicates the period in history that the sub-genre focuses upon. So, for steampunk, steam = the Victorian era when steam power was the height of technology.

To create steampunk, or to punkify any era, for that matter, writers play the ultimate what-if game.

For steampunk writers, potential what-ifs could include any of the following: what if Marx had never written the Communist Manifesto in the late 1840s? What if gold was never found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848? What if Darwin had received more support and funding on his scientific endeavors?

Essentially, to punkify an era is to play out all the options. Punk literature offers writers a platform to show the world what could have happened, for better or for worse.

So, besides playing out all potential scenarios, why are certain historical periods getting more attention than others? I mean – yes – you do have writers that make alternative historical narratives about events from the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, etc., but these eras don’t have the same draw that steam, diesel, and cyber possess. So why are these periods getting all the attention?

Let’s examine each of the periods to see what all the fuss is about.

The draw to steampunk, i.e., the Victorian era, is easy to understand from a sci-fi point of view. For one thing, the Victorian era coincides with the Industrial Revolution. By this time in history, the church was losing control over academia and politics. The Western world still had a religious/moralistic core directive, but we were far more motivated by profits, production, and conquering. To accomplish these ends, people needed better technology and a more thorough understanding of how the world works, hence the rise of science and engineering. So, in many ways, this era was the birth of modern technology. Therefore, sci-fi steampunk writers like to focus on this point in history because tweaking with the start of technology can drastically alter the future.

For instance, in their book, The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling ask what if Charles Babbage’s difference engine had worked. Would it have brought-on the precursors to the computer age a century and a half early? How would that advantage have had an effect or influence over the rest of technology during the 1850s?

If we can agree that the draw to the Victorian era is based upon such major social and technological changes, then perhaps we can argue that the draw to punkify other historical eras can be explained by similar factors.

The dieselpunk sub-genre, for instance, is focused on two of the largest events of the 20th century – namely World War I and World War II. Clearly, the technology of this era was growing at a rapid pace. Political and social power was changing on an almost a daily basis. While technology had advanced significantly over the course of both wars, many argue whether the cost for such technology was too high.

Although World War I started nearly a century ago in 1914, the effect of these two wars caused global chain reactions that rippled out into the course of history, and continues to still have an echoed effect over modern politics and warfare. Thus, it’s not surprising that the dieselpunk subgenre has such a pull over modern readers, since there are so many what-if scenarios to think about that could have made our 21st century lifestyle unrecognizable. For instance, what if the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand had never taken place? What if someone had liked young Hitler’s artwork enough to have kept him out of politics? What if the Japanese had never bombed Pearl Harbor? What if America had never gotten involved in either war?

The last main sub-genre of punk, cyberpunk, is slightly different from the other punks. With steam and diesel, writers research actual history and punkify certain events. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, often looks to the future, but usually through a rather dark lens. Cyber often questions how technological advances will cause political and social change. Biopunk also looks to the future, but focuses on how biological advancements will change the future. These two types of punks are often intertwined.

Writers and readers of cyber and biopunk are drawn in on multiple levels:

  1. On one level, there’s the chess game scenario of examining how the current moves of our political/social structure will play out if special interest groups gain power and/or if various laws get put into effect.
  2. On another level, there’s the harbinger mentality that encourages writers to produce literature about what could happen in order to warn society about how certain advances could lead to unwanted conclusions.

Although we’ve examined and determine potential reasons that explain the draw to steam, diesel, and cyber, and other types of punk literature not discussed in this article, we still haven’t determined why other eras are being virtually ignored.

Since many of the punk genres have a technology focus, perhaps periods prior to the industrial era just don’t seem that exciting to modern readers. However, there’s a whole punk culture around Nikolai Tesla’s inventions, (Teslapunk), which shows a draw toward particular inventors. That said, why isn’t there a more pronounced punk literary movement focused on earlier inventors, such as da Vinci?

Again – punk is a sub-genre that focuses on technology and major social change, so that might explain why writers are sticking to the past couple hundred years, or to the future, since these periods have the most effect or potential effect on the present. Additionally, going back too far into history may seem like a stretch to the average reader, because most people believe that certain technological advances have only happened since the Industrial Revolution.

Those people might be interested to know that their beloved steam powered engine was initially designed, (in concept at least), by an ancient Greek mathematician named Heron back in the first century A.C.E. Also, the advance of gunpowder and explosions started in China sometime around 1000 A.C.E. While these and other earlier advantages may not look as fancy as the technology from after the 1800s, these earlier era inventions nevertheless warrant some writers to consider creating a whole new type of pre-industrial punk.


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