From humble beginnings as a loosely defined sub-genre of science fiction, steampunk has evolved into a cultural phenomenon that combines ‘a Victorian aesthetic and a punk-rock attitude’; one that has come to influence more than just literature.
The creation of the ‘steampunk’ term is usually attributed to the science fiction author K.W. Jeter, who used it in a letter to Locus Magazine. He was trying to find a way to describe Victorian fantasy novels like those written by himself (Morlock Night and Infernal Devices), Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (Homunculus).
He believed novels written in what he described as the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ would be the next big thing but only if there was a general term that described them as a genre. “Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks,’” Jeter wrote. The label stuck and those early works helped define the genre.
It’s still inadequate to explain steampunk as just ‘Victorian Fantasy.’ The most common theme is to show a world where humanity, usually set in the Victorian era, has adopted technologies that combine past and future – think ‘steam-powered, gear-driven time machine’. But the genre encompasses much more than that, from the Darwinists’ genetically modified creatures in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, to elements of the supernatural in Powers’ The Anubis Gates, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, and the more recent Soulless by Gail Carriger.
In 1990, steampunk was introduced to a wider audience with The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in which the mechanical computer Charles Babbage theorized in 1822 was successfully built and led to the dawn of an Information Age in the late 19th century, rather than 100 years later. Other examples of technology mash-ups that might be classified as steampunk are spring-powered robots, 22nd century zeppelins, Edwardian atomic power or a steam-powered hovercraft.
Steampunk’s influence in the 21st century has expanded to include film, television, art, music, and fashion, including an offshoot of the Maker Movement – dedicated DIYers crafting everything from electrostatic generators, to parasols and corsets, to goggle- and clockwork-themed housewares. Even mainstream designers Prada, Versace, and Kenneth Cole have incorporated steampunk style into their clothing and accessories.
In spite of its vintage feel, steampunk as a literary genre is relatively new, with roots that barely reach back to the ‘70’s and acquiring a name only as recently as 1987. But the seeds of steampunk can be traced back to the 19th century, when Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and others were writing about steampunk-ish themes, paving the way for a variety of modern incarnations.