The True Essence of Steampunk

When people find out I write steampunk their first question is usually "What's steampunk?" And even among steampunk aficionados there seems to be different ideas of what it means. Even Wikipedia's definition is a bit vague.

One very common comparison is that steampunk is cyberpunk with steam technology instead of computers. This seems to be the operating assumption of Vandermeer's Steampunk anthology where most of the stories were noir, edgy and quite depressingly reminiscent of cyberpunk tales, which is why I didn't like it much.

Cyberpunk is all about the horrors of technology. It features a bleak, dehumanized world dominated by monolithic corporations where computers have granted a lucky few almost magical powers at the expense of their humanity. The future is dark and depressing. Technology has transformed civilization into a barbarous, disease-ridden, urban wasteland without freedom. It's like 1984 but instead of Big Brother, everything is run by Halliburton.

Conversely, Steampunk stories are usually set in the Victorian period and feature the prevalent steam-powered technology, usually envisioned in a fantastic manner with unrealistically impractical devices that are nonetheless extremely cool. The Victorian mindset was faith in science and technology. It was believed science could solve any problem. Progress was always good. Technology was like a magic genie. With it Mankind would end starvation, ignorance and poverty and create heaven on earth. The future would be much better than today.

That line of thought was mortally wounded in the First World War. And the morbid mushroom cloud that ended the second finished it off. Technology wasn't a magic genie in a bottle; it was more like Pandora's box. The monster movies of the 1950s merged with the newly expanded capabilities of the computer and led inexorably to cyberpunk. Probably the supreme example of which is the Terminator movies. Skynet is the ultimate in dehumanized technology, a computerized Frankenstein's monster that practices genocide against its creators. The future was going to be horrible and all because of technology. But that post-modern nihilist philosophy is the antithesis of Victorian style and optimism.

And readers reject it. The Terminator franchise reached maximum popularity when Skynet was getting its ass kicked in the first two movies. Then the third one was a big letdown. And The Sarah Connor Chronicles bombed because people didn't want to watch a story where the machines aren't losing.

People read sci-fi and fantasy to escape. Today, if you want to read about corrupt politicians, their villainous corporate masters and all the problems with technology run amok, all you have to do is reach for a newspaper or turn on the TV news. (Maybe this is why newspaper subscriptions are in the toilet and the network news audience is shrinking?) Cyberpunk lost its popularity when the 21st century dawned and readers looked around and saw they already lived in a cyberpunk world with all its attendant horrors and despair.

Steampunk harkens back to a time when people saw the future with optimism, where science could solve any problem and happily ever after was going to be next week. And while the theme of CYBERpunk is doom, STEAMpunk is about hope, or it ought to be.

H.G. Wells wrote in the Victorian Age but what he wrote had the CYBERpunk theme. His ideas of the future were gloomy. His The Last War, The Time Machine and Things to Come predicted a series of nuclear world wars destroying civilization. Mankind's only hope was to surrender its freedom to a cabal of scientific masterminds who would employ technology to rule the ignorant masses with a benevolent fist... forever. Does that make you hopeful about the future? Although it probably is very popular with scientific masterminds, everybody else would just as soon pass, which is why while a lot of scientists talk about how visionary he was, the books they mention were the most influential to them were usually written by Jules Verne.

Jules Verne wrote STEAMpunk stories. His heroes were scientists and inventors. Sometimes technology got them into trouble, but it'd eventually get them back out again, too. There were good and evil, not just endless shades of murky gray. The hero was somebody worth rooting for because he was fighting for a future worth fighting for. This is the essence of steampunk.

The original Star Trek series had the essence of steampunk. Sure their technology was far beyond steam power. But they had the steampunk attitude toward progress -- it was good. The future was going to be a great place. They'd cured most disease; racism was gone (except among those pesky half black/white Frank Gorshin aliens.) And the matter transporter had put an end to poverty. I think that's why it became so popular. In the midst of the Cold War, with the future looking increasingly like it might come down to a choice between being either Red or Dead, Star Trek gave us hope.

At least until Roddenberry died, when Berman and Piller hijacked his vision and transformed it into cyberpunk in space. In Star Trek's later incarnations technology was no longer benign, and the future was just as dark and corrupt as our present, maybe more so. I blame their rejection of true steampunk essence and the substitution of the bitter, post-modernist dregs of cyberpunk Luddism for those shows' loss in popularity and subsequent canceling.

I also see this as a warning to steampunk writers. You'll do a lot better providing readers with the true essence of steampunk -- optimism -- than if you just write noir cyberpunk horror stories and substitute steam power for computers. There's more to steampunk than just archaic technology --  it's an attitude. 

If you want to see what I mean by steampunk attitude, read my Queen's Martian Rifles or The Donuts of Doom. They're steampunk adventures that Captain Kirk would enjoy. And when you do, write me and tell me what you think. I'd be glad to hear from you.