What the Fuck is Steampunk?


I unabashedly think antiquate-it-yourself faux retro-futurism is cool, from Jet Age, Eames-inspired modernism applied to PC case design* to the current love/bane of the intertard set, steampunk.

Why there has been an accelerating interest in steampunk seems clear. As Warren Ellis mused:

Is it possible that steampunk is making a comeback as acquiescence to the notion that our more recent apparently plausible models of the future will never come to reality?

More than possible; I'd say probable.

But while some people are certainly not fans of steampunk in any of its forms, I've seen a strange backlash against the term burble up over the last couple of months, inscrutably more about steampunk as terminology than the items labeled as steampunk. Some people levy that the term is being tossed around indiscriminately, used to describe things that are simply baroque or old fashioned, but wouldn't actually use steam as a power source.

So if you save the term "steampunk" for only those things that might actually be driven by vapor, what would you call things that might not use steam themselves, but fit cleanly in the same fantastic genre? I considered "clockwork," but that implies gears and springs, which often appear as stylistic chrome, but are rarely functional.

Look at Jake von Slatt's famous Steampunk LCD and Keyboard [pictured above]. It looks like it's made of brass and marble, could easily be imagined on the oaken desk of a zeppelin captain, but doesn't appear to use steam or gears at all, real or imagined. But if it's not steampunk, what is it? "Victorian?" That doesn't imply the alternate timeline that "steampunk" does.

If there's a better term, let's find it. Or maybe I'm wrong about what's causing the bristling in the first place; it's possible that some of you are whimsiless bastards who don't find any appeal in the spats-and-rocket-belt school of daydreaming. Perhaps it's the echoes of "cyberpunk" causing us to cringe in collective embarrassment for our past optimism and questionable, methylamphetamine-inspired clothing choices. I just think steampunk is a neat confluence of trends, taking a bit of post-goth fashion, mixing it with a little DIY juice from the modding scene, and coming up with something that, by being inherently not of our timeline, should be timeless. But apparently is not.

* I haven't actually seen this, but I'd like to; anyone know how to fold plywood?

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