Huge machines producing a steady stream of gas. Intricate mechanical gears, interlocked and moving by virtue of this intangible medium. The silence that pervades modern equipment is instead replaced by the hiss of pressurised steam, weaving its way through a complex network of pathways to bring devices to life.
This was the future imagined and promised by the genre of Sci-Fi called Steampunk.
For the uninitiated, Steampunk reimagines the world with one simple change, what if the technology of today was powered by steam. That is, what if the world didn’t harness the power of electricity and instead used steam for everything. It harkens back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
An interesting line of thought, but let’s go into some more detail. The first reference to Steampunk comes from K.W. Jeter, author of Infernal Devices who used it to term the type of fiction that he wrote. The term steampunk itself was based on the cyberpunk genre and was indeed coined as a jab to the authors of that genre. It was used to distinguish itself from cyberpunk which was prevalent at the time. Jeter’s writing was set in the Victorian era in an alternate history where steam power took off and became the dominant source of power rather than being replaced by electricity.
Besides this, it has appeared several times in literature too. The Difference Engine, written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, is accredited with bringing Steampunk culture to the masses.
Now, why is it called Steampunk you may ask? During this era, steam power revolutionised every part of everyday life. It made industrialization and the ability to harness energy more efficiently possible. Mechanical implements made life easier and improved productivity. As fewer people were required in order to do manual labour, more people could explore new areas of employment, often with better pay and working conditions. Thus there were rapid developments in the arts and sciences and society changed. Steam, therefore, was an integral part of the advancements made during the Victorian era.
Most of the modern day visualizations of Steampunk take their inspiration from the film 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, from its costume design to the Nautilus, the submarine used in the movie. There are other movies that incorporate this theme, such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Around the World in 60 Days. From prosthetic arms constructed entirely out of gears and pistons to retrofitted pistons, these films romanticised the genre and gave us an insight into how such a world would be like.
Steampunk takes the existing technology of the 19th century and imagines advancements to it, or brings to life inventions that were just fiction using that period, such as aeroplanes, submarines and computers.
Steampunk has been slowly slipping into the mainstream with companies and brands catering to this once pretty niche genre. This has been through the usage of materials like brass and copper and the resurgence of period-specific clothing like waistcoats, top hats, corsets and gowns which were worn by the elite in the 18th century. These are usually accompanied by accessories from the time like flying goggles or timepieces and adorned with mechanical workings. Kato, a company started by Kate Lambert, was the first to specialise in “Steampunk Couture”, which offered a mix of Neo-Victorian and post-apocalyptic styles. Over time, high fashion brands such as Prada and Dior have also brought the genre to the fashion runway.
Marketplaces like Etsy are becoming more and more populated with retro-futuristic pieces, from necklaces to tailcoats, coffee tables to pendants. These are carefully handcrafted and meticulously created to appear to authentic as possible and cater to a market that is becoming less niche with time.
While these are the real world examples of steampunk, it started out, and still remains as a science fiction genre. It serves as a tool for writers to take the stories of today and put them in a new setting, that is, the Industrial era. Thus it gives them a chance to explore creatively and imagine the phenomena of today like the Internet and space travel, as it would be two centuries ago.
It has also spilt over to pop culture, in video games and TV shows. Doctor Who, for example, replaced its futuristic set with wood panelling and brass. Wild Wild West starring Will Smith is a takes several cues from the genre. The highly acclaimed video game Bioshock Infinite is set in the fictional city of Columbia, is heavily influenced by it. There are steam-powered elevators, humanoid robots, carriages and the city itself is floating above the clouds using technology derived from steam.
Steampunk is seen as a movement towards embracing the past and a rejection of the current direction of technology. The first convention was held in 2006 and the word steampunk was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011. The themes of the Neo-Victoria have captured the attention of people due to the variety of aspects that you can draw from, from the fashion to the art and the culture. It offers a sense of freedom in its interpretation and can be applied to any period. While it may be destined to remain as an alternate reality, a what-if for people to think about, it has and I believe, shall continue to be etched in pop culture, growing and evolving.