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Steampunk is a genre which originated during the 1980s and early 1990s and incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, and speculative fiction. It involves a setting where steam power is widely used—whether in an alternate history such as Victorian era Britain or "Wild West"-era United States, or in a post-apocalyptic time —that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology, or futuristic innovations as Victorians might have envisioned them, based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. This technology includes such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or the contemporary authors Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfeld and China Mieville.
Other examples of steampunk contain alternative history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace's Analytical Engine.
Steampunk also refers to art, fashion, and design that are informed by the aesthetics of Steampunk literature. Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by individual artisans into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical "steampunk" style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk.
Several works of art and fiction significant to the development of the genre were produced before the genre had a name. Titus Alone (1959), by Mervyn Peake, anticipated many of the tropes of steampunk. Remedios Varo's paintings combine elements of Victorian dress, fantasy, and technofantasy imagery. One of the earliest mainstream manifestations of the steampunk ethos was the original CBS television series The Wild Wild West (1965–69), which inspired the film Wild Wild West (1999). The film Brazil (1985) was an important early cinematic influence to the genre.
Although many works now considered seminal to the genre were published in the 1960s and 1970s, the term steampunk originated in the late 1980s as a tongue in cheek variant of cyberpunk. It seems to have been coined by science fiction author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for works by Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates, 1983); James Blaylock (Homunculus, 1986); and himself (Morlock Night, 1979, and Infernal Devices, 1987)—all of which took place in a 19th-century (usually Victorian) setting and imitated conventions of such actual Victorian speculative fiction as H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. In a letter to science fiction magazine Locus, printed in the April 1987 issue, Jeter wrote:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks", perhaps...—K.W. Jeter
While Jeter's Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, Power's Anubis Gates, and Blaylock's Lord Kelvin's Machine were the first novels to which Jeter's neologism would be applied, they gave the term little thought at the time. However, they were far from the first modern science fiction writers to speculate on the development of steam-based technology or alternate histories. Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium (1962) and Ronald W. Clark's Queen Victoria's Bomb (1967) apply modern speculation to past-age technology and society. Michael Moorcock's Warlord of the Air (1971) is another early example. Harry Harrison's novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1973) portrays a British Empire of an alternate year 1973, full of atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, ornate submarines, and Victorian dialogue. In February 1980 Richard A. Lupoff and Steve Stiles published the first "chapter" of their 10-part comic strip The Adventures of Professor Thintwhistle and His Incredible Aether Flyer.
The first use of the word in a title was in Paul Di Filippo's 1995 Steampunk Trilogy, consisting of three short novels: "Victoria," "Hottentots," and "Walt and Emily," which, respectively, imagine the replacement of Queen Victoria by a human/newt clone, an invasion of Massachusetts by Lovecraftian monsters, and a love affair between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
The 1981 educational book, Elementary BASIC - Learning to Program Your Computer in BASIC with Sherlock Holmes by Henry Singer and Andrew Ledgar may have been the first fictional work to depict the use of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine in an adventure story. The instructional book, aimed at young programming students, depicts Holmes using the engine as an aid in his investigations, and offer program listings to perform simple data processing tasks required to solve the fictional cases. The book even describes a possible enhancement to Babbage's machine; a device that allows the engine to be used remotely, through telegraph lines. Companion volumes, Elementary Pascal - Learning to Program Your Computer in Pascal with Sherlock Holmes and From Baker Street to Binary - An Introduction to Computers and Computer Programming with Sherlock Holmes, were also written.
1988 saw the publication of the first version of the science fiction roleplaying game Space: 1889, set in an alternate history in which certain discredited Victorian scientific theories were probable, thus leading to new technologies. Contributing authors included Frank Chadwick, Loren Wiseman, and Marcus Rowland.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel The Difference Engine is often credited with bringing widespread awareness of steampunk. This novel applies the principles of Gibson and Sterling's cyberpunk writings to an alternate Victorian era where Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage's proposed steam-powered mechanical computer, which Babbage called a difference engine (a later, more general-purpose version was known as an analytical engine), was actually built, and led to the dawn of the information age more than a century "ahead of schedule". This setting was different than most steampunk settings in that it takes a dim and dark view of this future rather than the more prevalent utopian versions.
Nick Gevers's 2008 original anthology Extraordinary Engines features newer steampunk stories by some of the genre's pre-eminent writers, as well as other leading science fiction and fantasy writers experimenting with neo-Victorian conventions. A major retrospective reprint anthology of steampunk fiction was released, also in 2008, by Tachyon Publications; edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and appropriately entitled Steampunk, it is a collection of stories by James Blaylock, whose "Narbondo" trilogy is typically considered steampunk; Jay Lake, author of the novel Mainspring, sometimes labeled "clockpunk"; the aforementioned Michael Moorcock; as well as Jess Nevins, famed for his annotations to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
While most of the original steampunk works had a historical setting, later works often place steampunk elements in a fantasy world with little relation to any specific historical era. Historical steampunk tends to be science fiction that presents an alternate history; it also contains real locales and persons from history with alternate fantasy technology. "Fantasy-world steampunk", such as China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, Alan Campbell's Scar Night, and Stephen Hunt's Jackelian novels, on the other hand, presents steampunk in a completely imaginary fantasy realm, often populated by legendary creatures coexisting with steam-era and other anachronistic technologies.
Self-described and popular author of "far-fetched fiction" Robert Rankin has increasingly incorporated elements of steampunk into narrative worlds, both Victorian and re-imagined contemporary. In 2009, he was made a Fellow of the Victorian Steampunk Society.
In general, the category includes any recent science fiction that takes place in a recognizable historical period (sometimes an alternate history version of an actual historical period) in which the Industrial Revolution has already begun, but electricity is not yet widespread. It places an emphasis on steam- or spring-propelled gadgets. The most common historical steampunk settings are the Victorian and Edwardian eras, though some in this "Victorian steampunk" category can go as early as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Some examples of this type include the novel The Difference Engine, the comic book series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the Anime series Fullmetal Alchemist and the roleplaying game Space: 1889. Some, such as the comic series Girl Genius, have their own unique times and places despite partaking heavily of the flavor of historic times and settings.
Karel Zeman's film The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958) is a very early example of cinematic steampunk. Based on Jules Verne novels, Zeman's film imagines a past based on those novels which never was. Another early examples of historical steampunk in cinema includes Hayao Miyazaki's anime films such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), containing many archetypal anachronisms characteristic of the Steampunk genre.
"Historical" steampunk usually leans more towards science fiction than fantasy, but a number of historical steampunk stories have incorporated magical elements as well. For example, Morlock Night, written by K. W. Jeter, revolves around an attempt by the wizard Merlin to raise King Arthur to save Britain in 1892 from an invasion of Morlocks from the future. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers involves a cabal of magicians among the beggars and thieves of the early 19th century London underworld.
Paul Guinan’s Boilerplate, a 'biography' of a robot in the late 19th century, began as a website that garnered international press coverage when people began believing that Photoshop images of the robot with historic personages were real. The site was adapted into an illustrated hardbound book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, and published by Abrams in October 2009. Because the story was not set in an alternate history, and in fact contained accurate information about the Victorian era, some[specify] booksellers referred to the tome as "historical steampunk."
Another setting is "Western" steampunk, which overlaps with both the Weird West and Science fiction Western subgenres. Several other categories have arisen, sharing similar names, including dieselpunk, clockpunk, and others. Most of these terms were coined as supplements to the GURPS roleplaying game, and are not used in other contexts.
Since the 1990s, the application of the steampunk label has expanded beyond works set in recognizable historical periods, to works set in fantasy worlds that rely heavily on steam- or spring-powered technology.
Fantasy steampunk settings abound in tabletop and computer role-playing games. Notable examples include Skies of Arcadia, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy IX, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.
The gnomes and goblins in World of Warcraft also have technological societies that could be described as steampunk as they are vastly ahead of the technologies of men, but are not magical like those of the Elves.
Amidst the historical and fantasy sub-genres of steampunk is a type which takes place in a hypothetical future or a fantasy equivalent of our future, involving the domination of steampunk-style technology and aesthetics. Examples include Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro's The City of Lost Children (1995), anime series Steamboy (2004), Turn A Gundam (1999–2000), Trigun,and Hayao Miyazaki's post-apocalyptic anime Future Boy Conan (1978), and Disney's film Treasure Planet (2002). In 2011, musician Thomas Dolby heralded his return to music after a 20 year hiatus with an online steampunk alternate fantasy world called the Floating City, to promote his album, A Map of the Floating City
Kaja Foglio introduced the term "Gaslight Romance", gaslamp fantasy, which John Clute and John Grant define as "steampunk stories ... most commonly set in a romanticized, smoky, 19th-century London, as are Gaslight Romances. But the latter category focuses nostalgically on icons from the late years of that century and the early years of the 20th century--on Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and even Tarzan--and can normally be understood as combining supernatural fiction and recursive fantasy, though some gaslight romances can be read as fantasies of history." Some, such as author/artist James Richardson-Brown use the term steamgoth to refer to Steampunk expressions of fantasy and horror with a "darker" bent.
The 1982 American TV series Q.E.D. set in Edwardian England, starred Sam Waterston as Professor Quentin Everett Deverill (the series title is the character's initials). The Professor was an inventor, and scientific detective in the mold of Sherlock Holmes. In the show, the lead character was known primarily by his initials, Q.E.D.
The final scene of the 1990 film Back to the Future Part III implies that the protagonist Emmett Brown, after being stranded in 1880s California, has managed to adapt 1980s technology in a steam-powered context, including the development of a steam-powered train-based time machine.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., a 1990s TV science fiction-western set in the 1890s, on Fox Network, featured elements of steampunk as represented by the character Professor Wickwire, whose inventions were described as "the coming thing." The short-lived 1995 TV show Legend on UPN, set in 1876 Arizona, featured such classic inventions as a steam-driven "quadrovelocipede" and night-vision goggles, and starred John de Lancie as a thinly-disguised Nicola Tesla. Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's 1999 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel series (and the subsequent 2003 film adaption) greatly popularized the steampunk genre. The Syfy series Warehouse 13 features many steampunk-inspired objects and artifacts, including computer designs created by steampunk artisan Richard Nagy, aka "Datamancer". Also, the Syfy miniseries Tin Man incorporates a considerable amount of steampunk-inspired themes into a re-imagining of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The BBC series Doctor Who also incorporates steampunk elements in the design of the Doctor's time machine, the Tardis, first presented in the 1996 American co-production when the Tardis interior was re-designed to resemble an almost Victorian library with the central control console made up of eclectic and anachronistic objects. Modified and streamlined for the 2005 revival of the series, the Tardis console continues to incorporate steampunk elements, including a Victorian typewriter and gramophone. Steampunk has begun to attract notice from more "mainstream" sources, as well. For example, the episode of the TV series Castle entitled "Punked", which aired on October 11, 2010, prominently featured the steampunk subculture and used Los Angeles-area steampunks as extras Also the music videos from both David Guetta's 'Turn Me On' and Panic at the Disco's 'The Ballad of Mona Lisa' have drawn heavily on steampunk inspirations.
Many of the visualizations of Steampunk have their origins with, among others, Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, including the design of the story's submarine the Nautilus, its interiors, and the crew's underwater gear; and George Pal's 1960 film The Time Machine, with the design of the time machine itself. This theme is also carried over to Disney's theme parks in the design of The Mysterious Island section of Tokyo DisneySea theme park.
Steampunk design emphasizes a balance between the form and function. Like the Arts and Crafts Movement, this blurs the line between tool and decoration. Various modern utilitarian objects have been modified by enthusiasts into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical "steampunk" style. Example objects include computer keyboards and electric guitars. The goal of such redesigns is to employ appropriate materials (such as polished brass, iron, wood, and leather) with design elements and craftsmanship consistent with the Victorian era, rejecting the aesthetic of industrial design.
The artist group Kinetic Steam Works brought a working steam engine to the Burning Man festival in 2006 and 2007. The group's founding member, Sean Orlando, created a Steampunk Tree House (in association with a group of people who would later form the Five Ton Crane Arts Group) that has been displayed at a number of festivals. The Steampunk Tree House is now permanently installed at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware.
In May–June 2008, multimedia artist and sculptor Paul St George exhibited outdoor interactive video installations linking London and Brooklyn, New York, in a Victorian era-styled telectroscope. Evelyn Kriete, a promoter, organized a transatlantic wave by steampunk enthusiasts from both cities, briefly prior to White Mischief's Around the World in 80 Days steampunk-themed event.
In 2009 artist Tim Wetherell created a large wall piece for Questacon representing the concept of the clockwork universe. This steel artwork contains moving gears, a working clock, and a movie of the moon's terminator in action. The 3D moon movie was created by Antony Williams.
From October 2009 through February 2010, the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford hosted the first major exhibition of Steampunk art objects, curated by Art Donovan and presented by Dr. Jim Bennett, museum director. From redesigned practical items to fantastical contraptions, this exhibition showcased the work of eighteen Steampunk artists from across the globe. The exhibition proved to be the most successful in the museum's history and attracted more than eighty thousand visitors.
2012 saw the debut of the Mobilis in Mobili: An Exhibition of Steampunk Art and Appliance art exhibit. Originally located at New York City's Wooster Street Social Club (itself the subject of Television series NY Ink), the exhibit featured working Steampunk tattoo systems designed respectively by Bruce Rosenbaum of ModVic and owner of the Steampunk House, Joey "Dr. Grymm" Marsocci., and Christopher Conte showing very different approaches. "bicycles, cell phones, guitars, timepieces and entertainment systems" rounded out the display.
Steampunk music is very broadly defined, as Caroline Sullivan says in The Guardian: "Internet debates rage about exactly what constitutes the steampunk sound." This range of steampunk musical styles can be heard in the work of various steampunk artists, from the industrial dance/world music of Abney Park, the straightforward Punk of The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, the inventor/singer-songwriter creations of Thomas Truax or of the 'mad scientist' of 1980s fame, Thomas Dolby, the Carnatic influenced music of Sunday Driver, the "industrial hip-hop opera" of Doctor Steel, the darkwave and progressive rock sounds of Vernian Process, the Unextraordinary Gentlemen, the electronic sounds of The Wet-Glass RO, Darcy James Argue's 18-piece big band Secret Society and the musical storytelling of Escape the Clouds. The British-American composer David Bruce's 2010 octet 'Steampunk' was commissioned by Carnegie Hall.
Steampunk has also appeared in the work of musicians who do not specifically identify as Steampunk. For example, The music video for Turn me on by David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj takes place in a steampunk universe where Guetta creates human droids, as well as a video by Justin Bieber.
Because of the popularity of steampunk, there is a growing movement towards establishing steampunk as a culture and lifestyle. Some fans of the genre adopt a steampunk aesthetic through fashion, home decor, music, and film. This may be described as neo-Victorianism, which is the amalgamation of Victorian aesthetic principles with modern sensibilities and technologies.
Steampunk fashion has no set guidelines, but tends to synthesize modern styles influenced by the Victorian era. This may include gowns, corsets, petticoats and bustles; suits with vests, coats, top hats and spats; or military-inspired garments. Steampunk-influenced outfits are usually accented with several technological and period accessories: timepieces, parasols, flying/driving goggles, and ray guns. Modern accessories like cell phones or music players can be found in steampunk outfits, after being modified to give them the appearance of Victorian-made objects. Aspects of steampunk fashion have been anticipated by mainstream high fashion, the Lolita fashion and aristocrat styles, neo-Victorianism, and the romantic goth subculture.
Steampunk became a common descriptor for homemade objects on the craft network Etsy between 2009 and 2011, though many of the objects and fashions bear little resemblance to earlier established steampunk descriptions. Thus the craft network may not strike observers as 'sufficiently steampunk' to warrant the description. Comedienne April Winchell, author of the book, Regretsy: Where DIY meets WTF, catalogs some of the most egregious and humorous examples on her website,"Regretsy." The blog is popular among steampunks and even inspired a music video that went viral in the community and was acclaimed by steampunk notables.
2006 saw the first "SalonCon", a Neo-Victorian/Steampunk convention. It ran for three consecutive years and featured artists, musicians (Voltaire and Abney Park), authors (Catherynne M. Valente, Ekaterina Sedia, and G. D. Falksen), salons led by people prominent in their respective fields, workshops and panels on steampunk - as well as a seance, ballroom dance instruction, and the Chrononauts' Parade. The event was covered by MTV and The New York Times.
Steampunk has also become a regular feature at San Diego Comic-Con International in recent years, with the Saturday of the four-day event being generally known among steampunks as "Steampunk Day", and culminating with a photo-shoot for the local press. The Saturday steampunk "after-party" has also become a major event on the steampunk social calendar; in 2010 the headliners included The Slow Poisoner, Unextraordinary Gentlemen and Voltaire, with Veronique Chevalier as Mistress of Ceremonies and special appearance by the League of STEAM, and in 2011 UXG returned with Abney Park.
Steampunk also has a growing following in the UK and Europe. The largest European event is "Weekend at the Asylum," held at The Lawn, Lincoln every September since 2009. Organized as a not-for-profit event by the Victorian Steampunk Society, the Asylum is a dedicated Steampunk event which takes over much of the historical quarter of Lincoln town and Lincoln Castle. In 2011 there were over 1000 steampunks in attendance. The event features the Empire Ball, Majors Review, Bazaar Eclectica and the international Tea Duelling final.
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