The simplest explanation of "steampunk" is that it was a minor literary subgenre which coalesced in the late 20h century around William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel The Difference Engine (1990). Whereas the "cyberpunk" genre earlier associated with Gibson imagined a bleak, dystopian future dominated by technology, steampunk imagined the same for a Victorian past.
Like any serious genre, of course, steampunk is more complicated than this. It had a past before The Difference Engine and it continues today, albeit outside of the mainstream. The recent short story collection Steampunk (Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, Eds. San Franciscso: Tachyon Publications, 2008) contains three good surveys of aspects of the genre's history (the pieces by Nevins, Klaw, and Baker). For the cultural side of things, start with Steampunk Magazine
Steampunk continues both as a (small) literary genre and as a cultural or subcultural movement. In this latter form, it may be compared with the cultural movements of various "re-enactor" groups such as (US) Civil War re-enactors and, most importantly, the medieval re-enactors of the Society for Creative Anachronism ("SCA"). These activities give their participants an opportunity for deliberatly adopted alternative personae. It's a way of creating one's own world by one's own choice, not by the accidents of where and when one was born. It may be easy to smile at this from the outside, but that is a mistake. To an outsider, someone in SCA, or a Civil War re-enactor, or a French and Indian War Rendezvous participant, or someone re-creating a Viking settlement may just be playing dress-up, but in fact these people often know their subjects better than any dozen university professors. They're just having a bit of fun with it as well.
As steampunk has evolved from the bleakness of The Difference Engine, it has also softened a bit. It isn't quite so dark now; often it's whimsical, or even nostalgic. This may be a disappointment to those who prefer hard-edged fiction, but it's also a sign of maturity. As steampunk becomes an alternative lifestyle along the lines of SCA, it must become livable as well. The folks of SCA know in great detail all aspects of medieval life, including the negative ones. They choose to re-create the tournaments and crafts and civil aspects. They do not choose to re-create the malnutrition, filth, disease, and basically nonexistent medicine. You need a selective vision in order to do this for long; people didn't tend to live very long either in the real Middle Ages, Victorian slums, or first-generation steampunk.
Leave aside for the moment the famous unfinished computing machinery of Charles Babbage, and any number of other more or less successful calculating machines, and consider just the Linotype. It is not a general purpose computer, to be sure. But it does perform two pure computing functions, one analog and one digital. It takes a line of matrices (letter molds) and automatically, mechanically, justifies them to uniform lengths (it does this using analog technology). It later takes this line of matrices and sorts them back into their proper channels in their storage magazine (it does this digitally, with discrete logical mechanisms). Moreover, it coordinates this process via a (powered!) keyboard, and it automatically "prints" its output (well, produces a metal slug of type for printing). These are all functions that we would employ a computer for today.
Leave aside also the fact that the Linotype endured through the 20th century. (My Intertype C4 dates from 1967, and is younger than I am.) While the image of Burgess Meredith as the devil composing the future at a Linotype in The Twilight Zone may be an icon of Cold War paranoia, it might equally be one of Spanish-American War paranoia. The Spanish-American war, after all, was drummed up by newspapers set on Linotypes. At its heart, and basically unchanged even in my 1967 C4, this is the technology of the Victorians.
As importantly, a Linotype has the feel of steampunk. It's large and heavy and hot and mechanical. It's black cast iron, and a little ominous. It's insanely complicated (but quite sane indeed once you understand its machine logic). It moves in intricate and beautiful patterns, as unintentional and now-antiquarian kinetic sculpture. It is an information processing machine: it makes texts. It was built originally for lineshaft operation from steam engines. It is an interactive keyboard-controlled metal foundry; it casts words out of molten lead.
All portions of this document not noted otherwise are Copyright © 2008 by David M. MacMillan and Rollande Krandall.
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