What is Steampunk?

While this blog may seem to be steampunk-themed, rather than cyberpunk-themed, I feel defining cyberpunk is a necessary first step to explain how and why my use of the word steampunk may differ from common use. Cyberpunk, as opposed to futuristic science fiction, as characterized by high technology but low lives. It envisions a (generally) dystopian future, involving a combination of a number of elements.

Quite often, it involves a government which has lost all power to a number of faceless corporations, which rule the world through economic brutality and their own private militaries. Sometimes fascism or other totalitarian governments are present as well, although I have seen that less often. However, any system which has a large ‘low-life’ population would be acceptable for cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk (again, generally) shows the dystopian underbelly of a futuristic society, and does not flinch. As well, there is a sense of futility. The protagonists’ actions rarely change anything, and often, despite having fought off their own temporary problems, the world remains largely unchanged by the events of the novel. It is for this reason that I would consider categorizing The Matrix (or at least a historical presentation of the Matrix up to the trilogy) as a cyberpunk universe, as the previous incarnations of ‘the one’ had little effect on the world, only serving to reset it once again. On the other hand, The Matrix clearly exhibits qualities of the opera genre, a genre I consider to be opposed to the punk genre. In the opera genre, we are shown the world through the eyes of a few select characters who will change the world.  Men are capable of great deeds, often that extend well beyond human capabilities.

This terminology is really only used in respect to space opera, but I would have it be extended to other genres. For example, I see The Matrix as a cyber opera (or even a cyberpunk opera, but I use that very tentatively, as in most cases, I would consider punk and opera to be perpendicular, or at least skew), much the same as Star Wars is a space opera.

And thus I define Punk as follows – dealing with the underbelly, the oppressed and the downtrodden, and the hidden secrets of a society, with a general sense of futility in that the struggles of the oppressed and downtrodden are rarely romanticized rebellion, but survival against the forces against them.

  • In Neuromancer, for example, Case’s main goal is his survival against the rather unfair and uncontrollable forces which have pushed him into his current situation, not the destruction of the system that makes this possible.

And Opera as follows – Opera deals with the romanticizing of potentially bloody affairs, and the elevation of the actions of a few heroic individuals over that of the systems supporting them.

  • In Star Wars, for example, little mention is giving to the underbelly of the Rebellion, such as the many spies being tortured by the Empire (there is a reference to Bothan Spies dying to get the Death Star plans, but other than that…) The one sign of the economic underbelly is of a frontierland, Tatooine, complete with Western bar(Mos Eisley), raiding natives(Sand People), and mysterious traders(Jawas). And while there are legitimate concerns there, frontiers are the most romanticized of all lives, especially in American literature and culture.

The cyber part represents the technology/aesthetic. A cyber novel has futuristic technology with a 1990s punk aesthetic (trenchcoats, spiked hair, sunglasses, et cetera).

And steam is connected with the Victorian/gaslight era. If you’ve never seen the genre, imagine modern technology revamped to be run with with Victorian aesthetics and functionality. Gears and Steam power everything.

And so I object to the usual characterization of much of steampunk work as steampunk, because in my opinion, steam opera would be a far more accurate label, or at least steampunk opera. Steampunk movies are rare, but one example would be The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The title itself is very operatic. It is going to be a few extraordinary gentlemen who change the world.*

And so I have three distinctions.

Steam and Cyber pick out tech levels and aesthetic

Punk describes the focus of the novel aiming it at the underbelly of society. The opposite is so common it hardly needs a label.

Opera describes the scope of the novel. Opera deals with epic deeds, epic people, and often, epic drama (Leia’s his sister?). A possible counter to this would be a reference to the mundane.

Punk and opera are not directly opposed, by any means. Snow Crash is a clear Cyber novel, and deals with the dregs of society. But it is the only book I have known to be able to name its main character ‘Hiro Protagonist’ and get away with it, and his actions fit his name well. I would label Snow Crash a Cyberpunk opera.

Using these distinctions, we can split the genres of science-fiction neatly and cleanly.

*And of this, I too am guilty. Well, perhaps not guilty. But keep in mind that the work contained with this blog is a steampunk opera as well.


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