The steampunk sci-fi subgenre, explained

Steampunk is best known as a cosplay option for the most devoted Comic-Con attendees, but this sci-fi subgenre is popping up all over modern media. The History and Modern Incarnations of Specific Aesthetics is an interesting history of science fiction imagination and the gradual iteration of an idea.

Although there is some debate, the central tenet of steampunk tends to revolve around an alternate history in which electricity and internal combustion engines never took off and the steam engine comes first. These days, however, the stories are more often set in a fantasy realm with steam-inspired technology and design, with an aesthetic inspired by late Victorian England. Hallmarks of the genre generally include anachronistic technology, retro-futurism, and social commentary.


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The History of Steampunk

Steampunk usually refers specifically to the technology of a work’s universe, but the term has been extended to any media or design that features the aesthetic. The term originated in the late 1980s, but countless novels earned the name long before it was coined. It emerged as a term in the same era as its counterpart and opposite, cyberpunk. The first to coin the term was KW Jeter, who, along with the works of James Blaylock and Tim Powers, sought an appropriate generic term for his work. The term “Gonzo-Historical” has been thrown around before, but with an optional hyphen added, Jeter is the one who gave the category its name. This seminal work was built on the older foundation of HG Wells, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne. There are countless texts that predate the use of the term by decades and become steampunk bibles today, but a lack of internal consistency is one of steampunk’s most important hallmarks.

Genre-defining steampunk works

Although steampunk started on the page, many of its most defining moments came from the screen. Walt Disney and Richard Fleischer’s 1954 film adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea considered the basis for many steampunk design aesthetics. Although Captain Nemo’s submarine is actually powered by a nuclear reactor, the Victorian-era look mixed with futuristic-looking technology inspired countless creators of the genre. It’s this retro-futuristic design choice that makes people enjoy the steampunk look. Six years later, George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of HG Wells’ 1895 novel The time machine promoted the trend with his groundbreaking depiction of the device of the same name. Many of the building blocks that continue to make steampunk today come from the work of creative visionaries who interpret classic works with a modern perspective, adapting visions of the future that people had in the past.

One of the biggest characters in the steampunk subgenre comes from an unlikely source, the 1965 CBS series The Wild Wild West. Producer Michael Garrison, one of the first Hollywood professionals, acquired the rights and then quickly resold them James BondHe wanted to revive the ailing Western genre. The spy genre he’d just owned and given away the biggest name in was eating cowboy content alive, and Garrison had an idea to save it. He presented his big idea as “James Bond on horseback” and delivered four seasons Wild, wild west. Inspired by the above films and novels, the series told the story of James West and Artemus Gordon, Secret Service agents in post-Civil War America. Taking on the times, the series featured fashions from the Victorian era mixed with Jules Vern-esque bronzed technology. This remains one of steampunk’s seminal works. The 1999 remake, while significantly less remembered, upped the technical elements to showcase the era’s shiny new effects and is still used today as a solid visual example.

Steampunk has always been a phenomenon that spans the globe; no country can claim its influence. Japan has a distinct fascination with the subgenre, often creating some of the genre’s most popular standouts. Manga father Osamu Tezuka created and published his iconic sci-fi trilogy in the late ’40s and early ’50s lost world, metropolis, and next world, each containing heavy steampunk elements. The big name in Japanese steampunk is, of course, Hayao Miyazaki, the beloved co-founder of Studio Ghibli and the artist behind many of the century’s most popular animations. His fascination with the genre began in the 1982s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. 1986 castle in the sky is his steampunk opus full of sky pirates and steam-powered airships. Almost 20 years later, Howl’s Moving Castle would feature another of the greatest steampunk designs of all time in its namesake structure. If there’s a modern image of steampunk in a fan’s mind, it was probably brought to life by Hayao Miyazaki.

castle in the sky

More than a collection of fashion trends and technical ideas, steampunk is a rich tradition of alternate history. The steampunk representation of the present or the future dares to ask deep questions about humanity’s relationship to technology and power. After decades of creative imagination, people still love something about a future powered by good old-fashioned heat and water.

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