I'm working on a spooky steampunk story at the moment, so today I'm going to take some time to ask: What is steampunk?
Some days I feel like steampunk has been talked to death since its rise in popularity in the 70s, and others I wonder if anyone has heard of it at all. It's the latest and greatest in the unexplored mainstream urban fantasy frontier of publishing, and more and more stories have been coming out with goggles and steam and corsets on the covers, from mainstream and indie presses alike. I am totally not objecting here. I've written two short stories set in my Oilsmouth steampunk universe, first the same-titled "Oilsmouth" for the Someplace in This World anthology and then Dreggers Deep for last year's Charity Sip Blitz.
But I find myself constantly coming up with and rejecting ideas for new stories, all revolving around the age old question: What is steampunk?
It's more than just corsets, top hats, and futuristic steam technology in a Victorian era, but how do you show that? What is its essence? At what point does it diverge enough to become straight up sci-fi, and when is that call made? If I label a story as steampunk, does that make it steampunk? Does it need to be edgy, constantly pushing boundaries or addressing some sort of social issue / providing commentary on a modern day social norm, as some steampunk writers argue?
Also, how "historical" does it need to be? Some writers argue that steampunk shouldn't just be confined to a divergent reality of Victorian England. What about the Middle East in the 1800s? Or South America? East Asia? Are we Westerners being ethnocentric by focusing on dirigibles floating over London when there's a whole world out there ripe for the steaming?
Personally, I think it's all about energy and resources. How does technology create steam? By applying heat to water and directing the ensuing energy as needed. Where does the source of that heat come from? Coal, turf, gas? Some new resource, as yet undiscovered? Pick and choose, and go forth knowing that what you decide can shape an entire civilization. Instead of cars, do we get a different evolution of locomotives? Or do we get a different evolution of the carriage?
Sometimes I think steampunk really is just looking at the world of the 1800s and twisting every component of it to see it at a different angle. It was a time of inifinite discovery and speculation, where science had yet to completely divorce from the occult, and modern medicine was in its formative stages. Think of the philosophers and scientists to come from that time period, and consider how different the world would be if it wasn't Sigmund Freud influencing popular psychology, but rather someone more religious -- or less? It's like picking a historical concept or event or person, and playing what if with their existence.
So what do you think of this latest spotlight on an underground culture? Personally, I think: Look out, sparklepires, that dirigible's about to land on your hearse!