Fans of classic fantasy novels like to escape into medieval kingdoms where they ride horses and fight with swords. Fans of classic science fiction novels like to escape onto starships where they ride on aliens and fight with lasers. The first steps into the past while the second looks into the future. But steampunk asks us to take a step into the past while looking to the future at the same time.
If that sounds weird, it’s because it is.
Check out the latest steampunk fashions. You’ll find corsets and bustles, suits and hats, but none of these are remotely accurate to the Victorian period. They’re better. And I don’t just mean the extra pieces of brass flair and whiz-bangery. The actual clothing itself is better. Look back at actual photos of Victorian-era clothes and you’ll see some rather homely dresses and suits. The folks at the Renn Faire may be aiming for authenticity, but the modern Neo-Victorian steampunk wants something far more ornate, detailed, complex, and frankly, beautiful than anything that actually existed back in the day.
And what about the machines in our favorite books and movies? The steam castle in Steamboy, the giant mechanical spider in Wild, Wild West, the walking tanks in Leviathan, the submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the functional prosthetic arm in Boneshaker, and the gorgeous airships in, well, in everything. None of these are even remotely period-accurate. In fact, we couldn’t even hope to build these things using modern technology, let alone older tools (except for the submarine, of course, and note that real airships are anything but fantastic).
Steampunk steals elements from both our past and our future, and then dives sideways into a world with limitless possibilities as it blends fashions, technologies, cultures, creatures, and even magics to tell stories that don’t analyze the past or warn about the future, but instead illustrate the present with remarkable metaphors.
For example, we can use the hopes and fears of the industrial revolution to explore our current hopes and fears about the digital revolution. The parallels in economic disruption, social change, and human growth are profound. The steampunk universe is a Looking Glass world where everything is very familiar, only prettier and more useful, which is why it’s so appealing.
To me, steampunk is a unique constellation of images, concepts, ideals, aspirations, and escapisms that span centuries and continents of real human history and project into our shared future, while still being powerfully relevant to our real world today. It isn’t grounded in a specific time or place, or even in a set of story-telling tropes. Steampunk isn’t really grounded in anything, except in what we want it to be. And that’s just a little amazing, isn’t it?