In 1987 K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine. Jeter used the term to qualify the neo-Victorian writings that he, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers, produced. This term played on “cyberpunk,” which was a popular genre in the late 1980s. Enthusiasts embraced the term “steampunk” for this type of speculative fiction and it was applied retroactively.
Starting with the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, more and more historical works that helped to inspire the steampunk genre were included. The reading list grew vast. Indeed, the very amount of historical material available to fans can be daunting for anyone who is considering steampunk as a hobby. Yes, an understanding of Victorian Era and/or the Old West films/literature adds an enjoyable depth to the steampunk genre, but it is not the only aspect that makes it compelling to it fans.
In her groundbreaking work on fantasy and folklore, Touch Magic, Jane Yolen wrote the “familiarity with the treasure house of ancient story is necessary for any true appreciation of today’s literature.” Yolen asks how someone who has never heard of Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table could understand Susan Cooper’s The Grey King or recognize the wizards in Earthsea? How could someone who has never learned about dryads and fauns appreciate the ones in Narnia, or even in Fantasia?
Is it necessary to have read H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to understand the steampunk aesthetic? Does anyone who attends an event dressed in Western steampunk attire need to view all of John Ford’s movies about the Old West and every episode of the Wild Wild West before partaking? Or is this prior knowledge only a part—a foundation—that can add to a person’s appreciation? Yolen has an intriguing idea, and one that I agree with in part. However, I do not feel that it is necessary for someone to be an expert in a subject in order to enjoy it. There is more to the steampunk aesthetic than history.
Part of the reason I enjoy steampunk stems from my own studies of Victorian literature. As a writer, I am inspired by the Victorian Era—the sights, sounds, and events—described in the pages by authors like Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells. But I have met many steampunk enthusiasts who have not studied the Victorians and have no “touchstones” for that era regarding culture, art, or historical events. Does this make their steampunk experience less valid, or just different from my own?
I would argue that the lack of immersive knowledge in these areas simply makes the experience distinctive but no less enjoyable. For example, if a person had never read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, he/she could still enjoy the Doctor Who Christmas Carol episode staring Matt Smith as a wildly imaginative tale of greed, loss, and the redemptive powers of the holiday season. Different—yes; less valid—no.
I saw The Avengers episode “The Superlative Seven” before I read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: my lack of knowledge of Christie’s work did not diminish my appreciation of a story that focuses on logic and deduction to solve crimes. But when I saw the episode “Bounty Hunters Convention” from The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., my knowledge of the two previous works added to my level of enjoyment*. Would I have enjoyed it less had I not read/viewed the two prior works? I will never know, but I don’t believe so; I simply would have enjoyed it on a different level.
I have seen absolutely breathtaking steampunk jewelry and clothing items created by artisans who freely admit they have “no idea” what influences the Victorian Era or the Old West have on the steampunk aesthetic. These craftsmen are inspired by what they see in the “here and now,” and for them, that muse is enough.
To be a fan means that a person enjoys the genre. The level of time and effort put into it should always equal the level enjoyment. Yes, steampunk has a basis in past cultures and is influenced by past literary greats, but it is occurring in the present. Embracing the history is part of the aesthetic, but it should not be the only part.
Please comment below and let me know what you think!
Yolen, J. (2000). Touch magic. Little Rock: August House.
*Of course I would enjoy anything with Bruce Campbell in it. I even watch Bubba Ho-Tep once a year. At least once a year. Maybe a few more times than that, come to think of it. OK—it is setting on top of my DVD player right now.