Why Steampunk?


Ever have one of those memories that might be a lie?  You’re certain you remember some fact but everyone else around you can’t recall it.  The classic example is the mythic Thunderbird picture, a photograph that many people claim to remember featuring men gathered around a giant bird they had killed.  Many people remember seeing the photograph, but apparently no copy of it exists anywhere.  In my own life there are two: one about a television show finale that apparently didn’t exist, and one about a word that I cannot find.  I heard it while flipping past the Spelling Bee.  It was a German word, as all great borrowed words are.  German has the ability to create such complex thoughts as single words.

This word meant a nostalgia for an idealized past that never existed.

What better way to describe Steampunk?

I can’t imagine anyone who has found their way to the blog is unaware of Steampunk, so I’ll spare the definitions.  Instead, I ask the question: what draws us to Steampunk?  Why do we as writers craft tales in the genre?  Why do we as readers devour them?  I say a lot of it has to do exactly with that mythical German word, that idea that we can be nostalgic for something that never truly was.  It’s been part of the human condition for likely as long as there was a human condition.  And in a sense, the word is likely unnecessary, because any nostalgia tends to ignore the true nature of the past and focus just on the good.  It’s the whole reason for the phrase “the good old days.”

But Steampunk takes that to another level.  It’s not just a nostalgia for an idealized past, it’s a nostalgia for a past that never was.  It reaches back to an age where we didn’t know quite so much as we thought we did.  As I mentioned over on Unleaded, it’s a time when we thought Mars inhabitable, Venus swampy, and were even still uncertain of the nature of our own planet.  Verne, hero of Steampunk writing in the age, presented a world with liquid seas at the poles in 20,000 Leagues, and an inhabitable hollow in the earth in Journey to the Center of the Earth.  These weren’t mere flights of fancy, these were theories of the time, a time when we didn’t yet have a full knowledge even of our own planet, much less the rest of the solar system.

And I think therein lies some of the appeal.  The Victorian age is a time when mankind realized what it didn’t know and was reaching out in new and different ways to find those answers.  Exploration and science were both experiencing boons and booms.  Science was moving at a pace that would likely not be met again until the modern era, and without the benefit of computation or the level of mechanization that our modern society has achieved.  We still had a few last bits of the planet left to explore, settle, and “tame.”  So we think to ourselves, what would they have done if they had what we have?  Afterall, they had the same brains as us, the same ambitions, they were just held back by their own technology.

And therein lies Steampunk.  Both the concepts and, I believe, the popularity.  It’s a chance to look back at an era that was, at least in some perception, much like our own.  Save for the limitations of technology.  And so we loan them our technology.  Our computers, our robots, our flying machines, and we set those plucky Victorians loose with them to see just what they come up with.

There have been attempts to come up with the next Steampunk.  Sandalpunk.  Clockpunk.  Dieselpunk.  And while there are certainly stories within each genre, none have really captured the imagination as has Steampunk (save the arguably Clockpunk world of Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood).  Because none of those ages really captures the modern imagination quite like the Victorian age, the age of both discovery and the Wild West.

So why Steampunk?  Because the Victorian age fascinates us, and because we love our technology.  And because it’s when science fiction was really born in a modern sense.  Because budding genre writers have always been able to read Poe, Verne, and Wells.

And if anyone knows the German word I’m thinking of, I would be thrilled to find out it’s real.  And then perhaps we can get to work on figuring out that TV series.

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  1. avatar

    #1 by DayAlMohamed on April 12, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    I took French, but my sister studied German. I think “Heimweh” may be the word but it is more like homesickness rather than nostalgia.

    BUT (and I love Wikipedia) there is a German word for the OPPOSITE:

    “German Romanticism coined an opposite to Heimweh, Fernweh “far-sickness”, “longing to be far away”, like wanderlust expressing the Romantic desire to travel and explore.”

    The latter sounds like it’d make a great title to a story!

  2. avatar

    #2 by DLThurston on April 12, 2011 - 6:54 pm

    English is blessed with a deep and nuanced selection of words to choose from, but when it comes to defining the hard-to-define, German has us beat. Schadenfreude is such an underlying part of human nature, even if we don’t want to admit it, but it took German to give it a one-word name. Hell, there’s an entire genre of novel, the Bildungsroman, given a German name.

    My own German word I’m tempted to use as a story title: ursprache. An extinct source language reconstructed largely through presumptions made based on existing languages.

(will not be published)


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