Next week is the biggest Steampunk convention in Europe, if not the world (despite what Guiness think): Asylum in Lincoln, UK. Half of the city is taken over by men in top hats, women in corsets, and gadgets galore. As the 'normals' are allowed to use the city as well, this inevitably leads to one question that everyone is guaranteed to be asked at least once- 'What exactly is Steampunk?'
Currently there is no truly accepted definition. The most commonly accepted answer is 'Victorian Sci-Fi', though some disagree with that, thinking sci-fi doesn't necessarily have to be involved which leads to the argument of whether you're just a Victorian re-enactor. Even taking sci-fi into account people argue over the rules- is it a simple alternate-history in which steam became the major power source instead of electricity, or is it following the rules of definitive Steampunk fiction like War of the Worlds in which we could logically assume we reverse engineered rayguns from aliens, or is it a world in which magic has been discovered in place of electricity leading to all sorts of aether devices... the list goes on. And that's just the core principles of the genre, I haven't even touched on what could be the definitive piece of Steampunk music...
One of the problems with defining the genre, is the name- specifically the 'punk' part. To most people's minds this conjures images of violent men with mohawks causing mayhem in the name of anarchy; something that couldn't be further from the Steampunk image. The original explanation doesn't help matters much either- the name was coined by author K. W. Jeter who used it as a temporary term, a variation on Cyberpunk, which makes people think that Steampunk is a sub-genre of a sub-genre of goth. Because of these, some people in their explanations of the genre say 'ignore the punk part', which does nothing but confuse. Instead I propose this explanation: The point of 'Punk' is to defy society's expectations; in the 70s people were expected to be smart, polite, generally nice people, and so Punks were instead rude, disrespectful, and anarchic. Nowadays, with the rise of chavs, society expects us to be rude, disrespectful, and anarchic so instead we're smart, polite, and generally nice people.
Now for the 'Devil's Advocate' part of this blog... Here are some controversial topics, and reasons why I think they should at least be considered. Please note, as with all my Devils Advocate blogs, I do not necessarily believe in the arguments I'm presenting- I just want people to be a little more open-minded to controversial topics.
As far as I know, no-one believes Steampunk MUST involve rayguns, but there is a substantial part of the community that believes there is no place for them. Their point is that we don't have rayguns now, so why would they exist in Steampunk? It's a fair point, as raygun technology seems a distant dream even now, over 100 years on from the point where the Steampunk universe diverged from our own. The simplest explanation comes from taking War of the Worlds as literal, as the author Robert Rankin does- the Martians invaded, they were defeated, we could reverse-engineer their technology. An alternate explanation is that we simply don't know what advancements could have been made without electricity- all of our inventions are from an entirely electronic point of view, but if we were forced to look at options involving steam (or aether) then we could have completely different inventions, amongst which may lie rayguns.
Creativity is a big part of Steampunk, and central to crafting is the debate on which materials to use. Some want to restrict themselves by using only materials Victorians had access to- starting from scratch and requiring a greater investment of time and effort- whereas others use modern items and give them a slight mod and paint job. Neither of these ways is the 'right' way- the modern view is correct in that 'Steampunk doesn't equal Victorian', therefore make use of what you've got; but equally the old-fashioned view is correct in that 'I put in all this time and effort to get something that looks perfect, and you're getting praise for simply painting something'. Unfortunately this is true in every crafting circle- often the shorter job will be more popular than the longer one that required more effort, but the trade-off is that the one that started from scratch will be regarded as better quality, and people will appreciate the amount of effort that's gone into it. The problem is that the longer job doesn't appreciate the fact the shorter one still required effort, and the shorter one doesn't understand why the longer would want to restrict themselves. Again, the majority of people will value both methods, but these are the central points to the most vocal arguments.
(Please note that my hat at Asylum will be decorated with bits of bird. I am confident that the seller was following appropriate laws, and the birds used were killed as pests.)
...Sorry, I've got no defense for the use of this term. If you use it and have any respect for the English language, then stop it- you don't call chavs 'chavers' or goths 'gothers'.
If you're a Steampunk, then I hope to see you next week at Asylum! If you're not, then I hope you've got some understanding of the culture, and although it sounds like constant arguing then don't be put off- this is mostly confined to internet forums, and in person you will see that we're all splendid people!