Science Fiction Studies

#111 = Volume 37, Part 2 = July 2010


Jess Nevins

Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: Defining Steampunk

Mike Ashley, ed. Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader. New York: NonStop, 2010. 239 pp. $15.95 pbk.

Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall, eds. Steampunk, Science, and (Neo)Victorian Technologies.” Special Issue of Neo-Victorian Studies 3.1 (2010). Online.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, eds. Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon, 2010. 432 pp. $14.95 pbk.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the definition of steampunk was generally agreed upon. As late as 2005, F. Brett Cox’s entry in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy defined steampunk in essentially the same way as Peter Nicholls did in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), whose definition was little changed from K.W. Jeter’s coining of the term in a letter published in the April 1987 issue of Locus magazine to refer to his “gonzo-historical” explorations of “Victorian fantasies” and alternative technologies (57). How things have changed. As of summer 2011, the term has become an intense semantic and philosophical battleground, albeit one whose combatants have little time for or interest in their opponents. The combatants are the prescriptivists, who maintain that only the Jeter/Nicholls definition is the correct one, and the descriptivists, whose preferred definition of the term is far broader than Jeter/Nicholls and reflects its current (shambolic) status rather than its past (traditional) use.

The descriptivists are winning. “Steampunk” appears as a designation for everything from the Western-flavored space opera Firefly (2005) to pseudo-Edwardian colonialist high adventure anime, from the industrial dance music of the band Abney Park to the current alternative fashion of mock-Victorian clothing. The struggle between the descriptivists and the prescriptivists is by no means over—at the moment steampunk is a fad, but once the faddists move on, steampunk will in all likelihood return to being primarily a literary category. Until then, steampunk will remain a catch-all term without an agreed-upon definition, and thus a term of little critical utility.

The articles and books reviewed here reflect this lack of consensus and clarity. Steampunk Prime is thoroughly traditional, as befits its late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century contents. The authors of the articles in the special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies only partially accept the developments of the past six years and are as much traditional, and prescriptivist, as they are descriptivist. Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded firmly embraces the descriptivist position.

In the foreword to Steampunk Prime, Paul di Filippo perhaps wisely avoids any attempt at defining steampunk, instead portraying it as a kind of cadet branch of mainstream science fiction—the 2010s version of the New Wave and cyberpunk. Mike Ashley’s introduction delves no deeper, instead covering the history of nineteenth-century “steampowered science fiction” (9) and only briefly investigating how steampunk is defined. Ashley’s introduction assumes that his audience already knows what steampunk is, and limits itself to a list of common steampunk iconography: “airships, automatons, secret societies, vast engineering projects, anti-gravity, moving walkways and so on” (10). Ashley’s unstated assumptions about the definition of steampunk are thoroughly traditional. Where di Filippo sees steampunk as a direct outgrowth of mainstream science fiction, Ashley portrays it as inherently Victorian and particularly emphasizes the technology of steampunk—what the authors in Neo-Victorian Studies call “materiality.” The impression left by Ashley’s introduction is that steampunk is simply any sf story with steam-powered technology and a Victorian setting.

The individual articles in Neo-Victorian Studies approach steampunk from a variety of directions, with mixed results. Several are less concerned with steampunk than with the authors’ personal interests. Caroline Cason Barratt’s “Time Machines: Steampunk in Contemporary Art” briefly mentions an idiosyncratic description of steampunk—“sepia-toned and somehow timeless, filtering a new view of the future through anachronistic elements of the past” (175)—before launching into a discussion of the theories of Jean-François Lyotard and the work of contemporary artists Tim Hawkinson and Arthur Ganson. Lisa Yaszek’s interview with di Filippo, whom Yaszek appropriately calls the “Steampunk Godfather,” spends little time in defining steampunk, assuming its readers are well acquainted with the genre and preferring instead to discuss how steampunk fiction works and what its writers can do. In other words, Yaszek and di Filippo talk about what steampunk should be rather than what it is. Similarly, Kirstie Blair’s commendable piece of popular-culture research, into “The Steam Arm,” a circa 1835 British street ballad, only cursorily explores what steampunk is and, properly and profitably, spends its time analyzing the poem and its context and meanings.

The issue’s introduction and the four major articles are descriptivist to varying degrees. Patrick Jagoda’s “Clacking Control Societies: Steampunk, History, and the Difference Engine of Escape,” an analysis of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), is thoroughly prescriptivist. Jagoda describes steampunk as “alternative histories that frequently explore the rise of new technologies in Victorian England and throughout its global empire” (46), as containing “strategic anachronism, counterfactual scenarios, and historical contingency” (46), and as having “taken the conventions of fantasy and science fiction and relocated them in worlds that run on steam power” (47). Stefania Forlini’s “Technology and Morality: The Stuff of Steampunk” is an examination of the “craft and lifestyle movement” of the steampunk community. Forlini compares steampunk art to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995). Despite the use of this novel, Forlini is more concerned with non-literary steampunk; she describes steampunk as “about things—especially technological things—and our relationship to them.... [I]t imagines alternative Victorian pasts in which technological advances ... radically alter the course of history and open up possible future techno-cultural worlds” (72).

Jason B. Jones’s “Betrayed By Time: Steampunk and the Neo-Victorian in Alan Moore’s The Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” an examination of the two graphic novels, stresses the importance of materiality to steampunk: “the omnipresence of ornate scientific equipment, whether thematically relevant ... or not” (101) and the genre’s “baroque hyperbole of ... detail” representing a “yearning for complex styles and forms of beauty, in contrast to the relentless simplification of late-capitalist consumer styles” (103). Jones also emphasizes the genre’s doubling: its “double consciousness, in which we recognise the Victorian period as simultaneously other to and identical with our contemporary moment” (102). Jones adds to this analysis programmatic elements: steampunk, for him, is a “scathing indictment of modern culture ... both more damning and more acceptable by being voiced from the moment of that culture’s ‘birth’” (103), and an attempt “to throttle the can-do optimism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century popular fictions about science” (103).

“Industrial Evolution,” Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall’s introduction to the issue, admits in its first sentence to the difficulty of defining steampunk, but does so anyhow. Bowser and Croxall’s definition leans to the prescriptivist: “one common element arguably shared by all steampunk texts, objects, or performances is ... the invocation of Victorianism” (11). Bowser and Croxall do stress what they call steampunk’s “curiously hybrid temporality ... a past that is borrowing from the future or a future borrowing from the past” (2), and classify steampunk as a cyborg genre, in the Harawayan sense, and something that “as a genre and a paradigm resists definition” (29). But Bowser and Croxall both see Victoriana as steampunk’s source code, even if steampunk “creates a new paradigm in which technologies, aesthetics, and ideas mark different times simultaneously, instead of signposting different historical periods; anachronism is not anomalous but becomes the norm” (3). Like Jones, Bowser and Croxall see programmatic elements to steampunk, which “looks to the past to understand more contemporary anxieties” (2) and whose “most defining feature may ... be the jumbling of markers from different time periods in order to illuminate compatibility” (5). And like several of the other writers in this issue, they stress steampunk’s reliance on material culture to create “temporal connections” (6) and the centrality of technology to the genre (“we recognise steampunk generally because of the Victorian technologies—real or imagined—we see within it” [15-16]). Bowser and Croxall go beyond the other writers and see a common feature among steampunk protagonists: “it appears that the characters who operate this ‘appropriate technology’ are more often than not the creators of it rather than merely its beneficiaries” (18; emphasis in original).

Mike Perschon’s “Steam Wars” is the most descriptivist of the special issue’s articles. Perschon discusses the difficulties of defining steampunk: “defining steampunk unilaterally is challenged by what aspect of steampunk culture one is trying to define: the literature, the fashion, the bricolage artworks, or the politics” (128). Perschon settles on this definition: “it is more useful to consider steampunk as an array of visual markers which, when combined, constitute the look popularly understood as steampunk” (128). Among these markers are alternate history, albeit as a facet rather than as steampunk’s “defining quality” (128); “technofantasy, a nostalgic rather than realistic view of history, and an egalitarian treatment of women as steampunk heroes” (128-29). For Perschon, Victoriana is “largely superfluous to the narrative.... [N]evertheless, that same Victorian context is necessary to invoke the applied aesthetic that people identify as ‘steampunk’” (160).

As might be expected, the definitional claims of the article writers are flawed, some deeply. Perhaps understandably, the writers limit the number of texts they examine, but those used are generally ill-suited for analyses of steampunk’s current status. Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) is steampunk’s Ur-text, but Patrick Jagoda focuses on it to the exclusion of more recently published material, much of which—like the stories in Steampunk II—is substantially different. The use by Forlini and by Bowser and Croxall of Stephenson’s Diamond Age as a paradigmatic steampunk text is a problematic claim, not least because the faux-Victorian elements in that novel are dwarfed by the overtly far-future elements, including nanotechnology and completely restructured nation-states. Bowser and Croxall are the only authors to examine recent material, but even their choices are selectively chosen to support their argument. Equally damaging to attempts at definition are the writers’ claims of programmatic intent for steampunk creators: that “steampunk artists ... challenge contemporary technological design and help us to reconsider the value of things” (Forlini 72-73); that steampunk’s “baroque hyperbole of ... detail” represents a “yearning for complex styles and forms of beauty, in contrast to the relentless simplification of late-capitalist consumer styles” (Jones 103); that steampunk is an attempt to “throttle the can-do optimism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century popular fictions of science” (Jones 103); and that steampunk “looks to the past to understand more contemporary anxieties” (Bowser and Croxall 1). As is often the case with sweeping programmatic and ideological claims based on limited evidence, the exceptions to these statements are easily thought of and outnumber the steampunk texts that fit their description.

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded reads as if it were compiled to be a rebuke to the writers of the Journal articles. (Disclaimer: I have a story in Steampunk II.) The anthology solidly embraces the descriptivist position while also providing more ammunition for that position. In their introduction, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer state that the recent wave of steampunk fiction “has begun to move away from being purely Victorian or English in setting or culture. In another generation, the true energy behind steampunk may have moved away from Anglo settings and perspectives altogether” (11). For the Vandermeers, “steampunk has indeed become an aesthetic toolbox useful for a range of approaches” (11). This is reflected in the settings of the anthology’s stories, with only a quarter set in England and only half set in the Victorian era, and in those stories’ content, which range from gritty Westerns (Caitlin Kiernan’s “The Steam Dancer [1896]”) to far-future science fiction (Ramsey Shehadeh’s “The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe”) to a fable of Mughal India (Shweta Narayan’s “The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar”). Materiality in the form of steam technology is common to all the stories, but the radically altered alternate-history aspect of Forlini’s steampunk is not. Nor is Jones’s baroquely hyperbolic detail or the programmatic intent that Jones and Bowser and Croxall invoked. Apart from the high quality of the writing, there are few similarities among the stories, leaving the reader with the impression that the anthology’s selections are described as “steampunk,” and not “science fiction” or “gas-lamp fantasy” or “Victorian science fiction” or any of the other available critical terms, because the editors say they are rather than because of their core content.

Steampunk II is a perfect illustration of the current difficulty for prescriptivists. “Steampunk” is now widely used to describe material that does not fit the classic, prescriptivist definition. The entire range of non-literary material, from music to art, is undoubtedly short-lived—there is little reason to consider non-literary steampunk any less of a passing fad than non-literary cyberpunk was—but while it thrives it has great vitality. Arguably the premier steampunk novel of the 2000s, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009), is America-centric, and one of the foremost steampunk websites, Diana Pho’s Beyond Victoriana, is specifically about “steampunk outside of a Western-dominant, Eurocentric framework.” Increasing numbers of writers follow the lead of Steampunk II and write steampunk stories and novels set outside the nineteenth century and outside Great Britain.

Given the dissimilarity of the literary source material and the varied attempts at critical definitions, how then can a useful definition of steampunk be achieved? Ultimately Priest’s answer to this question may be the most critically useful: “I don’t believe in steampunk as a binary. I see it as more like a spectrum.” Perschon’s “array of visual markers” (128) comes close to this, but his emphasis on “visual” markers, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s assertion that “the visual subculture of steampunk continues to define what steampunk is taken to be” (qtd. in Perschon 128), places undue emphasis on the materiality of steampunk texts, as if steampunk were only defined by the technology and surface elements of the stories. Also, the idea that non-literary examples will continue to define the genre is short-sighted with regard to the eventual fate of steampunk, which will, like cyberpunk before it, eventually return to being a primarily literary phenomenon.

Bowser and Croxall’s statement that steampunk is a cyborg genre that “resists definition” is increasingly accurate, which is why defining steampunk as a spectrum of constitutive tropes and motifs rather than a coherent and discrete literary subgenre will ultimately be a more critically profitable approach. Doing so places steampunk in the same category as pulp, noir, hard-boiled, screwball, and other pseudo-genres whose definitions are forever contested by critics. If steampunk is regarded as operating along Priest’s spectrum, texts will become “more steampunk” or “less steampunk” rather than regarded in a binary, is/is-not fashion. Endless attempts to define steampunk, and time-wasting arguments over those definitions, can give way to more profitable discussions of interpretation and meaning. The spectrum allows for classic works, stories like those in Steampunk II, and the even more imaginative and outré works of the future that will be classified as steampunk. Victoriana and materiality are no longer central to the definition of steampunk, as they are no longer central to steampunk texts, but instead are only two aspects among many that can make up the genre. Thus, if common usage has changed the definition of steampunk, then critics must change their critical vocabulary and tools for discussing it.

Cox, F. Brett. “Steampunk.” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Vol. 2. Ed. Gary Westfahl. Westport, CT: 2005. 755-57.
Jeter, K.W. Letter to the Editor. Locus 57.2 (Apr. 1987): 57.
Nicholls, Peter. “Steampunk.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. 1161.
Pho, Diana. “About Beyond Victoriana: Mission Statement.” Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk. 14 July 2011. Online.
Priest, Cherie. Email to the author. 22 June 2011.


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