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Steampug art by Robin Latkovich. Available on men's and women's tees at the Worlds End shop.
Steampunk is Victorian science fiction. That’s the short answer.
The long answer? It’s a bit more complicated, but it’s far more interesting. Steampunk is science fiction as seen through the eyes of the Victorians—or as we imagine they might have envisioned the future, including our present day. The genre typically features steam-powered machinery in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the British Victorian era or the American “Wild West” in a post-apocalyptic or fantasy future during which steam power has regained mainstream use. While the most common historical steampunk settings are the Victorian and Edwardian eras, some can go as early as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne or real developments in history such as submarines, trains, airships, and computers such as Charles Babbage’s analytical engine (1837).
The term "steampunk" originated in 1987 as a tongue-in-cheek variation of cyberpunk, although many of the genre’s significant works were published in the 1960s and 1970s. The word seems to have been coined by science fiction author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for literary works by himself and others during the 1980s, all of which took place in a 19th-century setting and imitated conventions of such actual Victorian speculative fiction as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In a letter to science fiction magazine Locus, printed in the April 1987 issue, Jeter wrote:
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock, and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steam-punks,” perhaps.
Yes, steampunk is complicated. But that’s its beauty: lots of edges and angles. Speaking of angles . . .