Is the punk in steampunk dead?

edited April 2020 in Steam
Around 2006-07, we saw a divide open up in the steampunk community.

On the one hand, there was SteamPunk Magazine trying to turn this into a political movement.

In its inaugural edition, the magazine disparaged steampunk as "simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia"; a kind of "sepia-toned yesteryear" it said was more appropriate for Disney and suburban grandparents than for a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.

On the other hand, people who rather liked dressed-up nostalgia were drawn to Brass Goggles, which dedicated itself to the "lighter side of steampunk".

It's now a decade later and I think it's safe to say the "lighter side" won out.

The punks know it. Kate Franklin and James Schafer recognized as early as 2011 that steampunk had "failed" as a movement for "social revolution". (Read my response from the time.) Eric Renderking Fisk lamented last year that steampunk had lost its "anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment aspects" -- and said he was moving on.

I'm not sure steampunk ever had those elements, but Fisk went further: he blamed "fair-weather steampunkers" for killing the movement.

"True" steampunks, he wrote (he actually used that word), integrate steampunk in their everyday lives.
You're either in a punk movement all the way or you're not. There are no half measures in punk.

Or, as Dimitri Markotin put it in SteamPunk Magazine #5:
You want steampunk to be a novelty, a LOLcat, a meme. I want it to be my life. Which of us is going to fight harder for it?

I don't know, but I can't find anything steampunk Markotin wrote in the last few years and we're still here.


  • I understand why people would want Steampunk to be more "punk", but I never felt that it relied on becoming a political counter culture. It is great that it gears a community to consider a reflection of the past, in which we can correct the faults recognizable in retrospect. In doing so, it helped many to see where we could improve life in our era. I think this is a powerful and wonderful way to grow, both individually and socially. However, in attempting to turn Steampunk into a revolution, it was doomed make an enjoyable way to learn about what shapes humanity and society into a dystopian mire of our own shortcomings...
  • For me, Steampunk is not a political movement or a tribe or a religion. It is an avenue of creative expression analogous to twelve-bar blues. I am thankful for the wonderful and inventive Steampunks and all of their contributions, including Dinsey Imagineer Tony Baxter.
  • In attempting to turn Steampunk into a revolution, it was doomed make an enjoyable way to learn about what shapes humanity and society into a dystopian mire of our own shortcomings...

    I think that's right. Just speaking from my own experience, this attempt to turn steampunk into a (left-wing) political movement soured me on the whole thing for a few years. It took the fun out of steampunk for me and I wonder if it didn't for more people.
  • Put together my thought on this in an opinion piece for Never Was: Punk Is Dead. Long Live Steampunk!
  • I never saw steampunk as a movement anyway, just like cyberpunk never was, nor scifi.

    However, steampunk can be a tool to make a political point by using 19th century examples of life, especially the differences between upperclass and the lower classes (the punks).
    Imho steampunk is too much focussed on the upper class where the aestetics demand more of the labourers and such, those who actually work with machines.

    So yes I want more politics in steampunk stories (and maybe cosplay), but more to explore the possibilities of each side. After all, politics had their impact on our beloved area, after the 1789 revolution.
  • There's a difference, though, between politics in steampunk and steampunk as politics.

    The former, I think, is totally fine. Whatever the focus of the story or creation.

    The latter is problematic. As you say, steampunk isn't a movement, much less a political movement. Some people tried to turn it into one, and it didn't work.
  • Thoughts on the "punk" in steampunk from writer Andrew Knighton:

    Some people argue that anything with the term "punk" in it should be defiantly anti-establishment, politically and socially engaged, to earn that tag.

    This leads to heated conversations about what steampunk is and whether it should be more political, especially from those trying to preserve & reinvigorate punk music's radical roots.

    I'm not convinced that it's a necessity for steampunk, as the "punk" part is there by an accident of language, not out of radical intent. In literary genre labels, "punk" effectively means "tech level", not a political or social approach.

    But I also think that, like any genre, steampunk can be politically and socially engaged, and that this can be really interesting & powerful.


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