steampunk

or steam punk, steam-punk

[ steem-puhngk ]
/ ˈstimˌpʌŋk /

noun

a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world.
a subculture inspired by this literary and film subgenre: the fashions and gadgets of steampunk.

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Origin of steampunk

First recorded in 1985–90; modeled on cyberpunk
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

VOCAB BUILDER

What does steampunk mean?

Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that features advanced machinery based on the steam-powered technology of the 1800s. It is typically set in a recognizable historical period or fantasy world. Steampunk is also an aesthetic movement that is inspired by this literary subgenre and by 19th-century technology in general, especially the steam engine.

Where does steampunk come from?

The earliest inspirations for steampunk as a literary genre come from the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Both wrote science fiction set in their own times (the late 1800s) that featured advanced technology powered by steam (hence the steam in steampunk), including flying machines, submarines, and time machines.

The steampunk aesthetic itself tends to be loosely based on the styles of the Victorian era and the American Wild West, but also features technology ahead of its time period. Essentially, steampunk imagines, “What if ____ were invented in the 1800s?” As a result, steampunk features technology that didn’t come about until after the 1800s, but it’s built using that era’s technology (i.e., powered by steam, clockwork, etc.).

Certain TV shows and movies may also have inspired the steampunk genre. Some examples are Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), the Wild Wild West TV series (1965–69), and George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960).

As for the term itself, it was most likely coined in 1987 by science fiction writer K.W. Jeter, when describing the works of Tim Powers and James Blaylock (as well as his own writing), in a letter to the science fiction magazine Locus. Jeter was most likely using the term to draw parallels with cyberpunk, a term for another science fiction genre that emerged around the same time.

In 1990, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published The Difference Engine, which is considered the first outright steampunk novel.

In the early 2000s, steampunk fashion, music, literature, and comics became more popular, especially with the rise of blogging platforms like LiveJournal and Myspace. The first steampunk convention, SalonCon, took place in 2006. Since then, other conventions and events continue to take place worldwide.

How is steampunk used in real life?

Steampunk can refer to the literary genre or style (a steampunk novel or that outfit is steampunk) as well as its fans (I’m a steampunk).

More examples of steampunk:

“To me, steampunk has always been first and foremost a literary genre, or least a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk).”

—“JRRL,” Steampunk.com (October 13, 2010)

“They build lumbering contraptions like the steampunk treehouse, a rusted-out 40-foot sculpture assembled last year at the Burning Man festival in Nevada and unveiled last month at the Coachella music festival in Southern California.”

—Ruth La Ferla, “Steampunk Moves Between 2 Worlds,” The New York Times (May 8, 2008)

Example sentences from the Web for steampunk