Mon
Oct 19 2009 10:54am

There is Totally Punk in Steampunk

At a con, you will see a ton of us steampunks running around having a ton of fun. That’s our thing, having fun. There is a lot of shiny in steampunk.

Things get a little less shiny when people start asking, “Where’s the punk in steampunk?”

A lot of steampunks often decry the –punk suffix, claiming that bringing in political discussion would inevitably alienate swaths of the community. This, in turn, alienates those who do believe there is a definite punk aspect to steampunk.

I know we’re very different from the typical image of punks, who are apparently disaffected youth rebelling without a cause. For one thing, steampunks look good. And we’re mostly very civil, well-spoken people. That doesn’t mean none of us feel any identification with the –punk suffix. (And anyway, it’s not like there’s nothing in the world to not be disaffected about.)

Because I’m a bit of an asshole, I am going to point out a few things why things aren’t so shiny all the time.

 

Not all of us are into steampunk for the DIY or fashion. Really! I mean, it totally should be obvious, seeing as a major part of steampunk’s origins is literary, and a great deal of roleplaying personas tend to be based on pulp science fiction. Some of us don’t dress up, and even if we do, we may not choose to look spiffy or well-done. We may not choose to put thought into our costuming. Partly it is lack of skillz, partly it is lack of time and money, partly it is because we just don’t care about that sort of thing.

 

Some of us like tackling the hard issues. We do! We like talking politics, we like talking colonialism / postcolonialism, we discuss class schisms, and imperialism. When we research the Victorian era, it’s not for the fashion or the look of the engines, but for the politics and philosophies that emerged during that time. There are so many great writers – John Stuart Mill, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to name a few. They wrote about the problems of poverty, sexism, and other issues they felt were important.They're still important today. To write about the hard issues then is also writing about the hard issues today.

And some of us live with hard issues. Right? We haven’t forgotten the fact that most of us who are into steampunk are some form of middle-class, right? Some just hovering around the poverty line. We don’t have the money to buy beautiful clothes or make stuff. When we start touting steampunk as a fashion, with must-have gear and accessories, we place other people under obligation to look and dress a way they simply may not afford to do so. Some of us don't need that.

Aside from money issues, some of us are actually activists, whether or not we inject steampunk into that, and we carry over our activism into how we view steampunk.

There are plenty of reasons to justify the -punk in steampunk: the DIY ethic, the devil-may-care attitude of people who dress well even when there’s no reason to, the hard look we take at Victoriana’s problems, so on so forth. Some of us put the punk into our steam, and some of us steam up our punk.

This isn’t to say that if you’re into steampunk because you think it’s pretty and creative, that you’re not a “real” steampunk (determining that is an exercise which is both silly and divisive). However, when steampunks run around telling people “there’s no punk in steampunk!” it erases those of us who feel there is. As far as I can see, those of us who belong in the latter category aren’t denying the fact that some people are attracted to steampunk purely for the steamy side.

So, love you, but not loving your trying to take the punk out of steampunk. Without the –punk, we’d simply be Neo-Victorians. How boring!


Jha identifies strongly as a feminist, with a strong anti-racist streak in her. Apparently this is why her regular blog is called Rebellious Jezebel Blogging.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
69 comments
wereviking
1. wereviking
Punk is disaffected youths without a cause? Wow, with one foul line you disaffect an entire political subculture. Add the Dickens, Browning references and you do yourself a great disservice, so called feminist.

Zephyr -- a superhero webcomic in prose
http://wereviking.wordpress.com
wereviking
2. Alexandre Mandarino
Wow, I have to agree with wereviking. You don't know what you're talking about. And steampunks, good-looking? Please.
Joshua Starr
3. JStarr
@1, 2: This article is claiming the "punk" suffix as a positive thing! The line in it is "I know we’re very different from the typical image of punks, who are apparently disaffected youth rebelling without a cause." The word "apparently" there indicates that the author does NOT consider this description accurate in actuality.

And the phrase was "steampunks look good," not "are good-looking." It is talking about attention to a neat, elaborate clothing presentation, not a judgment on attractiveness.
Joshua Pfeiffer
4. VernianProcess
Yeah,

It's pretty obvious that was a sarcastic comment. Of course there's more to punk than disaffected youth rebelling against nothing. But then again a lot of young people initially get into punk to annoy their parents. That's not to say that there aren't just as many older, well adjusted people that adhere to a punk rock lifestyle because of the political activism.

Nice article Jaymee!
- -
5. heresiarch
"so called feminist"

Uh oh, Jha! Somebody on the internet revoked your feminist card! *gasp* You'd better write into the International Feminist Card Issuing Agency requesting another immediately! These things take time, you know, and until then you'll be on feminist probationary status.
wereviking
6. Sheniver
The "steam" in steampunk refers to the allusions to steam technology in the visual aesthetic shared by the community. The aesthetic is informed by visions of an era in which technological innovation continued with enhancements to already-existing centralized boiler-driven technology, perhaps circumventing internal combustion, plastics, and widespread electricity entirely. What that specifically translates to in each look is up to the interpreter's design, and can range from fully functional gadgets to simple allusion through historical reference to Victorian times.

The "punk" in steampunk is a reference to cyberpunk, because when steampunk first formed it was comprised essentially of cyberpunk (that is, dystopian high tech sci-fi) stories set during the Victorian period. The word punk is a very old English term that originally meant a prostitute, but which by the 20th century had evolved into a term meaning an outsider, a street person, or a ruffian (it's fairly clear why the punk rock subculture used this word to describe itself). There is clearly no link between the people of a steampunk setting and members of the punk subculture (simply because the environment that produced our modern "punks" did not exist during the steam age). For all practical purposes, the "punk" in steampunk is a cute turn of phrase used because it sounds interesting and exciting, without any deeper meaning than that.
GD Falksen
7. gdfalksen
One of the principle problems with discussing the concept of "punk" in a steampunk context is that the term punk is inevitably associated with 1970s punk rock and the related subculture, which were produced by a very specific set of circumstances in the post Second World War environment, which of course places it well outside of the socio-political and aesthetic context of steampunk. As I said in my steampunk 101 article, if one wishes to examine the steampunk equivalent to 20th century punk that is certainly a viable option, but as I'm sure you'll agree it looks virtually nothing like what most people associate with the term "punk."

But it does need to be reiterated that steampunk as a genre and as an aesthetic is not inherently connected to "punk" in the way that it is inherently connected to steam technology. While interested parties can certainly explore 19th century anticipations of 20th century punk, this represents one potential aspect of the genre but not the genre itself. Nevertheless, 19th century alternative, socially conscious and even radical concepts (ranging across the spectrum from abolitionism and women's rights to utopianism to nativism) all have a place in steampunk, though as you point out with your examples, at a casual glance they would seem to have nothing in common with punk.

I actually did I post on the topic of punk and steampunk some time ago over on steamfashion:
http://community.livejournal.com/steamfashion/1172356.html
wereviking
8. 123arthu
It's not like they have any great understanding of 19th century engineering either. So it's neither "steam" nor "punk". NeovicotrianMagicalCosplay would be a much better description.
wereviking
9. a. m. rtyr
No. Just... no.
wereviking
10. euphrosyne
"NeovictorianMagicalCosplay would be a much better description."

Awesome!
wereviking
11. Lord Worthey
If one really wants to get down to brass tacks then the technical definition of "punk" is a rebellion against the status quo. That is what the original punks were about, long before any kind of socio/politico activisim was added to it. It was simply that they were tired of everything considered "normal". So in dressing the way we do and being into steam power, we steampunks are indeed "punk" in the purest sense. We reject the modern plasticy mass produced look that pervades so much of our modern society. We like to dress in fashions from a past era and dream of analytical engines instead of "dell". The one thing that really bothers me about all this discussion of steampunk is that most everyone ignores the fact that steampunk does not really emulate the victorian era, we simply emulate an era in which steam is the major powersource and the associated dress styles and mannerisms are the norm for that existance. This era could be the past but it could just as well be a post-apoclyptic future, or even a parallel existance in which the world is a very different place. Too much emphasis is placed upon the victorian aspect.
wereviking
12. Viraumus
Wonderful article.
The trend within steampunk which seems to be turning it into nothing more than Neo-Victorian LARPing is really rather abhorrent to my goggled eyes. Hell, if anything steampunk has really called me back to my punk roots, and since joining the 5th Ether Rifles I've become much more involved in various types of activism.
wereviking
13. Cory Gross
Sheniver got is exactly right. "Steampunk" was a cute turn of a phrase by K.W. Jeter labelling "Victorian fantasies" in the trendy lingo of the time. It has only been relatively recently that Punk-LARPing has been introduced to it, and really, completely transformed what Steampunk was about.

I guess as Steampunk literature was Cyberpunk literature in Victorian drag, Steampunk Punk-LARPing is Cyberpunk fashion in Victorian drag. There's still nothing particularly "Punk" about it though... The only difference between a "Steampunk lifestyle" and Neo-Victorian LARPing is the relative importance they ascribe to their cute little costumes.

It's the same affliction that strikes a number of Bohemian movements: generally, people of the most enfranchised classes exorcise their ennui through fetishizing the legitimately class oppressed, reducing them to an alternative aesthetic and construing that aesthetic as a genuine progressive movement. The result is not so much something like an actual social, economic or environmental justice movement as it is a critique of mass society... A pithy complaint that the mainstream society of which Steampunks are card-carrying members is boring and tacky.

I mean, how can it possibly be lost on anyone that Steampunk became mainstream and famous at the exact same time it became Punk and alternative? Putting the Punk into Steampunk is what MADE it mainstream, because Punk is a function of the mainstream. The only people who don't seem to realize that the "Steampunk lifestyle" is not important are the people who adhere to it. Everybody else, perhaps including Neo-Victorian LARPers, recognize it for what it is: conspicuous leisure made possible by the very society it claims to oppose.

What is most disarming about this whole thing is the implicit idea that somehow Steampunk acrues a uniquely progressive politics to itself. On the one hand, there is nothing uniquely Steampunk about actually doing something to help other people. MOST of the work in social, economic and environmental justice organizations is done by normal, mainstream people guided by higher ethics than "Apple Stores are tacky!" On the other hand, dressing up in cute little costumes is not in itself equaivalent to a social, economic or environmental justice movement. No alternative aesthetic does as much to help people as actually lifting a finger to help them. And if it doesn't help people, then it's not doing anything but grinding gears and playing with pistons.

This is all above and beyond the fact, in practice, it has been the "putting the Punk in Steampunk" people who have been more active in alienating the people who aren't. They're the ones who trend towards making up cutesy derogatory, judgemental and alienating terms for the "Neo-Victorian LARPers" who aren't Real Steampunks because they don't endlessly self-promote their hobbycrafts. As I mentioned in the comments of the piece on judgementalism, they're the ones with the inceasant need to create a status hierarchy exactly because their whole movement is based around dedication to the importance of maintaining an aesthetic. From what I've seen, it's not the boring old Neo-Victorians who claim to be Steampunker Than Thou.
Jaymee Goh
14. Jha
Hi folks! (I apologize for not paying attention earlier. I had to reformat, and then I actually didn't notice this went up!)

First 2 commenters: You must have missed the parentheses where I point out that there's everything in the world to be angry about. One of my favourite phrases is, "If you aren't angry, you haven't been paying enough attention." I'm willing to cop to that maybe I'm a shitty writer, though.

heresiarch: Oh n0s! ... There was a Feminist Card Issuing Agency?! How did I not know?! Oh woe!

123arthu: NeovicotrianMagicalCosplay

AHA! That should totally be its own category.

Sheniver, gdfalksen, Cory: (You latter two, I think I know you too well: I expected you to come in here decrying the -punk!) Yes. No. Yes. No. Remember my article a long while back on the post-modern state of steampunk? Here's where I'm coming from on it: steampunk, as it is now, is a phenomenon. It's got a half-dozen points of origins, and it has no real stable, linear source. As such, yes, the literary origin of steampunk is inextricably tied to cyberpunk. But what about everything else?

I don't believe, Cory, that steampunk is mainstream because of the punk injected into it. Then again, here is where our paths diverge once more: in my experience, those who're ultimately self-reflexive about what they're doing are the ones nicer about the whole thing, than the ones who shut down the "punk" conversation.

I am not saying, however, that there is anything inherently punk about steampunk. I never said that. I merely said, if you don't believe there's anything punk about steampunk, that's cool. People participate in steampunk in various ways. But to tell others, 'hey, don't be punk when steampunking' can kill other people's fun.
Jaymee Goh
15. Jha
Vernian Process: Ya think? I personally think it's my weakest thus far. Too much didn't get covered. Thanks, anyway!
wereviking
16. Cory Gross
Nuts! You're on to me!
Ashe Armstrong
17. AsheSaoirse
I dig the overall message of this and I'm mostly in the same camp of seeing the "punk" in steampunk. Or maybe injecting it. Whatever. I love the aesthetics, the literary and the socio-political-philosophical sides. There's always more to life than a few things though and usually, things get filtered through your own perceptions, changing it up slightly in your own little way.
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18. heresiarch
Sheniver @ 6: ” For all practical purposes, the "punk" in steampunk is a cute turn of phrase used because it sounds interesting and exciting, without any deeper meaning than that.”

Yeah, because it’s not like, *snort*, anyone ever took a label and, like, subverted and repurposed it! *chuckle* I mean, really! Honestly, you’d think that people thought social constructions were subject to reinterpretation or something! Like they could just borrow what they like and discard the rest!

”The word punk is a very old English term that originally meant a prostitute, but which by the 20th century had evolved into a term meaning an outsider, a street person, or a ruffian (it's fairly clear why the punk rock subculture used this word to describe itself).”

Oh wait.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
19. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
@heresiarch: This.

Because words aren't frozen in time. They evolve to reflect the cultural spaces they are used in.
wereviking
20. CaffeinatedGuy
What, to me, alienates Steampunk from, well, Punk, would be the fact that, if you examine the characters who are the subjects, generally, they tend to be, well, upper class.

While I hesitate to draw a direct line between the use of the term "punk" in terms of, say 1977 punk rock sex pistols anarchy in the UK, I'd like to point out earlier meanings of the word punk - for example, it can mean a young person, it can mean a rent boy, it can mean the bride in a prison romance, and it was used often to describe upstarts of many flavours.

What I loved about Steampunk magazine #1 was that most of the stories were based around characters who weren't members of the ruling classes. I was very disappointed when this trend wasn't continued.
wereviking
21. spiffkt
CaffeinatedGuy: I definitely see what you mean, but there are definitely steampunk books/stories that feature working-class characters, or a mix of classes, and I generally find them to be the most interesting and awesome. It is kind of sad that you have to hunt for them, though, given the "punk" thing.
wereviking
22. Cory Gross
CaffeinatedGuy: That's the problem with fetishizing the legitimately class-oppressed... Most people don't tend to fantasize about being worse off than they actually are. Bohemian-types, like Steampunks, only manage it by convincing themselves that fetishizing poverty is somehow socially proactive, as though reading a story about poor people means you have the right feelings about poor people and that's kind of like doing something for poor people. But if you're not into fetishizing poverty or don't think that having the right feelings about poverty is like doing something about it, then I guess you're just a boring old Neo-Victorian anyways.
wereviking
23. CaffeinatedGuy
If I'm perfectly honest, it's partially my own taste; I just don't feel connected to the Victorian Aristocracy, regardless of how detached they are from their antique benefactors. It just doesn't sit right with me.

I think that the Victorian world on the ground in reality, was at least as ludicrous and interesting as anything which we can dream up and place into a neo-Victorian framework.

What's more, I think that there's a great deal of freedom when you approach the class system from the top down - although you have to be much more creative, and think in smaller ways, that while you can't say "Dr Scratchensnif sent his manservant to gather the necessary parts," you unlock a whole new world, literally, of street urchins and ragamuffins and intensely interesting characters who are not beholden to act like lords and ladies.
- -
24. heresiarch
Cory Gross @ 22: "That's the problem with fetishizing the legitimately class-oppressed... Most people don't tend to fantasize about being worse off than they actually are."

I know! Like, remember that one story about the really rich person who had no problems? So popular. Unlike those stories about the person who started with nothing, facing unwinnable odds--no one reads that kind of crap.
wereviking
25. Cory Gross
heresiarch: Ah, I can see where we are at odds. When you read escapist literature to fantasize, you want to read about poor people becoming famous and wealthy. You don't begin with someone in an equivalent or higher social and economic position, but with someone in a lower position reaching your equivalent or higher position. It's sort of the Cinderella theory of Punk where you admire the fictionalized struggle of someone you would never actually want to be in a million years.

Being a dusty, boring Neo-Victorian myself, I tend to fantasize about exploration and adventure, where the conflict situations are not so much about upward class mobility as not getting eaten by dinosaurs. In most of those cases, the characters being aristocrats - like Prof. Challenger or Capt. Nemo - is a necessary plot device to get them into that situation. There would be no Nautilus if Nemo wasn't one of the richest men on Earth before taking to the seas. There would have been no expedition to the Lost World without the funding of the Royal Society.

If I wanted stories about upward class mobility, besides watching Disney movies, I would probably go help down at the local shelter. There's lots of heartrending stories you can listen to, and the best/worst thing is, they actually happened.
- -
26. heresiarch
Cory Gross @ 25: "You don't begin with someone in an equivalent or higher social and economic position, but with someone in a lower position reaching your equivalent or higher position."

This is such a incoherent critique of 'punk I can't even satirize it. I don't know where to begin. Okay, how about that old cyberpunk standby, "Johnny Mnemonic?" Because he ends up so wealthy in the end.

"Being a dusty, boring Neo-Victorian myself, I tend to fantasize about exploration and adventure, where the conflict situations are not so much about upward class mobility as not getting eaten by dinosaurs."

Ah, it's good to know that your fantasies are about absolutely unproblematic things like wealthy Europeans exercising technological domination over "virgin," "uninhabited" nature instead of engaging in awful, self-deceptive fantasies like wishing our society were a more egalitarian place. Clearly, fetishizing the capacity of wealth is totally a fitting complement to real social action in a way that dreaming about social action (plus steam-powered robots!) isn't.

"If I wanted stories about upward class mobility, besides watching Disney movies, I would probably go help down at the local shelter. There's lots of heartrending stories you can listen to, and the best/worst thing is, they actually happened."

Aww, so cute! That's an adorably implausible attempt at concern trolling. "If you don't go down to the shelter and listen to poor people's sob stories, then your commitment to social action is clearly a hollow facade." I guess we're all just fakers then!
wereviking
27. T-Boy
Did I just hear someone argue that the "I got in here because The Difference Engine was cool" crowd were just disaffected cyber/cypherpunks who decided that they preferred gears over circuitry and goggles over mirrorshades?

Because, inverting that argument, I could say that the "I got in here because I like to dress up" crowd are just Goths who decided that they're sick and tired of wearing heavy makeup and monochromatic clothing.

No, seriously. We can start arguing about lineage crap here. But you know what? It's a bad idea. It's dumb. It gets nowhere, and it's a repeat of the "you're a poser!" argument. Let's not do it.

Jhameia's argument has been so far that steampunk has multiple sources, and people join for many reasons. You cannot deny that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk writers of pretty good standing, did not contribute to the attitudes of steampunk. Oh, actually, you can, but do not go that road. It is a road paved with thorns.

I dunno what Cory and GD are doing, but it looks like they're trying to say that people who add punk into their steampunk are misguided, or wrong, and that's not steampunk.

Don't do that, people. It is a very bad idea. Yeah, you're right people will be turned away by the anti-authoritarianism, but if you dike it out, sure you'll gain a quick burst of popularity, but what you'll end up with is a hollow parody of the aesthetic you so love.

Think the angry bitter cyberpunk-manques are bad? You wait until the bitter angsty 15-year olds come in. Or steampunk stuff being sold on Hot Topic. You will rue the day. Rue it I tell you.
Jaymee Goh
28. Jha
My god, you people, I go away from the internets a few days and you've decided to troll each other.

And to your bait, Cory, I'll bite - you actually don't need to go down to the local shelter. I have (at a local sex worker support services center), and you hauling your middle-class-privileged ass down there doesn't mean anything to the people if they feel you don't care about them.

Some of us like adventures and some of us like tackling systematic issues of poverty. Why is this a big deal?
- -
29. heresiarch
"Some of us like adventures and some of us like tackling systematic issues of poverty."

And some of us like both! Maybe even at the same time.
wereviking
30. CaffeinatedGuy
Well, personally, my favourite Steampunk novel is probably The Diamond Age.

Steampunk: i iz doing it wrong?
wereviking
31. Whisper
T-Boy, thank you. You are saying things I have not been able to properly express, and thank you so much for it.

To people saying that the majority of people involved with steampunk are upper-class or focusing on upper-class, there ARE people who are working on and from the lower and lowest class. Myself included. The problem tends to be that the upper and middle classes have money and influence. The lower and lowest... often just have voices. Doesn't mean we stop, just means it's harder to see us. I am fortunate enough to have made friends with an event coordinator and be included the development team in charge of a steampunk event happening next May. So I'm trying to make certain that the event doesn't get skewed too far one way or the other, but rather shows off all sides of steampunk.

I would love to talk to more people who into the non-privileged side of things! ^_^ The side where the 'punk really takes root.
wereviking
32. Cory Gross
Brilliant! I thought you might have gone for something more obvious like my having white privilege or male privilege, but you went for something called "middle class privilege" (which, I guess, means the privilege of burying myself in student debt for the hope of having to work a job for the rest of my life that won't make me want to kill myself while trying to find roommates who won't make me want to kill them).

Thank you... I think that might actually articulate some of my problem with the Punkiness: being told by other middle class people that I'm inferior, not because of what I do or don't do, but because of my taste in fiction.

You ask "Some of us like adventures and some of us like tackling systematic issues of poverty. Why is this a big deal?" But remember, YOU'RE the one who was trashing on boring old "Neo-Victorians" to begin with. And that because we may not be interested in reading fiction about tackling systemic issues of poverty (which isn't exactly the same thing as actually tackling systemic issues of poverty). Apparently the inferiority of people who like adventures already was a big deal.
wereviking
33. legionseagle
In the unlikely event that I ever find myself having to explain the Earth concept of "irony" to a group of sentient aliens, I shall probably start from this post. How anyone can come out with a statement like
I know we’re very different from the typical image of punks, who are apparently disaffected youth rebelling without a cause. For one thing, steampunks look good. And we’re mostly very civil, well-spoken people.
and then decry an adverse commenter by accusing him of "middle-class privilege" frankly boggles the imagination.

I'm not going to claim to have been at the original Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall (an event of which it really can be said that if all the people who claimed to have been there really had been it would have been like Woodstock, to quote Spike). But for my generation and class background in the UK punk was a very vital and important force and your comments above come over as both appropriative and dismissive, as well as reeking of class privilege.
- -
34. heresiarch
Cory Gross @ 32: "I think that might actually articulate some of my problem with the Punkiness: being told by other middle class people that I'm inferior, not because of what I do or don't do, but because of my taste in fiction."

You're weirdly sensitive about people telling other people which fiction to like for someone whose entire presence on this thread has consisted of telling steampunkers that they're DOIN IT RONG. (Speaking of examples of this strange hew-MON concept called "irony.")

legionseagle @ 33: "How anyone can come out with a statement like....and then decry an adverse commenter by accusing him of "middle-class privilege" frankly boggles the imagination."

I think the keys words in that quote you pulled are "typical image." Jha was talking about people's superficial judgements about punks and steampunks, not the two group's meaningful characteristics.
wereviking
35. legionseagke
heresiarch@34 So, what you're saying is, basically, that provided you acknowledge that something is an unfair, superficial stereotype that denigrates someone else's lived experience you can get to use it all you like? Cool! I expect my internet life will get a lot more lively once I start putting that rule into practice.
Jaymee Goh
36. Jha
Cory: You're the one who brought up the whole "go volunteer at a shelter" thing. Yes, I do think a focus on Neo-Victorianism is superficial and shallow, but I'm not about to stop people from indulging in it. Because that side of steampunk is also good.

Remember where we're both in agreement here: that a hierarchy of HOW to view / do something leads to nonsense that nobody really needs. Now, I know from your experience, it's always been elitists telling you whether *you* were steampunk or not based on your more textual perspective and refusal to participate in facets you just don't want to. Seriously, who could blame you? In my experience, it's always been the Neo-Vics implying I'm wasting my time indulging in steampunk the way I want to, which is the more politicized form.

(On another note, it could be we're both reacting to the same thing here, just from different perspectives.)

legionseagke: I'm not sure what you're criticizing here. Steampunks do generally behave civilly, from what I have seen. Steampunks also range from several perspectives and positions of privilege. There's no contradiction between the two.

The punk scenes in the UK and North America have some differences. (And of course, the punk scenes across North America are also different, depending on location.) I personally have much more respect for the UK punk scene (and the steampunk scene is also gaining some serious momentum), but like steampunk itself, punk cannot be pinned down to a single concept and mean different things to different people. Perhaps you, like my first two commenters, missed the irony of the sentence you quoted. Perhaps I'm a bad writer. I'm willing to cop to that, and to the point that perhaps I've done some disrespectful appropriation. I'll be more certain next time I attempt to take the perspective of participant AND audience at the same time.
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37. heresiarch
legionseagle @ 34: "So, what you're saying is, basically, that provided you acknowledge that something is an unfair, superficial stereotype that denigrates someone else's lived experience you can get to use it all you like?"

Er, no. I'm saying that you can bring up unfair, superficial stereotypes in order to knock them down. Jha is arguing that steampunks can be (not must be) punk, DESPITE the fact that they violate popular stereotypes of punkishness--it seems pretty clear that she doesn't think that popular stereotypes of punk are terribly on the mark. If she thought the "disaffected youth without a cause" was anything like accurate, then why would she being trying to apply that label to steampunk?
wereviking
38. Cory Gross
"You're the one who brought up the whole "go volunteer at a shelter" thing."

True, because I believe that if you're going to create an elitist meritocracy, it should be based on something of actual substance. Reading fiction about class conflict does not give someone Punky points. Unless you actually do something about those problems, then its every bit as shallow and superficial as you claim "Neo-Victorians" are. And if you actually do something about the problems, then crow about how THAT makes you a deeper and more enlightened person. Don't waste people's time crowing about the kind of fiction you prefer, or outfits you wear, or whatever else it is that Steampunks think makes them better than everybody else.

"Yes, I do think a focus on Neo-Victorianism is superficial and shallow, but I'm not about to stop people from indulging in it. Because that side of steampunk is also good."

These two sentences encapsulate a fairly consistent problem with your pieces. You'll exclaim at length about how Neo-Victorianism is shallow, superficial, potentially racist and generally inferior to your perspective, and then jump in at the last second with a rather perfunctory attempt at an egalitarian "but if you like it that's okay." It rings hollow.

Shall I attempt the inverse? Neo-Victorianism is an educated appreciation of the romance of nature and science embodied in history through the lens of 19th century aesthetics. These are enlightened pursuits hearkening back to the eternal verities of Goodness, Truth and Beauty. For really, it is only a shallow and superficial viewpoint that would dismiss nature, science, history and aesthetics as worthless. If all you're into is goggles, dirty mecha, crude characters and ugly computer casemods, then you're really just kind of a Steampunk, aren't you? How boring would that be? But, I mean, don't get me wrong; if you're into something as dreadfully dull and asinine as Steampunk, that's okay too. I wouldn't want to harsh your squee.

"(On another note, it could be we're both reacting to the same thing here, just from different perspectives.)"

I guess I'd actually have to hear your story. The one I'm familiar with from what I've seen and experienced is that Steampunk was going along fine when someone discovered the label and felt it was somehow or other ABOUT grinding their particular axe. They bring this up to Steampunk fans who turn around and tell the person that this is all very well and good if that's what they're into, but that's not really what Steampunk is ABOUT. Steampunk isn't Punk. Then the person who wants Steampunk to be Punk (meaning: about grinding their personal axes) complains that they've been judged and made to feel unwelcome by those horrible poseurs/Neo-Victorians/talkabouters/etc. who don't "get" Steampunk like they "get" Steampunk.

Of course, that whole discussion was circa 2007. The newbies who feel that they really "get" Steampunk better than the people who have been into it for decades found enough people who shared their radical views to crush out the old time fans by sheer weight of numbers. By Jove, they succeeded in turning Steampunk into a movement of Petite Bourgeoisie Punks parading their empty DIY fashion statements around for a trend-hungry media. By late 2009, writing an article about how Steampunk is totally Punk is just beating a dead horse and kicking the boring old "Neo-Victorians" while they're already down.
wereviking
39. legionseagle
Jha: I don't think, really, that adding the word, "apparently" into a stereotyped opinion magically transforms it into something which it ought to be clear to the average reader you are citing only to rebut. I mean, take the following two sentences:

"Obama is apparently someone who was born in Kenya but who procured a birth certificate showing him to be born in Hawaii for nefarious political reasons".

"Steampunks who emphasis the "punk" aspect are apparently people with their hearts in the right place but with such a superficial knowledge of Victorian history, literature and political thought that they can unironically cite Elizabeth Barrett Browning as an example of a writer tackling the problems of poverty and sexism without addressing the problematic point that the leisure which allowed Elizabeth Barratt to sit on a sofa in a laudanum- induced haze for twenty-odd years bewailing the evils of child labour was financed by her father's very prosperous slave-worked sugar plantations."

One of them is a sentence I don't believe and present satirically, one is one which I do and present "straight". How can you tell which is which?

Actually, I think the fact that at least three commenters "missed the irony" in your post, instead finding it offensive, suggests the answer to that question.

heresiarch: I read Jha as asserting a claim that steampunk was punk with the nasty, grungy, working-class bits erased from it, actually. That may not have been her intention, but it was very definitely what I, among others, seem to have taken from her phrasing.


Incidentally, at 24 above you seem to be talking about working class characters in steampunk in terms of a Smillie-esque philosophy of Self-Improvement. Nothing wrong with that - impeccably Victorian and all that - but does anyone ever enquire who raises the steam in steampunk? Where are the black gangs who shovel the coal to keep the boilers fed, who mines the coal, who works the steel to make the turbine blades and so forth? I know very little about steampunk but the various pictures of working class characters given above don't seem to produce much between "street urchin" and "aspirational Jack-the-lad". Where's the sweated labour coming from to keep the pistons turning?
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40. heresiarch
Cory Gross @ 38: "Reading fiction about class conflict does not give someone Punky points. Unless you actually do something about those problems, then its every bit as shallow and superficial as you claim "Neo-Victorians" are. And if you actually do something about the problems, then crow about how THAT makes you a deeper and more enlightened person. Don't waste people's time crowing about the kind of fiction you prefer, or outfits you wear, or whatever else it is that Steampunks think makes them better than everybody else."

Yeah, because back in the seventies Punks placed absolutely no importance on stupid superficial things like the music you listen to or the clothes you wear. It was all about direct action! Yeah, I remember that one time the Sex Pistols cancelled their show to go to a shelter and listen to poor people's life stories. The Punkest event I ever attended.

legionseagle @ 39: "That may not have been her intention, but it was very definitely what I, among others, seem to have taken from her phrasing."

I can see where you got that reading, but I think it is inaccurate. Jha's already said multiple times that that wasn't what she meant, and that she wrote that paragraph poorly--why are you still going after her?

"Incidentally, at 24 above you seem to be talking about working class characters in steampunk in terms of a Smillie-esque philosophy of Self-Improvement."

I was actually talking about all stories, steampunk or otherwise. My point was--to extract it from the satire--that generally people wouldn't actually want to live in the world or the lives of the stories they like to read. I mean, who would actually go through what Frodo goes through? Even the most escapist escapism you can find usually involves a fabulously rich and talented heir to the kingdom whose life is nonetheless constantly in danger, or who is constantly crossed in love: it's nothing any person sanely wants for themselves. That is just as true for steampunk as it is for any other genre.

"Where are the black gangs who shovel the coal to keep the boilers fed, who mines the coal, who works the steel to make the turbine blades and so forth?"

I think those are good questions, and it's when steampunk addresses them more directly that it's both the most interesting to read and the closest to earning its "punk" moniker. The Swanwick/Gunn story on this site, for example, and Mieville's New Crobuzon novels for another.

I think that steampunk is in some ways better suited for addressing the darker aspects of the Victorian Age than straight Neo-Victorianism. I mean, reading about eight year olds working eighteen hour shifts and dying before puberty page after page is soul-crushing. No matter how righteous your politics, that isn't fun, and so people avoid it. Toss in a few neat steam robots, however, and maybe a rags-to-riches storyline, and it becomes a bit more agreeable. A spoonful of airships helps the oppression go down, I guess.
wereviking
41. Cory Gross
So wait, are you agreeing with me that calling Steampunk "Punk" is superficial, elitist and annoying? Now I'm confused.
wereviking
42. Piechur
More punk in steampunk! More rag'n'roll!
NO retro-FUTURE!!!
wereviking
43. SB Frank
This is an awesome discussion. And for the record, Steam punk is an awesome genre name. I mean, if you were a Sci/Fi Fan, you might get stuck reading or writing a genre called Space Opera (shudder).
wereviking
44. Piechur
Good point, SB Frank. "Steampunk" is only a name. If K.W. Jeter had called it "steamopera" or "steampop", would we insist on "more opera in steamopera" or "more pop in steampop"? C'mon...
wereviking
45. CaffeinatedGuy
Even if we take the -punk suffix as merely a holdover from Cyberpunk, it still carries a meaning in that context.

Cyberpunk isn't about the big city execs who dabble in hacking (generally) as a pastime.
wereviking
46. Piechur
But it is merely a holdover from Cyberpunk - a joke. Except the name (plus "The Difference Engine" and "Sebastian O") steampunk has nothing to do with cyberpunk, so why should we even compare these two completely different genres?
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47. heresiarch
Piechur @ 44: "If K.W. Jeter had called it "steamopera" or "steampop", would we insist on "more opera in steamopera" or "more pop in steampop"? C'mon..."

You think "space opera" was named at random? Er, no--it was named space opera because people noticed that in its epic scope, melodrama, and general larger-than-life nature, it was a lot like opera. Just like, gee I dunno let me think of an example, cyberpunk reminded people of, oh what's that mid-seventies cultural movement, oh yeah! Punk. And then steampunk emerged from people borrowing a lot of concerns and tropes from cyberpunk and dropping them into a different technological setting. It's not a terribly unnatural leap: Gibson-esque techno-dystopias and the Victorian period bear a number of powerful congruences. Large businesses operating with considerable extra-judicial powers and an utter disregard for human life, check. Vast swathes of disenfranchised people scrabbling for survival and/or destroying themselves with drugs, check. Technological changes outstripping people's ability to keep pace, check.

@ 46: "Except the name (plus "The Difference Engine" and "Sebastian O") steampunk has nothing to do with cyberpunk"

Except for like, the founding work, they have nothing in common! Right. And China Mieville has never even read Gibson!
wereviking
48. Piechur
@heresiarch (47): "And then steampunk emerged from people borrowing a lot of concerns and tropes from cyberpunk and dropping them into a different technological setting."

Really? More examples, please (other than those two I've mentioned).

@heresiarch (47): "And China Mieville has never even read Gibson!"

You mean "Perdido" being a steampunk'd cyberpunk? Well, I think that Mieville is a socialist rather than a Gibson-follower.
wereviking
49. Piechur
@heresiarch
If you can't give me an example, then I'll give you one. In "Victoriana" RPG you can play "gutter-runner" (equivalent of cyberpunk shadowrunner or net-runner). Another left-wing steampunk RPG is "Universal Republic" from France.

But believe me, these are exceptions from the general rule, which says:
Cyberpunk is High-Tech Low-Life,
Steampunk is Low-Tech High-Life.
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50. heresiarch
Piechur @ 48: "More examples, please (other than those two I've mentioned)."

Well, ranging so far afield as the top bar of this site, Zeppelin City. Also mentioned earlier this month: the artist James Ng, and if you don't see the cyberpunk influence on this guy's cybernetic arm,* then I really just don't know what to say. The influences are if not omnipresent then at the least quite prevalent.

...So easy, in fact, that you found them yourself! Why, again, did you ask me?

"You mean "Perdido" being a steampunk'd cyberpunk?"

No. Steampunk isn't just cyberpunk in steam clothing--it's its own thing, just like punk is its own thing despite drawing on a number of other, distinct cultural thingamawhatsits. I point to the New Crobuzon books as something which is both existing within the steampunk tradition (steam-driven reMade, industrializing society) and also drawing on cyberpunk tropes (fReemade, urban dystopia). I say again: Steampunk is neither a mindless iteration of cyberpunk, nor something wholly divorced from it. It borrows (with an almost unholy glee) from all sorts of other genres, but among them cyberpunk is quite distinctly present.

"Well, I think that Mieville is a socialist rather than a Gibson-follower."

You say that like it's an either/or kind of thing.

@ 49: "Cyberpunk is High-Tech Low-Life,
Steampunk is Low-Tech High-Life."


Leaving aside entirely the question of how wise it is to put forth a four-word definition of ANY genre, those definitions are particularly weak. Cyberpunk isn't about crushing poverty as much as it is about the juxtaposition of that crushing poverty with the ridiculous wealth and privilege of the other 1%. The flipside of cyberpunk's edgy drug addicts are the megaconglomerate pharmaceuticals making those drugs--the former can't exist without the latter. It is about wealth disparity run amok: the preferred point of view for examining that dynamic is negotiable, and plenty of cyberpunk authors play around with it. Gibson himself includes plenty of middle-class characters, and even a few obscenely rich ones.

Defining steampunk as "low tech" is similarly bizarre. Come on--it's a genre whose very name (and not even the borrowed half) is about technology. The relative level of that tech is orthogonal to its centrality. Your definition invokes images of a hierarchy of science fiction, where the more advanced tech is more science-fictional. (Reynolds and Banks FTW!) That's not so: steampunk is (or at least can be**) about tech just as much (or as little) as any other science fiction.

These definitions of yours are cocktail party definitions: calculated to yield laughter, not insight.

*Also a concern acquired from cyberpunk: an awareness of the changes technology can wreak on our own physicality.

**Sure, steampunk also includes plenty of hand-wavium (particularly about the amount of mechanical energy steam engines can generate), and often gleefully throws science entirely aside. That's irrelevant to the question of the "tech level" of the genre: magic is just another technology if what you're interested in is the effects of on society.
wereviking
51. Piechur
Do you want more definitions? Here you are.

Do you want corporations, collectivism and working class heroes? Go to dieselpunk. You're looking in a wrong place, I'm afraid.

Do you want more artificial limbs? Watch "Star Wars". Luke Skywalker had one,Darth Vader had four and General Grevious had six! Thay are more cyberpunk than your Sheriff :)
wereviking
52. Piechur
@ heresiarch (50) "...So easy, in fact"
Really? So I'm gonna ask you a simpler question: how many examples can YOU give out of 2.500 steampunk works on my list? Do they make a signifant number or even a noticeable minority? Or are they still an odd exception?
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53. heresiarch
Goodness, what a finely-honed and cutting deconstruction of my position. How could I ever have been so wrong. Woe, woe is I. Clearly dieselpunk is the one true home of working class heroes, and no other genre shall impinge on its holy and righteous monopoly thereupon. Clearly, Star Wars is the one true home of artificial limbs, and no one shall impinge thereupon. How shall I ever recover from this grievous blow to mine ego. How, how I ask you how.
wereviking
54. Piechur
Can you stop woe-ing and start answering my simple question instead?
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55. heresiarch
Piechur @ 54: "Can you stop woe-ing and start answering my simple question instead?"

Oh sure, just let me take a couple of minutes to track down and watch/read/play 2,400 (give or take a few) works--then I'll answer your "simple" question.

I've pointed out plenty of examples already, and I never claimed that ALL OF STEAMPUNK draws on a single source--that's patently absurd. Period literature is another major source, obviously, and plenty of steampunk hews a lot closer to that tradition than to cyberpunk. Nevertheless, cyberpunk's sticky fingerprints are all over the genre: sometimes as a major influence, sometimes as a minor one (and occasionally not there at all).

*looks at list*

Wait, you include the Diamond Age? Well hell, if I had known I could count that as steampunk, the whole cyberpunk/steampunk connection would have been WAY easier to demonstrate. (Actually, Stephenson's career as a whole works pretty well as a demonstration of the progression from cyber- to steam-.)

***

Honestly, I'm getting really bored with these definitional arguments. Binary yes/no distinctions don't really offer that much. Get back to me when you're ready to stop beating your head against the "Is steampunk ?" wall, and start discussing how steampunk is and is not related to other genres, how it rejects, embodies, or transcends those other traditions. Like how steampunk's depiction of technology as big and clunky and physical rejects cyberpunk's infatuation with the small and the intangible, for starters.
wereviking
56. Piechur
So you've found only one, heresiarch? Wow. Just wow.

To sum it up - your argumentation is as thin as your knowledge of steampunk. Spare us your trolling next time.
- -
57. heresiarch
That is a great list though, by the way. Kudos.
wereviking
58. Piechur
Thanks.

BTW. In (47) you wrote:
You think "space opera" was named at random? Er, no--it was named space opera because people noticed that in its epic scope, melodrama, and general larger-than-life nature, it was a lot like opera.

Really? Wikipedia claims something completely opposite:
In 1941, science fiction fan Bob Tucker (who was also science fiction writer Wilson Tucker) coined the term "space opera" (by analogy to "horse opera" and "soap opera") to describe what he characterized as "the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving for that matter."

Well, don't you think that there's a big difference between "opera" and "soap opera"? You seem to have a tendency to misinterpret jokes and word-plays.
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59. heresiarch
Piechur @ 58: "Well, don't you think that there's a big difference between "opera" and "soap opera"?"

Patently. Nonetheless, why are soap operas called "operas?" Wiktionary says it comes "from the fact that the shows were so melodramatic." Much like space operas, which are "science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure." "Crying cowboy" horse operas demonstrate the same melodrama. All you've done is isolate the particular lineage through which the term emerged.
wereviking
60. Piechur
Here's the hint: unlike "opera", a "soap opera" is a pejorative term.
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61. heresiarch
That depends entirely on who's using it, doesn't it? I'm guessing that in the ears of these folks, soap opera has a rather pleasant ring to it. Just another example of you not getting to decide what a word means for other people.

Purely out of curiosity, do you think that an absolutely complete and correct definition of "steampunk" can be made?
wereviking
62. Piechur
1) There's always someone who likes the worst piece of crap. It doesn't change public opinion about this crap.

2) Yes, I do. It depends on the approach (descriptive definition is not the only possible). But until now nobody's made it.
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63. heresiarch
And that, I think, is the root of our disagreement. We're not just arguing over the definition of steampunk; we're arguing over the definition of genre.

(Fair warning: tl;dr incoming.)

Genre is not a static thing. Steampunk doesn’t exist because K.W. Jeter wrote a comment in some fan journal in 1983. It has an existence independent of its label: indeed, it must, since otherwise what would Jeter have been naming? Steampunk-the-process was happening before it was called steampunk, and continued to happen after. One of the ways it continued to happen after is that it interacted with its name in much the way a quantum particle reacts to being observed—it shifted. Is it possible that the whole infusion of punk aesthetics and philosophy are purely a result of a one-off witticism? It’s certainly arguable, though I would disagree: Punk influences could have (did) enter steampunk from a number of different sources (fashion: punk?goth?steampunk; DIY: punk? Maker?steampunk; literature: punk?cyberpunk?steampunk; so forth). More to the point, however, it doesn’t matter how it got there. What matters is that it’s there, it resonates with people, it’s something people think of as being part of steampunk. Just like the apocryphal saints in Catholicism, or the Buddha-attributed sutras that don’t appear until centuries after his death, they’re now just as much a part of the symbolic landscape of the genre as the stuff that can be backed with fact. When it comes to symbolism, historicity is pretty much just another way for people to connect things.

To put it another way, genre doesn’t have any independent existence from what people think of it. If everyone decides tomorrow steampunk is about pretty princess dresses, then so it is: steampunk is twelve year-old girl couture. Obviously, that’s rather unlikely to come about, but not because there’s some inherent quality of steampunk-osity that abhors pink. It’s because those concepts don’t relate particularly strongly in people’s brains. That’s all any definition is: connections people have made in their brains.

That’s what buggers it all up: while the definition of steampunk that exists within your brain shares a whole lot in common with the definition that exists in my brain (i.e. there are a lot of things that we could both point to and agree is steampunk), they aren’t identical. No one’s definitions are. All of those definitions are equally valid—they all exist in exactly one mind, after all. Now, examining how these definitions compare with each other, which traits are dominant, which ones are less so, and how they change, as a group, over time and so forth are all very interesting and fruitful avenues of inquiry, but none of them are going to lead you to the One True Definition of Steampunk. No such thing exists. That’s what I was trying to get @ 55: seeking to define, definitively, steampunk will yield nothing but tears. The most you can hope for is some insight-generating observations.
wereviking
64. Piechur
Have you really read my post, heresiarch? Read it once again: descriptive definition is not the only possible. You seem to get stuck to it, but there are other types of definitions (functional, normative etc).

Besides, I think you're much too serious about your philosophy. Relax.
wereviking
65. Piechur
Hint: try to find a common denominator for twelve year-old girl couture, DIY guy and K.W. Jeter. Don't ask WHAT they do, but WHY do they do it. What attracts them and what effect do they get?
wereviking
66. Piechur
One hour later...

Heresiarch, I'm extremely grateful to you for discussing a definition of steampunk with me. There's no sarcasm this time, I'm deadly serious. Your last post was so inspiring that after ten years of research and examining steampunk I've finally had a brainwave and made up an all-inclusive definition! It's not very complex, not very original, it desn't even mention speculative fiction or aesthetics, but I believe that's precisely what all different faces of steampunk are about. Ta-da:

"Cool 19th century"

Ovation, courtain, credits :)
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67. heresiarch
Piechur @ 66: "Heresiarch, I'm extremely grateful to you for discussing a definition of steampunk with me."

You're welcome! I'm glad it's been useful.

"Cool 19th century"

For three words, that's not bad. However: The Diamond Age? The Peshawar Lancers? Or at the other end of the chronological spectrum, The Baroque Cycle?

It also suffers from the problem that most maximally inclusive definitions do: it doesn't offer any explanation of WHY people have selected that criteria to base a genre on, and not, say, "cool 2000 B.C.," or "cool scientist protagonists." That's the central question that any definition must address: why divide things this way, and not the zillion other equally logical divisions? That's when you have to confront the fact that, well, not everyone is dividing things along the same lines. We're talking statistically significant clustering areas, not rock-hard boundaries.

Delany observed that perhaps we should stop trying to define SF, and start trying to describe it. The same is true of steampunk: saying "this is one important element to steampunk," or "I have noticed that a lot of steampunk shares this theme" is a lot more useful than saying "this element is the true core of steampunk" or "this theme is essential to 'real' steampunk." The latter just pisses off anyone who doesn't already agree, whereas the former might open their eyes to an aspect they hadn't noticed before of the thing they enjoy.
wereviking
68. Piechur
In one post you claim that defining steampunk is impossible, in the next you postulate describing the genre. Please note that according to Mike Perschon there's no genre, only a style.

You've pointed "The Diamond Age", "The Peshawar Lancers" and "The Baroque Cycle", for these books aren't set in the real 19th century. But that's the name of the game. "WarMachine" is set in an extraterrestrial fantasy Middle Age and everyone recognizes it as valid steampunk. If the auhor decides to set his fictional version of the 19th century on another planet or in the anachronistic era (for better effect), let him do it. On the other hand you can call "The Diamond Age" a neo-victorian cyberpunk if you want.

The fourth word that could be added to my three-word definition is "shocking", "unorthodox" or simply "odd". The problem with steampunk is that when you know the overall concept/idea of the book, you don't have to read it to have fun. Steampunk is the art of surprises and heresy. The crazier and bolder the idea is (anachronisms, crossovers), the better. That's how I understand the "punk" suffix in steampunk. This is not about rebellion (it's pretty pointless to rebel against a system that doesn't exist for 100 years), but about courage to shock and to overcome stereotypes.
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69. heresiarch
Me: "That's when you have to confront the fact that, well, not everyone is dividing things along the same lines."

To clarify: People aren't dividing things along the same lines because their answers to the question: "Why group these things together?" are all slightly different.

Piechur @ 68: "In one post you claim that defining steampunk is impossible, in the next you postulate describing the genre."

Defining something is different than describing it. Saying "Houses are structures with four walls and a roof" is a very different beast than saying "Houses often have four walls and a roof."

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