As many science fiction fans know, steampunk is a dynamic artistic culture that pervades the worlds of film, literature, art, music, fashion, and design. Although broadly defined, steampunk is basically a sub-genre of science fiction which generally includes representations of or references to steam-powered machinery and innovative uses of technology. Oftentimes, steampunk works are set in an alternative history inspired by 19th century industrialized Western civilizations like the British Victorian era. While steampunk is a dynamic and ever-evolving artistic field, however, there are several other genres similar to it that are interesting and therefore worth exploring:
Although broadly defined, cyberpunk is essentially a type of science fiction set in a dystopian future that yet has overtures which parallel the film noir of the ’40s. The film “Bladerunner” is a textbook example of a cyberpunk movie. Set in dystopic Los Angeles during November 2019, the film features genetically engineered robots called replicants. Manufactured by several powerful corporations across the globe, the replicants are prohibited from use on Earth and appropriated only for dangerous or menial work in off-world communities. Replicants who defy law and return to the planet are captured by special police operatives called “Blade Runners.”
Like the film “Bladerunner,” the book “Snowcrash” epitomizes all that cyberpunk is and can be. Published in 1992, this ambitious text covers subjects as wide-ranging as history, linguistics, archaeology, computer science, philosophy, and politics. In the book, the Sumerian language is presented as the firmware programming language for the human brainstem. Within this linguistic world, the goddess Asherah personifies a linguistic virus. To combat her potentially portentous capabilities, the god Enki created a counter-program called a nam-shub which caused all people to speak different languages.
As made plain by the plot development of the aforementioned film and movie, the mood and underlying ideologies of cyberpunk-rooted narratives create an atmosphere that gives rise to alienated characters whose marginalization is rooted in the desultory nature of a dystopic society.
Like cyberpunk, postcyberpunk can be considered akin to steampunk because of the primacy placed on technologically advanced or otherwise unique forms of machinery and electronic devices. With the postcyberpunk genre, characters live in a world marked by ubiquitous computerized information. Additionally, human bodies represented within the postcyberpunk genre are subject to a form of cybernetic augmentation that is not associated with anything dystopic. A good example of the postcyberpunk genre can be seen in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.” In it, central character Nell lives in a futuristic world where nanotechnology is integral to all aspects of human existence. The book covers many socially pertinent themes, including artificial intelligence, ethnicity, and education.
As many steampunk fans know, cyberprep is a unique genre that constitutes a divergence from the world of postcyberpunk because the technological advancements do not engender the dangerous or gritty mood one notes in the latter art form. Like steampunk, cyberprep texts can incorporate advanced bodily modifications that constitute a radical shift from prototypical representations of the natural human form. With a cyberprep text, technological discourse could include references to whole brain emulation (or mind uploading), the process in which a human mind could be copied into a computer system through a scanning and mapping process. This type of activity carries with it no dystopic mood or presence given that it is actualized for entertainment or as a manifestation of an art form.
The connection between teslapunk and steampunk is glaringly evident. With both genres, primacy is placed on alternate histories and the visions of technology the people within the time period might have envisioned. Named after inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla, teslapunk includes visual styles and fictional narratives influenced by 18th, 19th, and early 20th century pioneers in the field of electricity and the devices produced by it. With teslapunk, widely accessible replacements for poor energy sources like coal and oil abound.
As many art lovers know, dieselpunk is an art style rooted in the aesthetics that gained prevalence between World Wars I and II. Some of the artistic elements present in dieselpunk include art deco, wartime pin-ups, and film noir. It is this last element-film noir-that unveils the continuity between dieselpunk and steampunk. Additionally, dieselpunk often includes the sort of alternate history narratives that are prevalent in steampunk works. An example of works that fall within the dieselpunk category include the Crimson Skies video games and books. With the Crimson Skies series, the reader/viewer is exposed to an alternate history set in 1930 where America has collapsed and the most popular mode of traveling is flying.
Akin to steampunk in many ways, decopunk centers around the Streamline Moderne and Art Deco styles, thereby creating aesthetic allusions and/or direct references to a world of ever-evolving machinery. With its references to the architectural outputs of the Art Deco era (a period during which streamlining engendered aerodynamic concepts of speed and motion), decopunk parallels steampunk’s tendency towards revolutionizing the world with futuristic scientific-laden Machine Age-style physical structures. And-like steampunk-dieselpunk is set in the past. Between the 20s and 50s, to be precise.
Like decopunk, atompunk parallels steampunk in two key ways. First, it is set in the past (the predigital period of 1945-1965, to be exact). Second, it contains retro-futuristic elements made evident through its Populuxe and Raygun Gothic aesthetic. (Those unfamiliar with the aesthetic should note that an example would include allusions to spaceflight.) Atompunk works are also marked by superhero fiction, the rise of the US military/industrial powers, and the Sputnik program.
The parallels between the biopunk and steampunk worlds is plain. In focusing on the consequences of the biotechnology revolution, biopunk places primacy on the role that technological advances can play in complicating the lives of humans. This central motif to biopunk works parallels steampunk with its emphasis on the role that steam-powered machinery has in every day human existence. Biopunk is also similar to postcyberpunk given that humans are subject to modification and enhancement through technological means.
With nanopunk, the use of biotechnology is either prohibited or limited while the use of nanotechnology is widespread. As a widespread field incorporating the scientific, engineering, and theoretical disciplines associated with technological elements whose sizes are measured in nanometers, nanotechnology is the component of nanopunk that makes the genre similar to steampunk. Just as steampunk displays how steam-powered machines affect the culture and lives of people, nanopunk unveils the role that nanotechnology can play in directing the biological and psychological livelihood of those who live within its world. Specifically, a nanopunk narrative is likely to place emphasis on the physiological and artistic effects that the presence and use of nanotechnology entails, rather than on the technology itself.
As made plain by the list outlined above, there are a wide variety of genres that bear much resemblance to the unique and innovative world created by steampunk. Through exploring the intersections and divergences between each of these genres, we can gain a new appreciation for the unique world views and technological advancements they present. In so doing, our awareness of the primary role that machines play in our lives and imaginations will increase exponentially.