What is Steampunk?

or, Alter-Industrial Retrofuturistic Speculative Creativity for Fun and Profit, and the Lifestyle Anachronists Who Love It Too Much

Defining Steampunk

"Steampunk" is troublesome little word with many definitions. Steampunk simultaneously means:

  • a vast and varied creative movement inspired by vintage science fiction and the almost-was technological and social possibilities of the Long 19th Century
  • a retrofuturist aesthetic combining Gilded Age elegance with industrial/mechanical motifs
  • (verb) the practice of transforming a mundane object into an ersatz artifact of an alternate timeline/world where mechanical engineering achieved fantastic power
  • the global community of creators and fans who work and play with all of the above.

the movement

Steampunk works span human creative endeavor, including literature, comics, and commentary; fashion and costume; music, dance, and other performing arts; film and television; and fine & pop art in every conceivable medium. There are steampunk cookbooks and concept albums -- papercrafts and puppet shows -- ornaments and operas (plural!).

The Name

Science fiction author K.W. Jeter accidentally coined the word steampunk in the mid-1980s by suggesting that a catchy buzzword, similar to cyberpunk, could be invented to market the gonzo-Victorian historical fantasies penned by his literary circle. Since then, other "n-punk" sobriquets have been invented to label imaginary "period settings" like clockpunk, dieselpunk, and atompunk.

The Community

Steampunks celebrate one another around the world, online and in person. Forums like Brass Goggles and r/steampunk host the global conversation. Locally, a Portlander can enjoy high tea in steampunk surroundings at Clockwork Rose Tea Emporium in Beaverton; shop for machine-age treasures and artifact fodder at Old Portland Hardware & Architectural in Sellwood; and study yester-era's beautifully maintained engines at OMSI and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center.

Besides GEAR Con, Portland's event calendar offers several steampunk and steampunk-adjacent outings, such as the Victorian Frolic in the Park, the Steampunk Film Festival, and the activities of the Time-Travelers' Costume Guild. Bands including Vagabond Opera, Bright & Shiny, Cascadian Airship, and Professor Gall play to steampunk-heavy crowds at venues like Laurelthirst Pub and The Secret Society. Beyond the Portland metro area, the Pacific Northwest's regional steampunk events are Brass Screw Confederacy in Port Townsend, Steamposium in Seattle, and Salem's annual Steampunk Masquerade Ball.

GEAR Con

The Gaslamp-Fantastic Explorers, Adventurers, & Romantics Conviviality (GEAR Con) is Oregon's largest steampunk gathering: an arts & music festival, creatives' symposium, and fan celebration convening annually in Portland since 2011, produced by the principals of the Steampunk Film Festival with the assistance of Portland's steampunk communities.