Steampunk is best known as a cosplay option for the most dedicated Comic-Con attendees, but this sci-fi subgenre is popping up all over modern media. The history and modern incarnations of the specific aesthetic is an interesting story of sci-fi imagination and the gradual iteration of an idea.
Although there is some debate, the central tenet of steampunk tends to revolve around an alternate history in which electricity and internal combustion never gained prominence, and the steam engine reigns supreme. master. More common today, however, stories are set in a fantasy realm with steam-inspired technology and design, with an aesthetic inspired by late Victorian England. Characteristics of the genre typically include anachronistic technology, retro-futurism, and social commentary.
The history of steampunk
Steampunk usually refers specifically to the technology of a work’s universe, but the term has been extended to any media or design that exhibits the aesthetic. The term originated in the late 1980s, but countless works of fiction earned the name long before it was created. It emerged as a term around the same time as its counterpart and opposite, cyberpunk. The first to coin the term was KW Jeter, who was looking for a suitable umbrella term for his work with the works of James Blaylock and Tim Powers. The term “gonzo-historical” was thrown around before that, but, with an optional hyphen added, Jeter is the one that gave the category its name. These fundamental works were built on the older foundations of HG Wells, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne. There are countless texts that are now steampunk bibles that came out decades before the term was in use, but a lack of internal consistency is one of the most prominent characteristics of steampunk.
Genre-defining Steampunk works
Although steampunk began on the page, many of its most formative moments came from the screen. 1954 film adaptation by Walt Disney and Richard Fleischer of Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20000 Leagues Under the Sea is considered the basis of many steampunk design aesthetics. Although Captain Nemo’s submarine is actually powered by a nuclear reactor, the Victorian-era look mixed with futuristic technology has inspired countless creators of the genre. It’s this retro-futuristic design choice that makes people love the steampunk look. Six years later, George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of HG Wells’ 1895 novel The time machine furthered the trend with its groundbreaking depiction of the eponymous device. Many of the building blocks of steampunk, even today, stem from the work of creative visionaries interpreting classic works with a modern perspective, adapting the idea of the future that people had in the past.
One of the greatest figures in the steampunk subgenre comes from an unlikely source, the 1965 CBS series The Wild Wild West. Producer Michael Garrison, one of the first Hollywood professionals to acquire and then quickly sell the rights to james bond, wanted to revive the sick western genre. The spy genre, in which he had just owned and given the biggest name, was eating cowboy content alive, and Garrison had an idea to save it. He pitched his big idea as “James Bond on Horseback” and delivered four seasons of wild west wild. Inspired by the aforementioned films and novels, the series tells the story of James West and Artemus Gordon, Secret Service agents in post-Civil War America. The series’ take on the period featured Victorian-era fashion mixed with Jules Vern’s bronzed technology. It remains one of the seminal works of steampunk. The 1999 remake, though significantly less well remembered, upped the tech elements to show off the era’s shiny new effects and is still used as a solid visual example today.
Steampunk has always been a worldwide phenomenon; no country can claim its influence. Japan has a particular fascination with the subgenre, often creating some of the genre’s most beloved standouts. Manga father Osamu Tezuka crafted his iconic sci-fi trilogy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, releasing Lost World, Metropolis, and Nextworld, each of which featured heavy steampunk elements. Of course, the big name in Japanese steampunk is Hayao Miyazaki, the beloved co-founder of Studio Ghibli and the artist behind many of the century’s most beloved animations. His fascination with the genre began with the years 1982 Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. 1986 Castle in THE sky is his steampunk opus, filled with sky pirates and steam blimps. Almost 20 years later, Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castle would feature another of the greatest steampunk designs of all time in its eponymous structure. If there’s a modern image of steampunk in a fan’s head, it’s probably embodied by Hayao Miyazaki.
Steampunk is more than a collection of fashion trends and technological ideas, it’s a rich tradition of alternative history. The steampunk depiction of the present or the future dares to ask deep questions about humanity’s relationship to technology and power. After decades of creative imagination, there’s still something people love about an old-fashioned heat and water powered future.
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