Is Steampunk Dead?

Is Steampunk Dead?

Steampunk, the retro-futuristic aesthetic inspired by 19th century steam power, has exploded in popularity over the last couple of decades. But lately, some have wondered: is steampunk dead? While steampunk may not be as ubiquitous in pop culture as it was at its peak around 2010-2015, rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Steampunk still has devoted followers and strong representation in various media. However, it has evolved and changed forms since its inception, as all artistic movements do over time.

The Origins and History of Steampunk

To understand steampunk today, we must first look at its origins. Steampunk grew out of the cyberpunk literary genre in the 1980s as authors like James Blaylock, Tim Powers, and William Gibson pioneered stories featuring anachronistic technology in Victorian-era settings.

The term “steampunk” was coined in 1987 and the aesthetic was further developed through 90s works like The Difference Engine and the classic 1999 film Wild Wild West.

Steampunk’s heyday was undoubtedly the late 2000s to early 2010s. During this time, steampunk conventions popped up all over the world, DIY crafts and costume creation thrived, and steampunk tropes appeared in popular books, shows, films, and games.

Notable works that contributed to steampunk’s permeation of mainstream pop culture include:

  • Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan book series
  • Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics
  • The popularity of steampunk-inspired bands like Abney Park
  • Steampunk-themed TV shows like Warehouse 13
  • Video games like BioShock Infinite
  • Fashion lines from the likes of Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and others

So in many ways, the 2010s were the pinnacle of steampunk’s public visibility and saturation of pop culture. But has it faded away since then?

Is Steampunk Dead Today?

Reports of steampunk’s death have been greatly exaggerated. While it may not dominate the zeitgeist like it temporarily did in years past, steampunk is far from “dead.”

Some signs that steampunk is still alive and kicking in the 2020s:

  • Dedicated following: Steampunk has a devoted fandom. Diehard steampunk fans remain passionate about the aesthetic, history and ethos of the movement.
  • Conventions and events: 2021-2022 has seen steampunk events and conventions return after pandemic delays. These gatherings like Steampunk World’s Fair attract thousands of participants.
  • Fashion and DIY: Steampunk fashion, prop and accessory creation is still going strong. Entire Etsy shops and small businesses like For Fans By Fans thrive on serving steampunk maker culture. The cosplay community actively uses steampunk in costumes.
  • In film/TV: Recent and upcoming movies and shows indicate steampunk is still appealing. For example:
    • The 2015 film Mortal Engines was a big budget steampunk adventure.
    • The genre-bending anime Fullmetal Alchemist has steampunk elements.
    • HBO’s upcoming The Nevers series features steampunk influences.
  • Books/comics: Bestselling authors like Scott Westerfeld continue to publish new steampunk literature like 2021’s Nyxia Unleashed. Steampunk also lives on through comics like the 2020 series Victor LaValle’s Destroyer.
  • Video games: Gaming has played a huge role in steampunk’s endurance. Recent titles like Frostpunk, Greedfall, and a Dishonored all use steampunk and Victorian inspirations. Upcoming games like Steelrising and Victoria 3 also signal ongoing interest.
  • Maker/DIY culture: 3D printing, CNC and other digital fabrication technologies lend themselves beautifully to steampunk art and props.
  • The links between steampunk and maker culture remain robust.

So by various metrics – from events attendance to pop culture representation – it’s clear reports of steampunk’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

While it has evolved, the core steampunk community and influences continue strong.

How Has Steampunk Evolved and Changed Since its Height?

However, it would also be inaccurate to claim steampunk is exactly the same now as it was during its peak ~2010 cultural saturation.

Like any long-lived movement, steampunk has evolved and changed with the times. Some key ways steampunk has shifted over the past decade include:

Diversification of Influences

Early steampunk took inspiration almost exclusively from Victorian-era British Empire aesthetics and tropes. But today’s steampunk pulls from a much wider cultural milieu.

Common examples include:

  • American Wild West steampunk
  • Asian steampunk using Japanese, Chinese, or Indian influences
  • African steampunk like the works of Nigerian author Jonathan Dotse
  • Indigenous steampunk that incorporates Native American culture
  • Latin American steampunk in the writings of authors like Alan McDonald

The blurring of Genre Boundaries

Whereas steampunk started as a relatively narrow offshoot of science fiction, today it frequently overlaps and blends with other genres:

  • Fantasy steampunk is hugely popular, incorporating magic and mythical creatures
  • Horror steampunk combines Victorian gothic influences
  • Dieselpunk mashes up steampunk with WWII and post-war aesthetics
  • Fashions blend steampunk with goth, punk, Lolita, and more
FantasyThe Bartimaeus Sequence book series
HorrorThe Order: 1886 video game
DieselpunkThe film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

So steampunk today is often blended with other genres rather than “pure” historic steampunk.

Critiques and Re-Evaluation

The 2010s also saw increased critique and re-evaluation of aspects of steampunk from a modern lens:

  • Its frequent romanticization of colonialism and imperialism
  • Male-dominated gender dynamics and lack of strong female representation
  • Underrepresentation of diverse identities like LGBTQ+ folks and people of color
  • Glorification of the upper class over disregard for lower classes

This constructive criticism has led to more inclusive steampunk that consciously counters past prejudices.

For example, stories featuring gay, trans, and female protagonists are now more common.

From Subculture to Art Movement

Steampunk started as a relatively niche literary subculture in the 1980s. But it has expanded into a full-blown interdisciplinary art movement incorporating literature, fashion, music, visual art, and more.

While still a subculture, steampunk today is also a much broader aesthetic movement expressed across different mediums.

Even high fashion houses have incorporated steampunk influences in major ad campaigns and runway shows.

Developing a Distinct Visual Style

Along with the widening of mediums, the steampunk visual style has crystallized into familiar iconic imagery. These include:

  • Modern twists on Victorian/Edwardian fashion characterized by gears, goggles, and pseudo-archaic tech
  • Signature gadgets like airships, ray guns, steampunk clocks, robot-like automata, and elaborate Babbage engine-inspired computers
  • Mannerist, hyper-detailed mechanical and industrial design
  • Sepia/monochrome color palettes mimicking early photography
  • Material juxtapositions like wood/brass, fabric/leather, modern/antique

These repeat visual motifs help signal “steampunk style” immediately to viewers.

Steampunk’s Enduring Popularity and Influence

While undergoing changes, steampunk has demonstrated incredible staying power while influencing other art forms. What accounts for its enduring popularity?

The Allure of the Past

Steampunk’s romanticization of the past captivates audiences. It taps into nostalgia for bygone eras seen as simpler, exciting, or more elegant. The escapist fantasy of time travel satisfies this yearning.

“The truth is that every era has its charms, if only you look hard enough.”

― Lev Grossman, The Magicians

Of course, steampunk’s rosy portrayal overlooks the gritty realities of actual Victorian life. But it fulfills audiences’ desire for fantastical history.

Reimagining the Future

Steampunk also reimagines the future through a retro lens. It asks the question: “What if the pace of technology had developed differently than it did?”

Rather than electronics and computers, steampunk envisions an alternate timeline dominated by clanking brass machines, clockwork automation, and belching smokestacks.

This retro-futurism captures people’s imaginations.

Emphasis on DIY/Maker Culture

Steampunk’s enthusiastic embrace of arts, crafts, and DIY creation has ensured its longevity. The tangibility of steampunk props and costumes makes the aesthetic participatory in a way digital-only art can’t match.

Makers are what keep steampunk culture alive through Etsy stores, workshops, and conventions.

Visual Style and Aesthetics

Quite simply, steampunk looks cool! The style is instantly recognizable, referencing real-world Victoriana while feeling fantastical. The striking way it combines modern themes with retro motifs appeals strongly to designers and fans.

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

― Gore Vidal

Adaptability to New Media

A key factor in steampunk’s longevity is its adaptability. The loose conceptual framework allows for steampunk interpretations across countless mediums: books, fashion, visual arts, music, theater, video games, TV/film, and more.

It succeeds as a multi-disciplinary art movement.

This adaptability will likely allow steampunk to endure for decades by continuing to evolve across new technologies and platforms.

The core retro-futuristic appeal seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Steampunk Still Thrives Through Reinterpretation

In summary, steampunk is decidedly not dead, though it has changed forms since its heyday. This aesthetic movement retains devotees while influencing diverse media.

While no longer pop culture’s darling as in the early 2010s, steampunk persists through dedicated fans reinterpreting its core ethos. With an inner vitality, steampunk is likely here to stay for the long haul.

Like any thriving art movement, steampunk will continue to transform. But the fundamental retro-futuristic fantasy it represents continues capturing imaginations.

Any rumors of steampunk’s demise have been greatly – and wrongly – exaggerated. This eccentric genre-melding aesthetic retains its steam well into the 21st century and beyond.

So in summary, steampunk is alive and well! It has evolved in some ways from its peak mainstream popularity but retains devoted fans and expression across various mediums.

Steampunk’s core retro-futurist aesthetic seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

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