Steampunk and biopunk are two retrofuturist genres that envision fantastical technologies and societies inspired by the past. Despite some similarities, they have distinct aesthetic styles and themes. This article will compare and contrast steampunk and biopunk across various elements like setting, technology, fashion, and ethos.
Defining Steampunk and Biopunk
What is steampunk? Steampunk imagines an alternate version of 19th century Victorian England where steam power has enabled sophisticated, retro-looking technologies like airships, mechanical computers, and steam-powered robotics. Steampunk values craftsmanship, elegance, and romanticism.
Biopunk emerged in the 1980s as a subgenre of cyberpunk. It envisions a near-future world where biotechnology has advanced significantly, enabling genetic manipulation, artificial organs, and access to dangerous biological knowledge.
The biopunk ethos is rebellious, emphasizing scientific freedom and anti-authoritarianism.
Settings and Time Periods
Steampunk is firmly rooted in the 19th century aesthetic, particularly the Victorian era. Common steampunk settings include:
- Alternate history late 1800s London, often with anachronistic advanced technologies
- Fictional Victorian-inspired cities
- Far-flung colonies of the British Empire
- Wild West frontiers with steampunk elements
In contrast, biopunk focuses on the near future, extrapolating from current and emerging biotechnologies. Typical biopunk settings are dystopian, urban, and gritty:
- Near-future versions of actual cities like New York, Tokyo, or Hong Kong
- Fictional metropolises with high-tech black markets
- Totalitarian states or corporate-controlled cities
- Post-apocalyptic wastelands shaped by biotechnology gone wrong
While steampunk romanticizes the past, biopunk speculates on an unsettling future.
Fashion and Design
The steampunk aesthetic is dripping with neo-Victorian style, including corsets, top hats, tailcoats, frilly dresses, pilot goggles, and clockwork embellishments. Designs feature wood, leather, brass, and steel. Fashions are inspired by Victorian archetypes like aristocrats, scientists, engineers, and explorers.
Biopunk fashion is dark, underground, and chaotic. Common elements include:
- Leather, latex, and PVC
- Mohawks, shaved heads, and extreme body mods
- Tattoos and piercings
- Gas masks, goggles, and respirators
- Wild hair colors and asymmetric cuts
Outfits are often cobbled together from found items, reflecting biopunk’s gritty, rebellious ethos. The aesthetic contrasts the sleek order of steampunk with an organic, disjointed look.
Steampunk technology revolves around steam power, clockwork, and mechanized automatons. Common devices include:
- Mechanical computers and robots
- Steam-powered vehicles and weapons
- Clockwork prosthetics
- Elaborate clockwork gadgets
Biopunk explores radical biotechnologies like:
- Genetic engineering
- Lab-grown organs and tissues
- Cybernetic implants and prosthetics
- Dangerous bio-hacked innovations
- Artificial viruses and pathogens
- Mind uploading and alteration
While based on science, biopunk tech often has an impractical, grotesque quality reflecting unsettling bio-experimentation.
Themes and Ethos
Steampunk emphasizes ingenuity, discovery, and grand adventure. Its romantic worldview clashes with rigid Victorian society, creating rebellious progressive characters like scientist-adventurers and pilot-engineers.
Biopunk focuses on exploitative power structures and dangerous underground knowledge. Common themes include:
- Scientific experimentation without ethical constraints
- Totalitarian governments controlling biotech
- Unchecked corporate power over genetics and human enhancement
- Black markets for illegal cybernetics and wetware
- The dark side of scientific discovery
Steampunk rebels are heroes undermining conformity. Biopunk rebels are anti-heroes rebelling against oppressive systems of control.
Examples in Media
Popular examples that showcase steampunk vs biopunk aesthetics and themes:
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Comic and film featuring Victorian literary characters
- Steamboy – Anime film about steampunk tech arms race
- TV series Carnivale – Drama set in 1930s steampunk Dust Bowl
- The Difference Engine – Alternate history novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
- Akira – Dystopian anime film about teenagers with dangerous psychic powers
- Gattaca – Genetic engineering noir film
- Parasite Eve – Horror novel and game about genetically engineered parasites
- Repo Men – Film about repossessing black market biotech implants
Wrapping Up: Steampunk vs Biopunk
While steampunk and biopunk are both retrofuturist genres influenced by science fiction, they take inspiration from different eras which manifest in divergent settings, fashions, technologies, and themes.
Steampunk romanticizes the past with mechanical wonder, whereas biopunk projects an ominous future warped by extreme biological tinkering and corporate dystopias.
However, both genres are thought-provoking extrapolations that speak to the possibilities and perils of technological ambition unbound by ethics.
By rendering such speculations in imaginative diegetic worlds, steampunk and biopunk provide compelling visions of where our scientific path may lead.