Why Steam Needs Punk

Recently Diana Vick, the co-chair for Steamcon, published an article entitled “‘Seven Steampunk Fallacies,” a discussion on preconceived notions of what Steampunk is and is not. There are aspects of the article with which I agree: Steampunks in general do not take themselves terribly seriously and not everything with a retrofuturistic twist can be considered Steampunk.

However, there is one of her points that I vehemently disagree with: that Steampunk does not need “punk.”

I’ve long advocated for the notion that the -punk in Steampunk is not a powerless suffix. It is integral to the way that I view and live Steampunk and the backbone of Steampunk philosophy and lifestyle.

Without the Punk in Steampunk, Steampunk is nothing but an aesthetic. It becomes impossible to be a Steampunk without your Steampunk clothes, your Steampunk art, or your Steampunk house. For those who live Steampunk, it is about more than the things you own; it’s a counter-cultural mindset that welcomes rebellion from the mainstream and rejects passive living.

Without the Punk in Steampunk, we deny our own historical roots. The Victorian Era was a revolutionary period in the course of human history. Discovery and the questioning of established orders, beliefs, and political systems marked the era. This plunge into the seemingly limitless expanse of discovery and change is what birthed the science fiction that frames today’s Steampunk. As a subculture, Steampunk carries on in that revolutionary and indomitable spirit by refusing to submit to the status quo and question the mainstream.

Without the Punk in Steampunk, we would lose our cultural focus on the Maker culture that supports individual artisans, musicians, and makers. Steampunk promotes a genuine relationship between creator and consumer. The value on handmade and individually produced items, whether you make them yourself or you buy them through an independent artist is a counter-cultural idea in today’s world of mass produced garbage. Without that Punk mentality, it would become okay to buy your Steampunk gear from Wal-Mart, Hot Topic, and other corporations that are good at replicating the look, but not the spirit, of Steampunk and by doing so, shirk accountability and ownership of your own movement.

Without the Punk in Steampunk, we become nothing more than reenactors or Neo-Victorians. Punk allows us to look back on the Victorian era without feeling the need to replicate everything from the period. It allows Steampunk women to be whatever and whoever they want to be. It allows for the open expression of one’s own gender or racial identities. It breaks free of the conservative mindset and sensibilities of the Victorians. The Victorian Era informs but does not define Steampunk.

Without the Punk in Steampunk, our subculture has no meaning, no purpose, and no opinion about our world.

24 comments on “Why Steam Needs Punk

  1. Louise Curtis says:

    Fabulous article. I’ve always interpreted the “punk” as meaning that I should be writing dark steam instead of fun steam. . . thanks for liberating me.

    Louise Curtis

  2. […] “Why Steampunk Needs Punk” by Audelia Flint […]

  3. illusclaire says:

    Most all of the Steampunk communities I found when I was investigating the scene eschewed the “punk”, and.. I guess that’s why I ain’t no Steampunk? It was all about the surface look, no practicality, no politics.

  4. James Viner says:

    “The Victorian Era informs but does not define Steampunk.”



  5. Great post. I agree that punk must be a part. I think one thing that leads to the though that steam isn’t punk is that it is filled with happy, fun-loving people. I believe that most people associate punk with gritty, middle-finger flying youth that paint everything in a grey shade and feel as hopeless as they do impassioned. If you aren’t telling everyone to f-off then you aren’t punk.
    I think it is helpful for people to understand that the steam element alters the punk element as much as the punk element in the other direction. The hybrid is something completely different from both pieces on their own.

  6. Janus Zarate says:

    Ms. Flint, I did read Ms. Vick’s article recently as well and was wondering when other members of the community would speak up (I believe Mr. Von Slatt has voiced his opinion as well, which concurs with yours). You have my agreement. I’ve always found myself at odds who prefer to de-politicize steampunk. It’s simply not possible. The very essence of steampunk is founded in counter-culture. Without it, steampunk is simply cosplay.

  7. Janus Zarate says:

    Also, I’ve opted to highlight your article on our end. It deserves the attention.

  8. Michael says:

    Great article! I always wonder when I see people dressed as “steampunks” who are actually simply wearing Victorian or neo-Victorian clothing. I ask myself “where’s the punk?”, and your article puts a good spotlight on that. I think a large part of the culture comes from the creation process – making your own _____ instead of going to Target and purchasing said item.

  9. Josh says:

    For me, Punk means more than a pre-packaged youth rebellion. Entire countries have had their social and political systems shifted thanks to the efforts of revolutionaries. Punks should be our modern revolutionary. But they are seen now as a left-over of a late 70’s rebellion against the ruling classes.

    Modern Steampunk could have so many more socio-political leanings, but sadly it doesn’t. Even the Victorian Sci-Fi that this whole scene is built around was based entirely on socio-political commentary about the downsides of things like an Industrial Revolution, and Imperial expansion.

    Is it that most people into Steampunk think of it as just anothe rfun hobby? Is it that people who write the Steampunk fiction, and music are scared to start rocking the boat? I don’t know what it is, but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing a shift towards Steampunk being accepted as more than just a new form of cos-play.

    If anyone is interested I wrote an article on this very subject at Tor.com about two years ago. http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/10/the-revolution-will-not-be-telegraphed-the-sociopolitical-side-of-steampunk

    • I plan on rocking the boat with my upcoming novel series, http://www.reeferpunk.com
      The first, Fistful of Reefer will be available in ebook in July and involves an alt-history that drives the price of petroleum up in the 20’s leading to an alternate fuel revolution as well as an early and prolonged depression for the US.
      Punk novels veering away from vampire romance are out there and I think will continue to emerge in greater numbers. ( let’s hope!)

  10. Christina says:

    I see what she is saying. By her experience as to what is ‘punk’ (I grew up in the 80s hanging out with ‘punk rockers’and that would be my impression of ‘punk) and considering her goal on the article (That folks don’t have to have safety pins etc. on their outfits) it actually looks like the two of you may be on the same page (Or at least in the same book).
    If I am to look back at my teenage years, I wouldn’t want ‘punk’ to be part of steampunk. At least in the way ‘punk’ exists to me. But I can see ‘punk’ being used a similarity to ‘rebellion’ or ‘breaking from conformity’ so in that way it works.
    I see her article as merely a comfortable way to coax those who have been frightened of the genre based on it’s ‘title’, to step out of their limitations and try it. If they like it then that is fine. If not then that is fine too.

    • Davis says:

      As a new member ingratiating himself into the steampunk subculture; I’d like to point out how giving, accepting, and open minded all of these replies are.

      Punk has somehow become a very touchy subject. (I should state now that I am 18 and as such could not have been part of the original ‘hardcore’ scene.) From everything I’ve heard from aged punk rockers, the original punk movement wasn’t about just being angry. It was a way to vent that anger without harming anyone else. Punk was a movement in expressing an individual’s freewill. That being my viewpoint, steampunk totally follows this ideal!

      I am very pleased to have stumbled upon such a revolutionary subculture.

  11. LadydeEsseby says:

    “Without that Punk mentality, it would become okay to buy your Steampunk gear from Wal-Mart, Hot Topic, and other corporations…”

    God how I hope that NEVER happens! I used to be into Goth (still pretty much am) but now that EVERYONE in mainstream knows of its existence, they’ve just sucked the fun right out of it. Hot Topic used to be cool, but now it’s just filled with a bunch of Twilight tweens. >:P Let us hope Steampunk does not go down that same path.

    • Citizen Sane says:

      It is too late. It has been for months. At least since Halloween when you could buy a steampunk costume kit comprised of a monocle and hat or chromed plastic goggles. Target now carries steampunk jewelry with gears and other industrial items.

      All we can do is stick to doing it our way without becoming elitists.

  12. Pamela says:

    I concur. While I too agreed with points from that article, I feel the ‘punk’ is the spirit that drives the movement and the makers.

  13. This is an article that needed to be written. When I discuss steampunk with the layman, there is often that impression that it is basically just Neo-Victorian cosplay.
    However, I’ve always struggled with how to express what makes steampunk, well.. punk. Consider your article bookmarked.

  14. […] read: “Why Steam Needs Punk,” which makes me feel a little more and a little less like an interloper. Without the Punk in […]

  15. While there is no statement that can possibly sum up the mind set, opinions, and beliefs of such a diverse group, this article does the best job I have seen in describing what makes the most serious among us Steampunks, Dieselpunks, and Clockpunks really tick.

  16. My apologies for the delay in replying but I’ve only just had this article pointed out to me. The biggest problem is the definition of “punk”.

    While some steampunk fashion could arguably be said to be against the mainstream fashion, the level of conformity within steampunk fashion is jawdropping: Nerf mavericks as far as the eye can see, goggles just for the sake of having goggles and more brown than a chocolate factory.

    When I grew up, punk was all about anti-establishment, bringing down the hob nobs and decrying “the system”. Take a look at the user names of Brass Goggles or the Steampunk Empire. Steampunk actively embraces the hoi paoli. How many Countesses, Dukes, Lords, Ladies, Professors, or Officers are there? Even the airship pirates are usually Captains.

    Buying handcrafted isn’t punk. If I make it myself, maybe. But “a genuine relationship between creator and consumer”? Look up bespoke. Custom designed clothing. Usually the purvey of the wealthy. Selling limited edition steampunk mod keyboards or laptops is hardly a punk ethos.

    Punk used to be about being against the system and bringing it down. Until people like Avril Lavigne and Green Day started calling themselves punk, neither version of which has any place in steampunk.

    Steampunk needs no punk, and the punk suffix can stay as the tongue-in-cheek reference it was always intended as.

    • Princess R says:

      I can’t help it. I’m a brand new commenter here, and this is actually the very first entry I’ve read… (And I’m going to post my thoughts about it in a separate comment…)

      Hoi polloi means “the common people” not the hoity-toity, which is what I suspect you meant. Ironically, I believe Steampunk *does* embrace the hoi polloi, sometimes to the detriment of all. (Chromed goggles from Hot Topic being a good example.)

      And I disagree about punk needing to live in the gutter. Greg Graffin, lead singer of Bad Religion has a PhD (Zoology, focused on Evolutionary Biology) and is a college professor. Dexter Holland of the Offspring abandoned his PhD to sing, but he holds a Masters’ Degree in Microbiology. Those would both be noble Steamy pursuits in my book! 🙂

  17. Princess R says:

    I’m sorry to drop in so late, but this entry reminded me of one of my favorite quotes about steampunk, and I thought I’d share it.

    “Maybe there should be more punk in Steampunk. More anarchy, more edge. The world is not tea parties and polite behavior, the Empire is collapsing and the world is burning.” — Kit Stolen, (anachronaut on Livejournal)

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