Steampunk Originals v1 CoverPeople often blow off semantics as being petty and arbitrary distinctions. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume you know what someone else means. At the same time, being unwilling/unable to make those assumptions can be socially crippling. We simplify out of necessity but innovation requires critical engagement to transcend sophomoric definitions.
When I say ‘top hat’, you picture what you imagine a ‘top hat’ looks like. A referent is the ‘thing’ that words represent. If your idea of ‘top hat’ is similar enough to mine, we’re able to communicate. Easy, right?
Abstract concepts, like themes, should never be taken on surface value. When I say the word ‘steampunk’, you picture what you imagine ‘steampunk’ looks like. The problem is: ‘steampunk’ isn’t a thing; it’s a theme. Themes are dynamic concepts. Being abstract, it has no concrete form, so what exactly are you picturing?
A ‘horror’ story isn’t defined by zombies; it’s the fear they elicit. A ‘suspense’ story isn’t defined by a killer lurking with a knife; it’s the anticipation that he’s going to use it. A ‘romance’ story isn’t defined by two people falling in love; it’s the strange journey they take in pursuit of that ideal. The specifics are incidental but they allow us to associate an abstract concept with something tangible.
Your mind draws together visual cues from all the things you associate with a theme and constructs a symbol. Goggles, gadgets, gears, blimps, brass and wood fixtures, Victorian fashion, etc: these are all ‘things’ commonly associated with the steampunk theme but these things are just symptoms and do not define the theme itself. Symbols are incredibly useful, however, they add additional steps to communication.
People can associate completely different symbols with a word and still associate the same idea with those symbols. As long as the word gets them to similar ideas, they are able to communicate. People can also associate the same symbols with a word and connect that symbol to completely different ideas. If the word leads them to different ideas, communication breaks down. The most common mistake in language is confusing the symbol for the idea that symbol represents. Themes, like ‘steampunk’, are the easiest to confuse because they have such distinct visual conventions.

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What is a punk-theme?
Punk is a critical outsider perspective. Take a step back from our culture and critique it through the lens of another culture/ period/ theme. For every ‘period’ inspired punk theme, there are 3 basic approaches: style, anachronism, and alternate history.
Style functions solely on surface value. Rather than actually addressing the theme, style appropriates the aesthetics, tropes, and design elements from other creators’ work. Steampunk Originals v3 CoverThis has as much to do with period-punk as teens posting selfies to deviantart has to do with art. When someone defines things in concrete terms, it’s hard to explain how it has no relation to an abstract in terms they’ll understand. Style is period-punk ‘by association only’ because it’s form over substance.
An ‘anachronistic’ approach intentionally introduces elements which aren’t accurate to the story’s time-period. ‘Retro-futuristic’ technology, contemporary references, etc are peppered into the story when convenient without logical explanation (deus ex machina). The introduction of these elements often has a tangential relationship with the culture surrounding them. Without being firmly rooted in that story’s reality, this approach to period-punk is often more fantasy then science fiction. Since culture often contrasts the retro-futuristic elements, the ‘anachronistic’ approach often gives equal weight to form and substance.
An ‘alternate history’ approach to period-punk functions on the same principles as the butterfly effect. Imagine key historic events played out differently and that caused reality to progress down a different path. The results may look equally fantastic but they are the byproduct of that reality’s culture and generations of development. Society has needs and industry/ technology rises to meet them. Sometimes those solutions create new needs and other times they alter our priorities. This is an endless process. This breed of speculative science fiction is culture-driven. Aesthetics are defined to serve the narrative and suggest the world/culture beyond its pages. Everything that is made is designed. Everything which is designed references its culture and history. The ‘alternate history’ approach can lead a story away from the conventions associated with a theme because it prioritizes substance over form.
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What is Steampunk? How does it compare to other period-punk themes?

There are numerous period-punk themes. Each approach draws different lines: style (conventions), anachronistic (setting), and ‘alternate history’ (schism). A schism is a point where two groups part ways. In terms of ‘alternate history’ it’s the point where that world’s history differentiates itself from our own and the zeitgeist which persists as a result.

Schism mid-19th century = Steampunk
(Common Elements: No Technical Revolution. Perpetual Industrial Revolution.)

Schism late-19th century = Teslapunk
(Common Elements: AC wins War of Currents. Perpetual Technical Revolution.)

Schism early-20th century = Dieselpunk
(Common Elements: World Wars end differently. Perpetual World Wars.)

Schism mid-20th century = Atompunk
(Common Elements: No Digital Revolution. Perpetual Cold War.)

Schism late-20th century = Cyberpunk
(Common Elements: Humanity consumed by technology. Perpetually losing touch with the ‘real’.)

Beyond being a ‘critical outsider perspective through a mid-19th century lens’, what ‘steampunk’ means in practical terms is defined by the creator/work. When you actually engage with the theme, the possibilities are endless. Let’s not get bogged down in semantics conventions.

This guest article was written by Mike Schneider.

Mike Schneider is coordinating editor of Steampunk Originals. Best known for his mass-collaborative projects, such as ‘Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated’ and ‘What is the Use of a Book Without Pictures’, Schneider is an anti-artist, who brings an iconoclastic and experimental sensibility to media production.

Steampunk Originals is an open-call comic anthology series released quarterly by Arcana. Welcoming art of all styles/ media and stories of all tones/ genres, the resulting volumes are a kaleidoscopic exploration of the (alternate history) steampunk theme. The first four volumes have already featured over a hundred creators from across six continents.

Call for writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, letterers, cartoonists, and independent comic creators. Steampunk Originals Volume 5 is currently in progress. Full details are available in the facebook group. The deadline for submissions is January 6th.