The term “steampunk” did not originate until around the 1980s and it appeared as a variant of cyberpunk, which is another science fiction subgenre. Cyberpunk is expressed as an oppressed society of people who are ruled by computers and technology and some of the “outcasts” fight back.
Steampunk rode into existence on the swallow coattails of literature. Tim Powers’ “The Anubis Gates” (1983), K.W. Jeter’s “Morlock Night” (1979) and the “Infernal Devices” (1987) and James Blaylock’s “Homunculus” (1986) are some prime examples.
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are widely accepted as the prominent literary voices of steampunk.
K.W. Jeter wrote the first written example of steampunk in 1979 as he struggled to find a name for the genre he and other authors were writing in. Mohan Kumar believes that steampunk was firmly established after William Gibson and Bruce Sterling finished their novel The Difference Engine in 1990.
There are film inspirations for steampunk as well such as “Metropolis” (1927), “Brazil” (1985) and “The City of Lost Children” (1995).
The definition of steampunk can be vastly different depending on the person asked. In an article for The New York Times, Ruth La Ferla generously offered references to vaudeville (1880s-1920s), the Victorian era (1837-1901), the Gothic era (1150-1500) and the Edwardian era (1901-1910) to try and encapsulate the look and fashion of the steampunk culture.
Many followers of this science fiction subgenre worship the images of aviator goggles, pocket watches, dirigibles, steam locomotives and machinery, and gears beyond counting. Jeff Vandermeer and S.J. Chambers even created a mathematical equation for steampunk in their book “The Steampunk Bible.”
Steampunk usually encompasses adventure, mad scientists, alternative history, rebellion (the “punk”), industrial revolution, retro-futuristic elements and according to Vandermeer and Chambers “progressive or reactionary politics.”
I was only able to crystallize a concept of steampunk in my mind after I saw numerous photographs of costumes, film stills and artwork.
Steampunk is an extremely personalized culture and there are no set guidelines.