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The Steampunk Identity (a letter from the editor)

Steampunk is an emerging genre, a still very young cousin of the more widely known Cyberpunk. As such a new area, Steampunk is still struggling to define itself. Many times there will be a catalyst for such movements. The modern First Person Shooter craze has its origins in Wolfenstein 3D, but didn't really take off until Doom came along with its many clones. The revival of the epic war movie in Hollywood was seen in Braveheart, but it didn't begin on a large scale until Saving Private Ryan wowed audiences in 1998.

Some people would claim that William Gibson's novel 'The Difference Engine' kicked off Steampunk, whereas others point to the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. I, quite the Steampunk fan, have never read The Difference Engine nor the alternative history Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo. And on the other hand, Verne and Wells are at the origins of Science Fiction itself. Steampunk is more of a throwback to those Victorian days of early inspiration. But is it even that?

On this very website, I have listed three examples of Steampunk from three very different time periods. We have the modern day automaton elements infused with the adventure games Syberia and Syberia II. We have the post-apocalyptic world of Now & Then, Here & There. And we have all the stuff from the 1800s. I think it is safe to say there was no clear catalyst, because there is no clear movement. Steampunk is less of a concrete sub-genre and more of an idea, an abstraction... a silhouette of a figure walking towards us in smoke. It could be a man. It could be a woman. It could be any number of things. All we know is it is there, and it is emerging. Elements appear here and there, and a humble following has been developing.

I for one think there would be more Steampunk related works if there was more of an awareness. That is one of the purposes of this website, to increase awareness and therefore gather the interested. Many people who may 'have a thing' for Steampunk might not even have the vocabulary to put their attraction into words. So many Steampunkish elements innocuously find their ways into modern works that people may have trouble recognizing the whole behind the fragment.

Cyberpunk does not have the same identity problem that Steampunk does. It is quite easy to trace the evolution of Cyberpunk, and note the many popular contributions that have defined the genre. Thus, I propose that the Steampunk community studies the Cyberpunk community so that we may learn more about ourselves.

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of Science Fiction that takes place in a dark, computerized, dystopian future. Many point to the book Neuromancer by William Gibson (author of the Difference Engine) as the catalyst for the Cyberpunk movement. Neuromancer was a highly influential novel when it debuted, winning three prestigious Science Fiction awards. It was a somewhat naive, but assumption-challenging, take on the digital future of humanity. Another book by Philip K. Dick, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' added to the Cyberpunk mythos. Many consider Blade Runner (adapted from DADoES) to be the ultimate Cyberpunk film. Of course, that was before The Matrix trilogy, which took cyberpunk to a new level. Cyberpunk also finds an easy fit through the anime medium, with such genre defining work as Akira and Ghost in the Shell.

A common threat through all of Cyberpunk is the examination of what it means to be human. Richard Deckard in Blade Runner ponders this just as the characters of Ghost in the Shell Do. Akira and Metropolis, apart from genetic experimentation and weapons of mass destruction, illustrate the isolated existence that defines the future.

Some have categorized Steampunk simply as Cyberpunk transported to the Victorian Age. While I can see the merit of such an argument, I disagree. While the early development of advanced technology can certainly play a hand in toppling governments, I view it more as a tool than as the primary focus. Steampunk is much more about Adventure, Intrigue and Discovery that Cyberpunk, which is more about isolation, humanity, introspection and the loss of identity. You could say that Steampunk is more optimistic. Of course, like the game Arcanum shows, Steampunk can be a very brooding genre. But personally, I relate more to the tidbits found in Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IX. I like my Steampunk fanciful. I like spiky haired, big eyed youth slashing through iron pipes on hulking steam-powered robots, intent on smashing through innocent villages with bronze gauntlets. But that is just me.

Maybe the wonder of Steampunk is the diversity that it allows. Regardless, I feel that we as a community are lacking a definitive text... the holy book of Steampunk. Maybe this is hampered by the vast range that Steampunk concepts appear in, but that should not stop somebody from trying. I myself have tons of ideas, but so little time! I can write but I can't draw, nor can I program. Unfortunately there is a bias against Idea Men like myself in anime and videogame making communities. I find that unfortunate because many times, people aren't skilled in multiple areas, and those designed to DESIGN wonderful things may lack the qualities to CREATE wonderful things. I suppose I could always write a book, but I love the visual flourish of Steampunk as much as anything.

- Automaton