However, the decidedly grassroots Steampunk Movement is vast and leaderless. It encompasses everything from handmade jewelry sellers to the Wild Wild West movie to Jules Verne to music like Frenchy and the Punk to cosplaying convention goers.

For us steamnerds, it is something we instinctively know. Yet, ask us to define it and we generally fumble. We scramble for words like ‘Victorian’ and ‘retro-futuristic’ to describe that steampunk ‘it’ factor which is our subconscious barometer for classifying our favorite genre.

 
What
is
Steampunk?

(Click on a link or picture to see the customer reviews on Amazon.)

So in searching for a descriptive soundbite, (aka. the great mainstream legitimizer), we are left with the broadest definition being the most accurate; rather than the narrowest. Although I am no Mirriam-Webster, here is my proposition:

Steampunk 

noun

1. pre-technological, post-industrial sci-fi and fantasy.

2. a genre of fiction. 

3. an aesthetic. 

4. an artistic movement.

Origins:
The term ‘steampunk’ was coined by K. W. Jeter to classify his novel Morlock Nights, as well as certain works of Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock. The term first appeared in a published letter to the sci fi magazine, Locus, in April 1987.

Since then the term has expanded to encompass communities, artists, music, machinery and events, in addition to fiction.

 

So rather than trying to name all of the things steampunk is,

perhaps it is easier to talk about what steampunk isn’t.

 

Not so
steampunk...
Definitely
steampunk.
Not always... 
 
People generally use the term ‘retro-futuristic’ to describe work that draws on how people from past eras thought the future would look.
 
But can you use this term to define steampunk?
 
Not exactly. The problem with this term is that every historical period has its own version of what it thought the future would be like. Technically, much that is considered steampunk is also retro-futuristic.
 
However, visions of the future generated later than the 1920s is not generally considered steampunk.
 
You wouldn’t look at a 1950s scifi movie, (such as The Day the Earth Stood Still), and call it steampunk, (even if that robot looks like it could be the Tin Man’s steampunk cousin). On the other hand many steampunk works, (such as The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, widely considered to be steampunk cannon), draw on period accurate technology. These should certainly be considered ‘retro’, but if they don’t depict technology that hadn’t been invented yet, it’s hardly ‘futuristic’.
Does steampunk mean
'retro-futurisitic'?
Does steampunk mean
anything with steam technology?
Again, this merits a ‘not always’. I absolutely agree that steam technology is a mainstay of the steampunk collective imagination, however it’s not the full picture. Clockwork, for example, makes absolutely no use of coal or steam power in any way, yet it appears again and again in steampunk cannon. Tik-Tok from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, the Pagininicon from Jeter’s Infernal Devices and the Automata from Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret are just a few examples. Steampunk also encompasses: the creative use of simple machines, vacuum pumps, period accurate chemistry and medical devices, early electric inventions, (especially those inspired by Edison or Tesla), and period time travel, (thanks to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells). 
Again, this merits a ‘not always’. I absolutely agree that steam technology is a mainstay of the steampunk collective imagination, however it’s not the full picture. Clockwork, for example, makes absolutely no use of coal or steam power in any way, yet it appears again and again in steampunk cannon. Tik-Tok from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, the Pagininicon from Jeter’s Infernal Devices and the Automata from Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret are just a few examples. Steampunk also encompasses: the creative use of simple machines, vacuum pumps, period accurate chemistry and medical devices, early electric inventions, (especially those inspired by Edison or Tesla), and period time travel, (thanks to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells). 
Books from the past are steampunk, too?
That's right, folks. That's the magic of classification in hindsight....
Steampunk
Steampunk don't need your stinking apolcalypses.
Also  Steampunk
Does steampunk mean
'post-apocalyptic'?
For this one I will pass over my ‘not exactly’, in favor of an all around ‘no’. There are certainly several steampunk works that delight in the post-apocalyptic, (such as Tim Burton's 9, or the young adult book and film, The City of Ember), but that doesn’t mean that all steampunk works fall under this category by a long shot. In Miyizaki’s feature steampunk animation, Howl’s Moving Castle, the main character spends the duration of the movie tirelessly preventing a war-bourne apocalypse with fantastic success. I have even heard that the children’s film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang starring Dick Van Dyke is considered steampunk, as his character is the inventor of the very first breakfast-making Rube-Goldberg machine, (move over, Pee Wee Herman). If that’s the case, I certainly could not imagine anything further away from ‘post-apocalyptic’ than Dick Van Dyke at his musical best.
If steampunk and 'Neo-Victorian' were circles on a venn diagram they'd create an overlap the size of a borg elephant, but they are not synonymous. Here, I must call upon my Hermione-like pentient for nit-pickery. The term ‘Neo-Victorian’ refers to the current movement of modern Victorian enthusiasts. Certainly ‘Neo-Victorians’ find a comfortable home amongst the steampunk movement, but to they don't necessarily have to love the sci-fi. Also, to classify all of steampunk as Victorian leaves out other regional influences as well as those from other time periodsLet’s not forget that 1901 to 1910 was considered the Edwardian era, and even the post-Rennaissance 1700s can be classified as steampunk, (some call it clockpunk), in the right circumstances. There are several works and communities, (the most prominent can be found at BeyondVictoriana.com), who draw their inspiration from post-industrial Asia, Africa and other non-European countries.
Who needs your foggy London town?
Yea, take your 1800s and shove it!
We are 
NOT AMUSED...
Does steampunk mean
'Neo-Victorian'?
Perhaps we find steampunk’s definition so hard to grasp because it is really an epidemic of our collective imagination.
Hard as we try, it is almost impossible to attribute the movement to any one cause, birthplace or creator. Although Jeter was credited for coining the phrase in 1987, we notice that a number of steampunk works had erupted either before or independently of Jeter and his brothers in ink. The movement has inspired authors, artists and makers in nations across the globe, all independently shaping the illusive concept.
One begins to wonder whether or not the idea of ‘steampunk’ wasn’t almost inevitable.
Why?
1
Medieval, rural and magic based fantasy doesn’t serve us as well as it used to. As we develop into an urban, mass market, factory supplied, mechanical society, we naturally develop fiction to reflect it.
2

The industrial revolution feels familiar to us somehow. The ‘wild west’ of the interwebs, (and other less important aspects of the digital revolution), throws our societal structure into a parallel state of flux. Once lucrative, thriving institutions crumble at the feet of a lone basement programmer who can write an app that does what an entire company used to do. Sound anything like what happened to candlemakers after Edison invented the lightbulb?

3

And in some ways we are still dealing with the same problems we had then. We are still struggling to find balance between individuality and efficiency, between family obligations and corporations, between tradition and progress.

Reflection is necessary for true advancement and if our imaginations hadn’t been crying out for it, ‘steampunk’ would have faded into obscurity. But if it is a need in all of us, then the movement belongs to all of us as well.
We expand the definition everytime we contribute to it.
So perhaps the best question to ask is not, ‘What is steampunk?’,
but rather,
What does steampunk mean to you?