Sci-Fi Is Steelpunk the new Steampunk? Does Steelpunk even exist?

Virgil Tracy

Cadet
Joined
Oct 27, 2017
I don’t know if Steelpunk does exist but I’d love it if it did. Here’s what I think Steelpunk is. Is there any out there?

Steelpunk: A lengthy disquisition on an invisible genre

Steelpunk celebrates the technologies that had their heyday in the last decades of the last millennium. It is to the late 20th century what Steampunk is to the 19th.

Steelpunk is about hardware, not software, the real not the virtual, megatech not nanotech. The artefacts of Steelpunk aren’t grown, printed or programmed, they’re built. With rivets.

Imagine the Thunderbirds written by William Burroughs. Think The Right Stuff before it all went wrong.

Steampunk never grabbed me.It’s partly just a matter of taste — the Victorian era doesn’t resonate for me. But it’s also partly because I don’t think Steampunk tells us much about our world, especially now that it has morphed from literary genre to lifestyle choice. These days it’s more of a fashion statement than a comment on our times. That’s where Steelpunk comes in. It focuses on the vision of the future that inspired the era just past and so it illuminates the present. Steelpunk shows how yesterday’s tomorrow gave us today. Plus it’s got rocketships.

The problem is, I haven’t come across much Steelpunk. I’ve kind of lost touch with science fiction. My subscription to Analog lapsed years ago and I’ve just drifted away. It’s only at the movies that I get anything like a Steelpunk fix. So for all I know, there may be lots of Steelpunk out there. Does anyone have any suggestions or recommendations?

My hunt for Steelpunk turned up genres I’d never heard of, stuff like Dieselpunk, Decopunk, Atompunk, Elfpunk and Dreampunk. I can see touches of Steelpunk in the first three, but they’re into more specific eras. Dieselpunk and Decopunk seem to revive the tech-aesthetic of the early twentieth century and Atompunk limits itself to the pre-digital Cold War period.

I think Steelpunk worships at a broader church. It doesn’t exclude other techs (info-, nano-, bio-). That said, these technologies are such powerful agents of change that any Steelpunk story probably needs to explain why they have faded into the background.

The punk in Steelpunk shouldn’t just be a suffix denoting science fiction either. It should have an underground element, a subversive edge. Steelpunk collides with other genres that operate at the margins, like crime, noir and pulp fiction.

Steelpunk has a satirical bent. In hindsight it’s hard to take seriously the technological utopianism of Steelpunk’s formative years. These days, the fossil-fueled, jet-propelled, rocket-motored, atomic-powered engines of environmental destruction that are the totems of Steelpunk are almost taboo. Steelpunk knows it’s all a bit dirty. Think Gru’s fume-spewing car in Despicable Me.

Or better still, take the whole Mad Max mythos. All that high-octane fun and fury makes it one of the best examples of Steelpunk I can think of. And Steelpunk does love a good apocalypse. It’s as much about dirty dystopias as it is high-chrome dreams. Start with a nice disaster, add a bit of social disorder and our interconnected technological ecosystems grind to a halt. Time to dig out yesterday’s machines. Ice Age coming? You need Snowpiercer’s allegorical supertrain. Global crop blight? Try Interstellar’s forgotten spaceship.

The two main themes of Steelpunk that make it into the mainstream are Fight and Flight. Battlesuits, war machines and rampaging robots turn up again and again, as do flying cars and jetpacks.

Perhaps the success of the Iron Man franchise comes down to the fact that Tony Stark’s suit combines both. In the original sixties comic, Stark stood for all that is good and glorious in the military-industrial complex. Robert Downey Jr’s inveterate self-mockery made him a different figure in the movies, and all the more Steelpunky as a result.

Steelpunk wears a rich array of fashion, ranging from jumpsuits all the way to catsuits. Its preference, however, is for the latest weaponised workwear: the battle suits from Edge of Tomorrow, Robocop’s hardwired hardshell or mecha like Pacific Rim’s Jaegers. The best Steelpunk exosuit to clank out of Hollywood wasn’t even designed for fighting: the Caterpillar P-5000 Power Loader that Ripley repurposed to battle the alien queen in Aliens. (Aliens is basically a Steelpunk war movie, the original Alien a Steelpunk horror).

Hollywood gets a bit anxious when machines think for themselves. Ethical issues around Artificial Intelligence are beyond the ambit of Steelpunk, but it loves giant stomping robots like The Iron Giant or steely-skeletoned assassins like the Terminator. And nobody could accuse Michael Bay of overthinking the Transformers; shiny shapeshifters smash each other to pieces, what’s not to like?

Steelpunk even has its own version of the car chase. For me, the flying car getaways are often a highlight of the movies they appear in: The Fifth Element, 2012’s Total Recall and that Star Wars prequel (no idea which one, they blend into one long sigh of disappointment).

Meanwhile honorary Atompunk Bond film Thunderball made the jetpack seem like the way of the future. Sadly, since then they mainly crop up in self-consciously retro films like Rocketeer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Tomorrowland.

The most muscular machinery in Steelpunk is devoted to lifting us off this planet entirely. In Steelpunk, the space race never ended and we’re still boldly going etc.

Nowadays space travel in the movies tends to a kind of Steelpunk verité. In films like Gravity and The Martian we are a fly on a wall, usually a wall about to rupture catastrophically, giving our heroes the chance to science the sh*t out of things.

Often space comes to us, and not with the best intentions. Alien invasions like Independence Day or War of the Words let Hollywood raid the military’s toybox and start blasting away. Sometimes these disaster-from-space movies are just disasters. Armageddon, I’m looking at you.

So does this survey suggest what Steelpunk is and could be? Does the idea appeal?

If so, do you have any suggestions for any books, movies, TV shows, comics or games that a wannabe Steelpunk fan would enjoy?
 

Tom

An Old Friend
Joined
Dec 6, 2004
Location
Gulf Coast
Everything I find on STEEL punk is reference to vaping and steel punk slugs.


If I querry a reference to steel punk sci fi I get steam punk
I also get steam punk images under steel punk.

Save 50% on Steel Punk Ball on Steam
A game

There is Steam Punk and Cyber Punk but nothing really about steel punk in this context?
 

Virgil Tracy

Cadet
Joined
Oct 27, 2017
Everything I find on STEEL punk is reference to vaping and steel punk slugs.


If I querry a reference to steel punk sci fi I get steam punk
I also get steam punk images under steel punk.

Save 50% on Steel Punk Ball on Steam
A game

There is Steam Punk and Cyber Punk but nothing really about steel punk in this context?
Yeah, I don’t think anyone else has used the term Steelpunk to describe a style of science fiction before. I was thinking that I’d like sci-fi that celebrated the technology and general vibe of the jet age and the space race. I was wondering what you’d call it and Steelpunk sounded right to me.
 
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