Once upon a time, not so long ago, everybody agreed what the label "steampunk" referred to. But now the term is being used to refer to all sorts of entertainments, from future history to adventures on other planets. Is it time to rethink what steampunk means?
As recently as 2005, F. Brett Cox's entry in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy defined steampunk in essentially the same way as Peter Nicholls did in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993). Nicholls' definition, in turn, was little changed from K.W. Jeter's coining of the term in a letter published in the April 1987 issue of Locus magazine to refer to his "gonzo-historical" explorations of "Victorian fantasies" and alternative technologies.
Now, though… Neal Stephenson's science fictional novel The Diamond Age, which is full of nanotech and a radically altered future history, is "steampunk." The fantasy tv series The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra, which has superpowered humans on a different planet, is "steampunk." Martin Scorcese's Hugo (based on a YA novel by Brian Selznick), which is entirely mimetic apart from a marginal unreality involving a writing automaton, is "steampunk."
It's time we rethought the term, and rethought how we define the genre, and how we formulate genre definitions.
The problem is that there are two conflicting approaches to how "steampunk" is defined. The prescriptivists maintain that there's only one true definition of the term, and the descriptivists, whose preferred definition is much broader. Most (though by no means all) prescriptivists hew to the traditional, Jeter/Nicholls definition, while the descriptivists usually alter their definition to fit whatever their favored book, comic, t.v. show or movie.
The conflict between these two has been going on for nearly a decade, and the descriptivists are winning-as can be seen by the range of "steampunk" works listed above. At the moment steampunk is a fad, similar to cyberpunk, and once the faddists move on, steampunk will in all likelihood return to being primarily a literary category. But until then, steampunk will remain a catch-all term without an agreed-upon definition, and thus a term of little critical utility.
So how to reconcile the two sides, so that "steampunk" can be reclaimed for use by everyone? The answer lies in something that Cherie Priest (Boneshaker, Ganymede, Dreadnought) wrote when I asked her to define steampunk: "I don't believe in steampunk as a binary. I see it as more like a spectrum." Cherie is a wise woman as well as a fine writer, and she's hit upon the solution to the semantic problem of "steampunk."
The key is to begin thinking of steampunk not as a binary-is/is not steampunk — but through the use of fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic is a mathematical, engineering, and philosophical approach that arose in the 1960s. In philosophy, fuzzy logic is applied to statements like "Many writers are poor," which use imprecise vocabulary to create a statement for which the law of the excluded middle ("either ‘x is true' or ‘x is not true,' there is no in-between") does not apply. Because "many" and "poor" are ambiguous and subjective, "many writers are poor" can be partially or mostly true rather than simply true or not true.
Which brings us back to Cherie Priest's "continuum." If we apply the approach of fuzzy logic to steampunk, stories and novels become "more steampunk" or "less steampunk" rather than defined in a binary, is/is-not fashion. All the endless attempts to define steampunk, and the consequent time-wasting arguments over those definitions, can give way to more profitable discussions of the interpretations and meanings of those works. A fuzzy steampunk continuum will contain traditionally steampunk novels like Gibson and Sterling's Difference Engine, disputed steampunk novels like Stephenson's Diamond Age, and the even more imaginative and outré works of the future.
Rather than assembling a list of elements which a work must have to qualify as "steampunk," we can say that as long as a work has some of those elements, it is steampunk. This frees us from having to define the list and number the elements, which might include "Victorian setting," "alternate history," "steam-powered technology," and so on. Any combination of those will do to make a work "partially steampunk," and a large number of those elements together will make a story "mostly steampunk."
Admittedly, this seems counterintuitive. We're used to defining things in an is/is-not way. But the truth is that there are several critical terms similar to "steampunk" whose definitions are similarly fuzzy, including "hard-boiled," "noir," "pulp," and "slapstick." All of these terms have been used so broadly since their inception their current definitions have strayed inseparably far from their original definitions. "Hard-boiled" et al. are now terms applied in as many different contexts as "steampunk" is now, and with the fuzzy logic approach I think steampunk users should adopt.