In The Hard Edge of Empire, Charles Stross laments the current glut of steampunk which is all about aesthetic, adventure, and nostalgia rather than the social realities and consequences of anachronistic technology in the 19th century. In other words, what’s selling is the “steam” rather than the “punk” and the genre purists are getting into a snit about it.
I think what Stross and his commenters are forgetting is that marketing and literary intelligentsia are two completely different things. If they happen to overlap, then it’s a happy coincidence. But most of the time, they don’t. This happens in every genre. Steampunk is not an exception. Marketing departments are going to slap the label “steampunk” on anything with a airship. They don’t care about the fine distinctions. It’s like lumping a pair of flip-flops with a genetically engineered rabbit that glows in the dark because both of them are green. As long as you know how that part of the publishing industry works, then you shouldn’t be surprised that a novel labeled “steampunk” is drastically different than what you imagine a steampunk novel should be.
If you pride yourself on being a so-called well-informed reader, then do your homework before you buy the book. And if you just pick up a book randomly based on cover, well, you know that old adage. Books aren’t immune to fads and I think the best way to counteract them, if you really don’t like them, is to not buy the fad books. (And, you know, if enough people don’t buy fad books, they’ll go away because they’re not making the publisher any money.)
That said, I really like steampunk. I’m not so much into the sociological aspects of it (or the aesthetics, come to think of it–sometimes it can get downright annoying), but I do find the addition of anachronistic science fascinating. The fascination probably began even before I knew what steampunk was. When I was in my first year of high school, it was the reason why I picked a hefty biography of Thomas Edison for the book report of my choice. My fascination continued to be fueled by an awesome history of science class I took when I was an undergrad where half of the semester was taken up talking just about steam-powered engines and similar machines. But even with my science-centric view of things, I don’t think steampunk is just about nuts and bolts. I’ve tried my hand at writing steampunk and I’ve included gaslight fantasy to more traditionally sci-fi oriented stories.
Should it matter how steampunk is defined? Should only stories containing the tropes on a purist’s list be considered steampunk? Or can anything ranging from squishy to hard be included under the umbrella? It depends on your point of view. The answer to “what is steampunk?” is an opinion, neither right nor wrong. For me, as a reader, the very notion of steampunk–or any genre for that matter–is irrelevant. The individual elements of a story that indicate genre is like the facade of a house. It’s not going to change the underlying foundation or the story itself. And the story is the key, not the genre trappings. What I really want is a well told story, whether it’s a social commentary featuring underfed workers revolting against the mechanical loom overlords or a swashbuckling tale of zeppelins and zombies.
I suppose one could argue that I’m completely missing the point by emphasizing the story over the genre. But even if you do add all the hardcore steampunk elements to your writing, you have to ask yourself, why are you really writing in the first place anyway? And why are your readers reading your writing? And most importantly–especially if you want anyone to read your stuff in the first place–do your goals for writing align with the reader’s expectation? It’s not going to do anyone any good if all you want to write about is steampunk philosophy while most of the readers come into it expecting to be entertained, difference engine or no.