I wrote a short compare and contrast essay for my English class on Steampunk Vs. Cyberpunk; it's not great, and I know it could use more information, but I thought it might serve well as a first post for the Writings forum. Constructive criticism is welcome, as are suggestions for modification!
Lots of literature creates a following, trends even. Some books change the way we see the universe, and others the way we see ourselves. But some books create brand new ways of life, and Steampunk and Cyberpunk are both examples of this phenomenon.
Steampunk is a science fiction genre based on a future as the Victorians saw it. Its technology runs on steam, hence the name. People attracted to steampunk tend to feel they were born in the wrong era and love to make things themselves.
Cyberpunks also feel that they were born in the wrong time, but feel they should have been born later, in the future. Cyberpunks embrace digital technology and are ready for what the future throws at them.
Both of these fantasy genres-turned-subcultures began with two separate books, both by a writer named William Gibson. He is much more famous for his groundbreaking Cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, which birthed a lot of terms and ideas that have become part of popular culture today. If you’re familiar with The Matrix, you should understand the general cyber universe.
Hackers and the art of hacking play a huge role in most cyberpunk universes. Because most cyber worlds are dystopian, hackers tend to use their skills against “the man,” or the corrupt people in power. Not to say that cyberpunks themselves are not corrupt; drug abuse, power hunger and violence are a common part of cyberpunk worlds.
Where cyber has hackers, steampunk has their mad scientists. Steampunk really gelled in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which he wrote with Bruce Sterling. In this book, hackers have a direct equivalent called “clackers,” but the mad scientist moniker is much more common. These people are the inventors, the beautiful minds trying to better the world with the newest technology, and since steampunk is based in an advanced Victorian world, these technologies tend to be analog.
Steampunks tend to take a more utopian view of their universe, but it can be, and often is, just as dark as any cyberpunk dystopia. The inventors often battle “the man” as well, just with bulkier equipment.
Both of these universes are enthusiastic about technology in one way or another, but, as was touched on earlier, steampunk tends to be analog and cyber focuses on a future where digital rules. There is very little that’s tangible anymore, since a lot of back-and-forth is done in cyberspace (cyberspace being one of the many words Gibson created, equivalent to a virtual reality and internet combination.)
Like most digital things, small and sleek is the preferred design, and you have to know what you’re doing to use these gadgets properly and to their full capacity. But the same can be said for steampunk’s analog technology, which may actually be more complex and require more knowledge than a cyberpunk’s tools.
Most of these items, which can range anywhere from weaponry to jewelry, are handmade. There is a deep respect for do-it-yourselfers in both genres, but it’s seen much more often in steampunk. The steampunk aesthetic centers on brass, gears and ornate decoration. They’re definitely romantics, and it shows in everything they do, especially in their fashion.
Since fashion is the most immediate part of a person’s character, costume is critical in descriptions of characters, hence the importance in both subcultures. Even someone with minimal knowledge could tell a steampunk and a cyberpunk apart.
Steampunks look like they stepped out of a time machine or a Jules Verne novel. The ladies often wear large hats or fascinators, with a simple Victorian inspired blouse or shirt. Often this will be paired with a corset, worn as outerwear, or a vest, with a couple of brown leather belts and a floor length skirt. She’ll usually wear boots, brown to match the earth tones in the rest of her ensemble. Layers are key to the steam silhouette, and sometimes skirts will be layered too. The fashion of an individual could lean more toward sky pirate or distinguished steam lady, but it’s really just a matter of personal taste from there.
The men tend wear very plain and functional Victorian clothing or they take accessorizing and rich fabrics to the top. The gentlemen in the latter category tend to be the captain or eccentric inventor type, while the men in the former are usually workers and deckhands.
The cyberpunks are completely different. Both genders will often have plastic dreadlocks or hair extensions in bright, varied rainbows, and some even sport partially shaven heads. Bright makeup in unconventional patterns are also common among both genders, along with piercing, contacts and some extreme body modifications.
Their clothing is a combination of familiar fabrics and unyielding plastics or foam padding, harkening back to the kitschy 1950s ideas of the future. Camouflage is common pattern, as are the strangely beautiful and intricate patterns of a computer chip.
Boots are also extraordinarily common, to the point of uniform, as is torn clothing, creating a very post-apocalyptic look indeed. They also show significantly more skin than steampunks, who often poke fun at their own prudishness.
Even for all their extreme fashion differences, there are a few similarities; the most obvious being the goggles perched on top of almost every head.
Both subcultures seem to utilize goggles, steampunks to protect their eyes while working in the lab or flying high in a zeppelin, and cyberpunks tend to use them to plug in to the matrix, to create their digital worlds in front of their eyes.
Another startling similarity is that they both utilize their preferred technologies in their fashion. It’s not uncommon to see a steampunk wearing a necklace or earrings created with gears, or a cyberpunk wearing an old motherboard, sometimes cut into familiar shapes like hearts, stars or circles. Once again, most of these pieces are handmade, and the people who are the best at creating these items gain some fame and notoriety throughout the communities.
For all of steam and cyberpunk’s differences, I think that the two really have a lot more in common than they think. There’s nothing really punk about either of them, really, save for perhaps their rebellious spirits and DIY aesthetic, and they both hold women on an equal footing with men. In fact, one of the most well known inventors of the steampunk community is a woman who goes by Porkshanks.
I have to admit, I am partial to steampunk, and this is because I have always been a history fan, and I have never come across a stronger and friendlier community where I was so quickly accepted, although cyberpunk holds my interest quite fast. Being a person who has never known an analog world, I believe that cyberpunk is much more true to what the future may hold. Some people even say we’re already past cyberpunk, as our current technologies are far beyond anything William Gibson ever imagined.
Although, I have a thought that the steampunks and the cyberpunks are on the same timeline, just as we are with the people who lived in the 19th century. We lived on the same planet, and are, in a way, still the same people. So even though the steampunks and they cyberpunks don’t, as a whole, see themselves as related, I think they will eventually. And maybe they’ll create a whole new future together.