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This question was just (more eloquently) raised by Xantec in a comment:

But if you had steampunk technology with modern looking clothing and architecture, wouldn't that still be called steampunk?

(emphasis mine)

For instance, Bioshock springs to mind, which sometimes hints at steampunk-esque technology (think of the freeze-ray/flame thrower or the Rivet Gun from the sequel), but couldn't generally be described as having the classical Steampunk atmosphere.

So, to put differently, is the Victorian-era-like atmosphere (clothing, architecture, look and feel, and so forth) necessary for something to be classified as Steampunk or is the mechanical/steam-driven technology sufficient?

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    Methinks this is off-topic per the FAQ's "don't ask genre classification questions" entry. They always lead to unproductive discussions due to the vagaries of genres and sub-genres. – user1027 Feb 21 '13 at 20:32
  • @Keen: Fair point. However, on a second thought, such things can often be settled by finding some authoritative definition (if one exists). – bitmask Feb 21 '13 at 20:37
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    "by finding some authoritative definition [of a genre]" The point is that there is no such animal. There can't be because genre labels mean whatever the person using it means when she uses it. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Feb 21 '13 at 21:07
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Steam-punk is first and foremost a technological genre where steam-based technology is the essence of the genre.

  • It's "punk" essence is the use of technology or ideas counter to the current culture of the period. So you don't need a Victorian Era story to be counter to for steampunk to exist.

  • Steampunk can encompass other technologies such as clockwork mechanisms, primitive Babbage-style computational devices, the use of primitive diesel engines, or even magical variants where magically-heated steam-powered devices exist.

Does this mean it is always a Victorian-era with Victorian clothing, 19th century sensibilities and tea promptly at 4:00 PM no matter what is happening? Not necessarily. It is easy to assume the genre is quite movable and other era can easily participate in a steampunk-esque theme.

  • Consider: Post-apocalypse worlds where nuclear science and computers have given way to a war where technology has fallen from grace and only primitive steam-driven devices remain. (almost any post-apocalypse post-nuclear scenario)

  • Consider: A world where alchemical-processes drive technology with a steam-based technology level. Alchemy creates the heating process, steam is created to drive the vehicles. (Steamboy)

  • Consider: a Wild West motif where giant mechanisms powered by immense boilers create mecha-like monstrosities against far less technologically capable neighbors. (Wild Wild West)

  • Consider: A futuristic world of steam-powered mechanisms (planes) with mutants and psychic abilities. (Read or Die)

  • Consider: Almost anything written by Hayao Miyazaki, sometimes using magical devices which utilize steam or lost technologies which utilize steam. (Howl's Moving Castle, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke)

Clothes may make the man and they can certainly HELP to define a genre but in this instance, consider Steampunk a continuum, a range of ideas along a line where steam is the primary element and the style and appearance of that steam a more secondary element.

  • Just a point of note Clock-Punk, Gear-Punk and Diesel-Punk are subgenres of Steam-Punk (or Steampunk) but spot on answer! – Monty129 Feb 21 '13 at 20:48
  • @Monty129: I disagree. I would call Clock-Punk a separate, but related, genre. – Donald.McLean Feb 21 '13 at 21:07
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That's the inherent problem with genre labels, especially in speculative fiction - it is very easy to stretch and twist the boundaries and definitions past the point where a pretzel would say uncle.

I checked Merriam-Webster on-line and they didn't even have an entry for steampunk. The Wikipedia entry has a definition just chock full of qualifiers, making it all but useless for making a definitive determination of whether or not something is, or is not, steampunk.

However, it is my opinion that the technology, and not the stylistic elements, that ultimately defines steampunk. So I would say that a work that contains nothing more modern than steam power, regardless of the stylistic conventions it uses, is steampunk. Note that I'm specifically excluding anything containing any more advanced technology. You might say that something is "steampunkesque" if it contains a significant number of relevant technologies, but it is only actual steampunk if all of the technology is steam powered or earlier (i.e. clockwork).

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    That's completely ridiculous ... pretzels cannot speak. No but seriously, I agree (and always have) with genre labels being stupid. But they're there, so we have to live with them. (+1) – bitmask Feb 21 '13 at 20:19

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