Cyberpunk Vs. Steampunk
By Steampunk Origins | Updated Oct 09, 2019
To resist conformity is to be punk. The Cyberpunk can interpret a world that doesn’t exist, and the Steampunk is able to build it. Both strive for a better future but differ in how one should approach it.
It comes down to a question: which is more important? To focus on how you fit in the World, and how you can improve it? Or what the problems with the World are, and how can you can stop them?
If Cyberpunk is there to oppose the status quo, then Steampunk is there to improve upon it. Both pose interesting questions, and while on the surface stand so very far apart, perhaps they are two sides to an important discussion.
Kronos Vs. Uranus. Biggie Vs. Tupac. Cyberpunk Vs. Steampunk. Time and time again we’re thrust into a conflict between two souls unable to see the similarities that make them both relevant and important. And like all competitions turned bad we’re left with a big mess and no real winners.
Brief Intro to Steampunk
Known for its blend of fantasy and technology, it’s often placed in alternate timelines. Steampunk’s interest in technology seems to resonate with fifties science fiction, delving into the moral neutrality of technology and its incorporation into flawed social systems.
Steampunk tends to be optimistic at its heart. Often accompanied by the archetypical Heroes Journey, the Protagonist is happy to tinker and play while the world around them looms menacingly either converting their technology or possessing something similar in desperate need of a foil to restore balance.
Brief Intro to Cyberpunk
in the world of Steampunk. While both deal with corruption in the wealthy elite, Cyberpunk often directs towards the inert malevolence present in any system that isn’t held accountable for its actions.
Time and social awareness play pivotal roles in explaining how a society can be both so advanced and yet so morally defunct. It’s perhaps the presence of the Hardboiled detective narrative that lends a weary eye to a genre, one that can’t help but pick holes in everything around them.
Differences and Similarities
Fashionably the two genres could be regarded as making up a whole, with Cyberpunk’s unisex PVC and leather gear seen in films like the Matrix (source), and Steampunk’s sexually dimorphic style with suits for men and corsets for women (source), both encompass both extremes of sexuality in culture.
Cyberpunk represents the monoculture, the lack of identity as seen in Anonymous, which in turn took their ideas from Alan Moore’s definitive V for Vendetta (source). This indicator represents the significance of the individual, and its suppression in the far future. People adopt uniforms to express themes of conflict, incorporating slick fashion into their counter culture almost as if goading the opposition by incorporating their anarchy into a style, as seen in seventies Punk.
The differences in fashion are great indicators of how each of the genres work. The grand elitism seen in the Steampunk’s fashion paints a picture of the positive aristocracy, a nobility you can get behind. Fashion is formal, respectful, and great effort to carry out any sudden movement. The genre’s punk nature is found in its ability to change the World even when not being able to breathe thanks to the corset.
Most Cyberpunk stories involve a dystopian element, often posing as a utopia. There is an element of suppression in the form of compelled speech, propaganda, or fascist regimes. Drawing from influences such as Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World (source), George Orwell’s 1984 (source), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (source), we are shown the horrors of a far-flung-future, and perhaps the worst thing is that they’re still capable of functioning.
Steampunk follows similar traits as seen in its popular setting: Victorian Britain, a time known for repression of the individual, sex, and the abuse of the poor via workhouses. While standing at the forefront of technological advancement, all this success came at the mistreatment of the working class.
Steampunk may involve the classic heroes journey, but instead of it being about the one’s abilities within a corrupt system, Steampunk often dealt with the one’s ability to add to the system (source). This isn’t always a good thing as in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (source), and Jules Vern’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (source) (depending on your views of marine ecology).
If Cyberpunk was about the focus on the need for a liberal element to destabilise the system, then Steampunk was there to heal it. Like most stories, both include elements of a faceless elite profiteering from the weak and powerless, but whereas Cyberpunk focused on a hyper-realised version of the future that need to be avoided, Steampunk drew from a powerful but morally shaky past and tries to mix its greatest elements with a more balanced and supportive social structure.
Cyberpunk warns the possibility of a terrible future, while Steampunk attempts to learn from a terrible future. The parallels in the suppression of the individual, disease and unsanitary working conditions fit the two cultures in purpose, with Cyberpunk pointing to the problem, and Steam attempting to move beyond it.
Both tend to focus on the need for the individual, whether it be the Steampunk’s unique ingenuity, or the Cyberpunk’s ability to exploit cyberspace. Both tend to stream towards messianic themes of salvation and redemption, and the tribal fear of the “Them”.
Tribalism comes up a lot in fiction, such as the forces of good and evil as seen in many Fantasy stories, or the counter cultured present in Cyberpunk. What’s interesting with films such as Wild Wild West is that the battle between the two tribes isn’t a matter of a difference in technology but views, if anything this story shines on how similar we are in capability and rationality while holding up the dangers of toxic tribalism in a highly advanced age (source).
New Wave Science Fiction often exposed the problems with arrogance and the fragility of the individual and society with stories such as Harlan Ellison’s: I Must Scream, and I have no Mouth, which focuses on the fears of a vengeful and malignant AI (source). It’s from this source that good Steampunk seems to draw its influence, acting almost as the historian of the Science Fiction genre to prevent a rise in murderous drones, or emotionless leaders.
The protagonists in Cyberpunk tend to be coerced into something nefarious, such as in A Scanner Darkly where Bob Arctor goes undercover to the suppliers of Substance D. The plot plays with identity and responsibility, both proximately with Bob’s hidden motives from the people he is living with and the agencies he is hiding his addiction and criminal actions from; ultimately it is the system that wilfully abuses its agents, encouraging them to take a cortex damaging drug in the name of bringing down drug empires (source).
Something to take note of is the presence of Steampunk and Cyberpunk in modern society. Steampunk is more popular now than ever, which could be due to the sheer amount of information revealed thanks to the rise of the internet. Suddenly we can be anything we want. Gender is considered fluid. Opinions are given whether asked or not.
We will see Steampunk’s boundaries become more defined, with the works of Frankenstein arriving at the conclusions that perhaps it’s not wrong to create new life, as long as you’re willing to raise it. In time we’ll see its fertile ground leached and barren thanks to an overabundance of writers trying to make an easy buck.
Cyberpunk may rise again, in a new form as they old system is dismantled, and we return to the pursuit of asking hard questions. The rise of the keyboard warrior is here, but were the works of Gibson and the New Wave before him wrong? Are we to see the bored and petty inherit the rich and expansive world of the Internet? Or is there something else? The rise of the podcast to combat salacious media. Masked groups intent on upsetting individuals thought to be untouchable.
In conclusion, the differences between the two genres tend to come down to view points. While Steampunk can be both optimistic overall, with occasional diversions in the case of William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Cyberpunk is at its core pessimistic.
Both deal with technology, although Cyberpunk tends to point towards consciousness, virtual realities, whereas Steampunk focuses on technology that would (if put in the right hands) help society progress, or at least allow small communities to escape. Interestingly Cyberpunk is the cleanest of the technology, possibly signalling that it’s never too late to rebel, while Steampunk focuses on coal which could be synonymous with the issues with ignoring our issues.
Steampunk, due to its inability to be properly labelled, can exist as both a whole and in pieces. The flexibility allows elements to affect other genres. Cyberpunk, due to its rich heritage, is a little more formulaic in its current structure.