According to Forbes Magazine, it’s a science fiction/fantasy sub-genre that’s a mixture of 19th century industrialized looks and Victorian flourishes. Sounds fancy, but it’s easier to explain it in reference to pop culture: Steampunk is Sherlock Holmes meets the Wild Wild West, with a dash of Inspector Gadget. (Excerpted from Time Magazine style section article, “Will Steampunk Really be the Next Big Fashion Trend” by Erin Skarda, January 17, 2013.)
And then, according to Wikipedia, Steampunk creative works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian Era or the American Wild West or a post-apocalyptic future when steam power has regained mainstream use. Steampunk’s most recognizable features are outdated technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them. Steampunk is rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style and art. The technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Other examples of Steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of such technology as airships (dirigibles), analog computers, or digital mechanical computers .
Steampunk may also incorporate elements from the genres of fantasy, horror/historical fiction, or alternate history, making it a hybrid genre. The term Steampunk first appeared in 1987, though it now retroactively refers to many works of fiction created even as far back the 1800’s as in the case of Jules Vern’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Steampunk also refers to a particular style of art, fashion, or subculture that has developed from the aesthetics of Steampunk fiction, Victorian-era fiction, and films from the mid-20th century. Various modern utilitarian objects have been redesigned by individual artisans into new pseudo-Victorian mechanical Steampunk devices. A number of visual and musical artists have been described as Steampunk.
But can’t we come up with a simple, concise explanation you ask? Sure – Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology as applied to literature, art and fashion (and probably some other art forms I’ve left out, but you get the picture).