Steampunks often find themselves in the same quandary as religion: the interests of adherence to tradition versus accessibility to the public are often in conflict with one another. Though by and large, fans of the genre are able to get along just fine with one another, there are subtle and not-so subtle undercurrents of political tension among the more extreme members of the crowd. This is sometimes referred to as the Steampunk Debate, and just as in religion, the differences can seem trivial or confusing to outsiders if context is not provided.
The “core” Steampunk fan tends to be more on the intellectual side of the spectrum: they are not adverse to reading classical literature, they have an appreciation for good acting, and art appeals to them in a variety of mediums. They tend to be more creative, feeling a greater sense of accomplishment from making something that results in a tangible product (such as a drawing, item of clothing, sculpture, painting, etc) than they do from less tangible pursuits (such as scoring a goal, getting high score in a game, solving mathematical equations, or getting a non-pay-increase promotion at work). They have a fond appreciation for science, but are not necessarily interested in specifically how it works, rather what it is capable of accomplishing. To them, science is more of a thrilling magic show than a tedious series of repeated experimentation and collection of data. The more flashy, showy, and mysterious, the better.
Steampunks are fairly united in an appreciation for Old World style of clothing, design, and culture. Anthropologically speaking, this makes sense, as style of dress and mannerisms are the most immediately visible aspect of a persona even before language can be considered as a uniting or dividing aspect. The most obvious aspect being clothing (eg. goggles, tophats, bowlers, corsets, etc.), the next most obvious being methods of interaction (eg. bowing, kissing a lady’s hand, or speaking in cockney rhyming slang). Though they are often divided between the upper and lower class style of dress and mannerisms, this is not their philosophical divide.
Despite the “Steampunk” name, most identify with the archetypal gear as the genre’s icon, in much the same way that Christians do the cross, or Jews do the Star of David. Likewise, there are varying degrees of devotion ranging from mere lip service (“I liked the look of Wild Wild West!“) to extremism (“I’m going to buy a Victorian house and convert everything in it to Steampunk.”) The reason for this is fairly simple, like the cross and the star, it is an easily reproduced, recognized, and altered to suit the needs of the group or individual.
Here, however, is where the diviseiveness begins. For some the gear is a symbol of engineering, for others it is a symbol of art. On opposite ends of the spectrum are the anachronistic purists and the more progressive fans. Though both appreciate the same thing, it is for different reasons, and in different levels of technicality.
It is important to know that most Steampunks reside somewhere slightly left or right of the middle. This is not about opposing crowds of steampunks battling each other on the street with their Tesla-rifles and Steam-driven tanks, though would pay good money to see such an event. Rather it is a subtle undercurrent that may threaten to undermine Steampunk in the long term if it ever goes unresolved. Understanding the source of the Steampunk Debate requires understanding the opposite ends of the Steampunk Spectrum.
Anachronistic Purists are more the Orthodoxy. Every gear should have a patent date from the Victorian Era, some even insist it be prior to 1900. Every material used in the craft must be of materials available only during the Victorian era, preferably those of copper and brass, even though Bessemer processed steel is appropriate. If gears exist in the contraptions at all, they serve a specific function or are at least functional in and of themselves. Joining techniques like glue and tape are frowned upon, “solder and bolting” are preferred for metals, and wood is dovetailed. Painting something to look like brass or copper is largely frowned upon. Boilers should actually boil water and produce steam, and that steam should drive a turbine. If they make a pair of goggles, it is safe to assume they were designed for a purpose (such as welding or detail work), and that they are functional to that use and perhaps even exceed standard store-bought stock in quality. In a sense, the Anachronistic Purist draws their appreciation of the Steampunk style via their understanding and use of Victorian technology in order to reproduce it in the modern day.
The Progressive Fans are more akin to Reform Movements. They are perfectly content with gears of any patent date, of any type, painting them brass or copper, and sticking them on things purely for decorative purposes. They have no qualms about including plastics and other modern materials into their work, and even combining it with futuristic design to give a wider range of variety. They tend to push the envelope of the genre outward, making it increasingly available to others. The end-result sometimes is a Cargo Cult Science effect, where the look and action of a thing is emulated without the understanding of how it actually worked. Though that is not to say the items themselves are not functional in a completely different way. The Progressive Fans draw their appreciation of the Steampunk style by evolving the aesthetic in to new territory.
These primary differences, however, sometimes cause a growing source of tension between the two: Anachronistic Purists may end up resenting the Progressive Fans because the Fan’s participation is perceived to be a fad of fashion, rather than an earned appreciation and understanding of the genre. Progressive Fans may resent the Anachronistic Purists because of the artificially imposed limitations on materials and their use, in addition to resentment for not being considered hardcore enough by the purists.
To call either extreme the “True Steampunk Fans” would be folly. Both have compelling arguments: the Anachronists feel that they are preserving a piece of history that is being increasingly bastardized by those who only like to be seen as part of something they don’t fully understand. The Progressives argue that time does not stand still: technology need not remain static in order for one to appreciate the aesthetic, and that to make it available to the wider public, the genre must be easily viable in the modern world.
Both are correct. Ultimately, the difference in mindset is not so much that of “Old School” vs. “New School” but rather that of the Engineer versus the Artist. It may be the Engineer who recovers the history, but it is the Artist that keeps it alive in the public eye. Certainly cooperation between them is possible, but remains up to each individual to make it probable. If the two can realize the benefit of respective cooperation, Steampunk has the potential to remain a viable genre, aesthetic, and even perhaps a lifestyle. If, on the other hand, they do not, then Steampunk will eventually find itself an increasingly “lost art” among the Anachronists, and just another retro fad amongst the Progressives. And then, no one wins.