“I cannot imagine how the clockwork of the universe can exist without a clockmaker.”
A big difference between the two genres is that cyberpunk is about the future that may be, while steampunk is about the past that could have been. Additionally, whereas steampunk can be defined by world building and technology, cyberpunk may be more defined by a mixture of both world building and character journey: the cybernetic world building and the “low-life” social order. The state and plight of the characters are very important to determining if a novel can be considered cyberpunk or not. Cyberpunk is often described as "high tech and low life." Steampunk, on the other hand, usually deals with the opposite: low tech and high morals.
The science fiction author K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in 1987 to describe the works of “Victorian speculative fiction” that he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock were writing at the time. Some of the literary inspiration for steampunk, however, comes from early authors like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley.
There's some debate about who really "invented" cyberpunk as a genre. Isaac Asimov was the first writer to consider the ramifications of artificial intelligence (AI) seriously, Bruce Sterling helped shape the genre with his 1986 anthology Mirrorshades, and Bruce Bethke invented the actual term "cyberpunk" with his 1980 short story called Cyberpunk.
Steampunk can be described as “retro-futuristic,” or as an alternate history of what the past would look like if the future had happened sooner. Steampunk stories generally take place in time periods featuring steam-powered machinery and transportation (e.g., dirigibles) or technological aspects of the 19th century. The main characteristic of the genre is Victorian-era or American Wild West-era clothing and technology, although the technology is combined in new ways to create devices that would have been impossible in the real Victorian or Wild West time periods, (such as anything from ray guns and jetpacks, to robots and computers). Usually the technology is steam-powered – hence the name – and the aesthetic prominently features gears, cogs, and rough machinery. Steampunk fashion often includes corsets and bustles mixed with gauntlets, eyepieces, goggles, and belts that have more gadgetry than Batman. There are often fantasy or supernatural elements worked into steampunk tales as well. A good rule of thumb is that if it looks like steampunk, it probably is.
Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is all about dystopian, networked, technologically advanced, future earth-type societies and is often described as “gritty.” The technological focus is usually on computing, genetics, and artificial or virtual intelligences. Cyberpunk novels are typically distinguished by high tech cybernetics, advanced science, and a breakdown or radical change of the social order. The genre tends to be characterized by a dark, dystopian vision of the future, where technology and humanity have blended into a dirty mix of corporate oppression and antihero hackers. In many cyberpunk stories, there tends to be a strong sense of helplessness and a loss of humanity, and they may feature virtual reality, AI, cyborgs, clones, or hackers. Governments have often been replaced by megacorporations that rule in the name of greed and profit, giving little thought to morality, public safety, or the average person in society. Capitalism, corruption, and conspiracies are dominant themes surrounding these shadowy megacorporations.
Some cyberpunk books deliver the majority of action through cyberspace or virtual reality. Characters in these stories are often marginalized, alienated loners who live on the edges of society. Cyberpunk also tends to cloud what it means to be “human” with its use of cyborgs, robots, and human body modification. Cyberpunk fashion tends to be much more futuristic and industrial than its steampunk counterpart, featuring leather or vinyl, sunglasses, high-tech gear, and functionality.
Whether you’re interested in a possible future society or would rather relish in a reimagined past, why not check out some steampunk and cyberpunk books or movies? And, while you’re at it, look into some of the great clothing/cosplay ideas inspired by steampunk and cyberpunk and dress up for Fandom Fest on August 4!