As you all know, I appeared as guest of honor at the recent World Steam Expo, which I highly suggest you all attend next year. During one of my lectures on steampunk, an audience member brought up the topic of steampunk and post-apocalyptic and whether the two are connected. I gave a usual reply with a slightly expanded explanation of the topic. Afterward, I had numerous people come up to me and tell me that my explanation made the issue much clearer to them, and it even helped some of them to find a better term and context for their own approach to steampunk. The general consensus was that I should present the explanation to a wider audience, which is what I am doing here.
To begin, post-apocalyptic is not steampunk, and steampunk is not post-apocalyptic. The two genres both have their origins in 19th century literature, but they have distinct and often incompatible features and themes.
Steampunk, as you all well know, envisions a world in which the technology of the Victorian era is built up to an even higher and more elaborate level of development, while retaining its distinctive Victorian aesthetic. Naturally, this kind of technology demands an equally well-developed infrastructure to build, maintain and fuel its machinery. If a society lacks easy access to metal, water and some sort of fuel source like coal, it is in a poor position to develop even basic, historical steam technology, let alone the widespread and advanced systems commonly encountered in steampunk.
Post-apocalyptic, in turn, envisions a world in which some sort of apocalyptic event has occurred, leading to the collapse of large-scale civilization. Probably the most recognizable post-apocalyptic environment is the desert wasteland encountered in Mad Max and Fallout. In this scenario, not only has civilized order broken down, but water is extremely scarce, and let us remember that water is required for both human survival and steam power. It is unlikely that people in this scenario would dream of sacrificing vital water supplies for even a single steam engine, let alone for multiple engines. Other, similar post-apocalyptic scenarios dealing with a radical change in the physical world, like ocean flooding, a la Waterworld, or massive freezing in a new Ice Age, suffer similar problems in providing fresh water for steam engines to use without risking major corrosion, to say nothing of the problems they pose in providing access to coal and metal. Even more "benign" post-apocalyptic scenarios, where civilization collapses but the world remains more or less plentiful in terms of natural resources, still suffer from a lack of infrastructure to provide easy access to requisite materials and fuel. A post-apocalyptic society that manages to correct these problems of supply and infrastructure sufficiently to attain a "steampunk" level of technology will cease to meet the requirements of post-apocalyptic.
So what if someone wants to explore what happens when a society in a post-apocalyptic world reorganizes and redevelops itself into an advanced, urban and highly industrial steampunk society? This is something that I like to refer to as post post-apocalyptic. In this situation, an apocalypse has already happened, plunging the world into a pre-industrial age. Then, either some survivor communities manage to retain some degree of their infrastructure and organization, or after the crisis has passed, they manage to rebuild and progress once again through an industrial revolution. The early stages of post post-apocalyptic are characterized by small-scale but rapidly growing experiments in industrial technology, such as one sees in the first few decades of the 19th century. Inevitably, a post post-apocalyptic society advances further into an identifiable urban industrial society along the lines of the mid and late Victorians, although this may be accomplished at the same rate or even faster than in the historical Victorian era.
For those of you curious about what a post post-apocalyptic steampunk scenario looks like, I direct you to Unhallowed Metropolis by Hallows Eve Designs (the originator of the zombie-steampunk mix) and AIR by Hatboy Studios, Inc. In both of these settings, the world as we know it ends in some sort of apocalyptic event, but society manages to either retain its technology and infrastructure or to rebuild itself to a 19th century industrial level of technology, and from there to a steampunk level of technology.
This was the explanation I gave at my talk, which was very well-received. I hope you have enjoyed it and that it will make the topic clearer. There is no such thing as "post-apocalyptic steampunk." If one is interested in exploring a steampunk society that develops out of a post-apocalyptic situation, it is no longer post-apocalyptic but rather becomes post post-apocalyptic. Though, come to think of it, one may as well drop the entire "post-apocalyptic" thread and just call it "steampunk" for simplicity's sake, since there is no structural difference between post post-apocalyptic steampunk and regular steampunk.
-G. D. Falksen