Steampunk: What it is, why I came to like it, and why I think it’ll stick around

August 8, 2009 - 10:44 pm No Comments

I would like to take a moment to define “steampunk.” This will be an exercise in futility (not to mention sadomasochism) because there is no formal, all-encompassing, final word on the subject, and people are bound to disagree. But for the purposes of what is to follow, I must begin with a definition of this term which I’m going to be flinging around willy-nilly. So here goes.

Steampunk: An aesthetic movement based around the science fiction of a future that never happened. Recall, if you will, visions of the future that were written a hundred years ago or more. Think Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and the like — telling stories featuring technology that didn’t exist at the time, but might someday. Remember that they were writing with no idea of the microchip, or the internet, or (in some cases) the internal combustion engine. Therefore, in their versions of the future, the technology upon which society would eventually come to depend is driven largely by steam power or clockwork. Sometimes electricity is likewise invoked, but it’s often treated as quasi-magical due to the contemporary lack of understanding about how it behaved and what it could do.

WooEEE. That’s a mouthful, I know. Let me broaden that just a smidge and add this as a postscript: Steampunk could be considered a retro-futuristic neo-Victorian sensibility that is being embraced by fiction, music, games, and fashion. It is ornate and vibrant, and intricate. It believes that functional items can and should be beautiful.

It is lots of fun. If it isn’t lots of fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Let the emails beginning, “Actually …” and “Technically …” and “But you’re forgetting …” begin! But please bear in mind, this is but one woman’s experience and opinion.

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* * *

Why I got interested in steampunk:

I first became interested in steampunk about four or five years ago, when I stumbled across a message board dedicated to the subject. This brief introduction sent me on a little research expedition to learn more, and the more I learned, the better I liked it — and the more I understood that this nebulous term was actually encompassing a whole slew of things I already appreciated.

My only tiny gripe was that most of the steampunk art and fiction I was seeing appeared to be centered around Victorian London.

Don’t get me wrong — Victorian London is a pretty awesome setting, and far be it from me to declare it unfit in any capacity; but this American cosplay enthusiast with a history minor [:: points thumbs at self ::] could scarcely resist composing a checklist.

Did we have oodles of fancy steam-and-coal-powered tech? Check. One massive rail system that eventually crisscrossed over three thousand miles of rivers, plains, mountain ranges, and swamps. I believe that counts.

And what of similarly hardcore weaponry, and early mechanisms of flight? Check. How about everything that ever fired, rolled, or flew during the Civil War — including the “aeronauts” and all their war balloons, spy crafts, and surveillance equipment? If that doesn’t count, then gosh darn it, I don’t know what does.

What of class clashes, colonialism, exploration, and scientific expansion? Oh honey, Check. Westward expansion with all its inherent ethical and pragmatic difficulties; an enormous slave class which was liberated and then obligated to integrate into free society, often with zero social or legal protection; a region’s failed secession and “reconstruction” into a crippled territory with a ravaged economy that hasn’t fully recovered even 150 years later; agricultural barons vs. industrial barons; urban poverty vs. rural poverty vs. urban wealth vs. rural feudal wealth; frontier millionaires; gold rushes; smallpox blankets; Spindletop and the rise of fossil fuels; Thomas Edison; Henry Ford … Jesus, need I go on?

So I still had a book under contract.
And I knew where I wanted it to take place — and what I wanted it to look like.

* * *

Why I think steampunk will stick around:

And now as people talk about steampunk breaking through to the mainstream, and what it must become or acquire if it’s going to have any staying power … I think that at least some of the answers are obvious, and I intend to talk about two of my favorites: (1). Steampunk comes from a philosophy of salvage and customization, and (2). Steampunk’s inherent nature is participatory and inclusive, yet subversive.

And now, enlarging to show detail.

(1). Steampunk’s philosophy of salvage and customization is not only very timely here in the early twenty-first century, but it’s a conscious backlash against a Western cultural tradition of waste, disposable consumer goods, and the banality of mass production.

    I sometimes joke that the core tenet of steampunk (from a philosophical, or at least sound-bytey standpoint) is “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” But I’m only half joking. Since the nineteenth century was largely pre-mass-production (if on the very cusp of it), people tended to have fewer things and to make more versatile use of the things they had — and to keep them longer. More goods were custom made, and tended to be better made.

    This stands in stark opposition to consumer culture as we’ve come to know it, whereby everything that breaks is thrown away and replaced; and much of what we own is identical to much of what other people own. Likewise, consumers are limited by the offerings of mass production, and are hard-pressed to purchase things that look or feel more personalized.

    The obvious answer to this, of course, is to make your own things. And steampunks are all over that shit.

    Steampunks do not need to settle for what’s on the rack. At their best, steampunks either make their own clothes and jewelry or customize the clothes and jewelry that they already have. They cheerfully use unexpected (and sometimes, aggressively un-valuable) items for decorative purposes, and remix their wardrobes, their accessories, and their possessions to better meet their own aesthetic standards and fashion requirements.

    Thus you see everything from laptops to musical instruments, furniture to earrings, quilts to shoes to hats to candles to cat collars … retooled for a more pleasing and individual look that’s customized to the preferences of the owner. Because despite the fact that we all pretty much shop at the same places and buy more or less the same things, deep down everybody wants something unique.

    Conveniently enough, the internet has made this more possible and affordable than ever before. Etsy, Ebay, independent shops and craftspeople are just a few keystrokes away. Let me put it this way: No two steampunks ever arrive at a gathering wearing exactly the same thing.

(2). Steampunk is participatory, and yet it simultaneously rebels with its inclusiveness. As you (probably) know (if you’re reading this) Bob, there’s a great deal of conversation in speculative fiction about inclusiveness and representation of the Other. And now for two quick asides, to loosely define another couple of terms:

    Speculative fiction can be generally described as the fiction of “what if?” including fantasy, science fiction, horror, slipstream, “weird” fiction, and other such genres. Steampunk stories are usually categorized as speculative fiction.

    The Other refers to people who are not included in mainstream heteronormative white culture. This includes women, people of color, people of non-hetero sexual orientations, and transgendered people or people who do not identify with gender as a binary. The designation also extends to include other underrepresented demographics, including (but not limited to) people who are older, who have nontraditional or unexpected body types or disabilities, or who practice certain religions.

    Got it? Okay.

    The participatory nature of steampunk is abundantly clear. The ornate, fun, retro steampunk “look” comes with a contagious element that inspires “Ooh, I like what you’re doing — I want to do that too!” Often it begins with a couple of gears on a top hat, sure; but then it sometimes blossoms into a full-fledged interest in vintage technology, decoration, theatricality, historical dress, and subsequent club-joining.

    I think it’s telling that so far, steampunk has not been pigeonholed as a thing that’s mostly for men or mostly for women, and most gatherings of steampunks feature a pretty even split down the middle. But even more telling is the way it appeals to a broad cross-section of people — even people who haven’t traditionally had much of a connection with gaslamp London, speculative fiction, or fan culture … including many who may be classified as Other.

    I have a theory about why.

    When mainstream society members don’t see people who are different from them (in pop culture, in history books, in their neighborhoods), they get the impression that those people don’t exist … or if these Others do exist, then they aren’t very important. But with its time-travel/history-altering underpinnings, steampunk has the capacity to un-write some of the rules that created the Other in the first place. It offers a voice to those who were marginalized, allowing them to stand up and say, “I was here. And I absolutely, defiantly reject the implication that I wasn’t.” It’s open to everyone — including those whose historical representation got left out, written out, or killed out of hand.

I’ve seen people come at steampunk with sophisticated visions of retro-futuristic China, New England, Africa, the American frontier, gaslamp London, Japan, and India … and everywhere else, which is exactly how it ought to be. Because wherever you came from, whoever you are, and whatever your people were doing a hundred and fifty years ago … it is worth talking about. It is worth examining, and exploring. It is worth playing with, every bit as much as it is worth taking seriously.

And I believe this, if nothing else, puts the “punk” in steampunk. It’s the tongue sticking out at history books; it’s a poke in the eye to a condescending footnote. It’s a pointy boot up the ass of stuffy literalists and stitch-counters. Steampunk refuses to let what was written years ago become the last word or the bottom line, and that’s one very big reason I love it so much.

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