Steampunk’d

“Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…”

-K.W. Jeter[1]

Have you ever liked a particular style of jewellery, fashion, or design only to find, further down the line that not only does it have a name, but that it is a trend or movement? That happened for me with Steampunk.

Just prior to leaving Brisbane in early 2014, I was rummaging through the jewellery in a new gift store that had opened over the road from me, and picked up the following piece,  mainly because it was one of the few masculine pieces there, but also because I love things made out of cogs and gears. Unwittingly, I had entered the world of Steampunk! My final conversion was “Liking” a Facebook page called Steampunk Tendencies – the ephemera shown in their FB promotion was too much for me to ignore – I mean – fountain pens with intricate gold skeleton work wrapped around them! How could I NOT be addicted!


So, you are probably asking the same question I did – what the fuck is Steampunk? According to an article in the Huffington Post Style blog “What the hell is Steampunk?” [2] “So what the hell is steampunk? The term itself comes from science fiction novels. It was allegedly coined by author Kevin Jeter as a way of distinguishing him and fellow tetro-tech sci-fi writers from future-loving “cyberpunks” like William Gibson. But it’s grown into a whole visual style, and even a philosophy. It’s all about mixing old and new: fusing the usability of modern technology with the design aesthetic and philosophy of the Victorian age. Or as US young fiction author Caitlin Kittredge put it: “It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans…”

In its glibbest sense, it can be seen as a way of giving your personal technology a goth make-over. Imagine a top of the range computer pimped out to look like an old typewriter, or an iPhone dock that lets you answer your phone using an old brass and wood receiver. But at its deepest, it’s a whole way of looking and living: and a colourful protest against the inexorable advance of technology itself. And it’s a trend that’s sneaking its way into loads of different sectors: from fashion to film, interior design to video games…”

According to an article on Wikipedia “Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. Although its literary origins are sometimes associated with the cyberpunk genre, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk may, therefore, be described as neo-Victorian.

Steampunk perhaps most recognisably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Such technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or the modern authors Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfeld, Stephen Hunt and China Miéville. Other examples of steampunk contain alternative history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analogue computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
Steampunk may also incorporate additional elements from the genres of fantasy, horror, historical fiction, alternate history, or other branches of speculative fiction, making it often a hybrid genre. The first known appearance of the term steampunk was in 1987, though it now retroactively refers to many works of fiction created even as far back as the 1950s or 1960s.
Steampunk also refers to any of the artistic styles, clothing fashions, or subcultures, that have developed from the aesthetics of steampunk fiction, Victorian-era fiction, art nouveau design, and films from the mid-20th century. Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by individual artisans into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical “steampunk” style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk.”

The Steampunk movement flourishes through inventive repurposing: old elements find new uses. ‘Nemo’s Steampunk Clock/Electrostatic Voltmeter’ is the time-telling creation of Roger Wood; see more of his designs at http://www.klockwerks.com. Image courtesy Klockwerks
It is an odd – yet…not so odd – mixing of the technology of the now, the technology of the past, particularly Victorian, and the Victorian era itself. It expresses itself through history, gadgets, gizmo’s, literature, fashion, music, magazines, conventions, lifestyle. It is the true expression of a “movement”, a trend-in-the-making. In a recent documentary I watched titled “Vintage Tomorrows” [3], one interviwee mused that if Steampunk was to invent a WMD, it would be the size of a room, and be covered in levers, buttons, bells and flashing lights…most of which would do absolutely nothing. In a way, that describes Steampunk!

Sam Van Olffen has an abundance of examples of Steampunk design featuring the stereotypical gears and brassy look.
There is a very obvious bias towards romanticising the Victorian era, which is one of its more controversial aspects. Re-enacting and harking to this era is, to many – including Steampunk adherents themselves – is to base yourself in an era where the Industrial Era came to full fruition, along with its coal dust, choking air, its noise, its chimney stacks. It was a period of immense poverty, of workers being paid a pittance for long hours of work, child labour, women being denied the vote, slavery, and unconscionable wars and cultural destruction in places such as Egypt, India and Africa. Yes, it was an era of great inventions, ingenuity and forward thinking, but despite this it is not an era that should hold notions of romance, frivolity and purity. One woman in “Vintage Tomorrows”, discussing the wearing of Victorian clothing, noted that she had stopped wearing her pith helmet, as it brought to mind the savagery the British had inflicted upon both India & Africa as Colonial “masters”!

steampunk iPhone dock
It is for similar reasons that I see myself more an admirer and wearer of the Steampunk aesthetic,  more so than a lifestyle adherent. If one can single out the pure ingenuity and inventiveness of the era, as distinct from reliving the era through clothing and settings, then one can approach it with a clear conscience.

The Movement also harkens back to the authors of the era – Jules Verne & H.G.Wells, who created fantastical machines, and undertook fantasy journeys.  Books such as “Joyrney to the Centre of the Earth”, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “The Time Machine”, “Sleepy Hollow”, “Sherlock Holmes” and “Around the World in 80 Days” are steeped in the Steampunk aesthete. For more modern examples we only have to look to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, modern remakes of the Victorian classics, “Faucalt’s Pendulum” by Umberto Ecco, “Blade Runner”, China Meiville etc to see where the Steampunk Movement draws its inspiration from.

Original illustration of Jules Verne’s Nautilus engine room
I am not even going to attempt to cover the whole field of Steampunk in this brief piece, but I will include a list of some of the links that you can use for further research into this old-but-new Movement. It is, in my opinion, and despite controversy, one of the singularly most intriguing Movements to come along for a long, long time. It caters to history freaks, those into fantasy & science fiction, those into costuming, jewellery, the lovers of gizmo’s, reality escapists, and those like me who just idolise it for its eccentricity, and inventiveness. In a word – Steampunk Rocks!

For the fascinated, Steampunk has sub-genres [5] for those into specific areas:

  • Boilerpunk: The blue-collar answer to aristocratic Steampunk, incorporating the experiences and hardships of actually shoveling coal to gring steam to the upper classes. Vive la Revolution! “Ainsley threw the hot coals at his supervisors protective steam powered mask;the man didn’t even flinch, heing accustomed to it from the proletariat.”
  • Clockpunk: Clockwork technologies replace replace or supercede traditional steam power. “Ainsley got his finger caught in the gear and screamed even as he realised his miscue would throw all,of London off schedule.
  • Dieselpunk: A heresy wherein diesel fuel and nuclear power replace steam power in alternate histories that often have a political component “Ainsley pushed the baroque OFFLINE button, but the diesel fuel continued to feed the reactor, with devastating consequences.”
  •  Gaslight Romance: A mainly British term for the alternative histories that romantisise the Victorian era. Some Brits would argue that all American Steampunk is actually gaslight romance “Ainsley put on his monacle and, bypassing the door leading down into the boiler room and the brutes who worked there, went to the quarterdeck of the airship, there to enjoy a nice cucumber-and-prawn sandwich edged with gold leaf as the servants wiped the floor clean of the blood from the recent encounter with the enemies of the Empire.”
  • Mannerspunk: Fiction that may, or may not, be deemed Steampunk in which elaborate social heirarchies provide the friction, conflict and action of the narrative, usually in the context of endless formal dances. At parties. In Mansions. “Ainsley took the hand of Lady Borregard andswept her across the dance floor, away from that cad Bennington and his steam-powered shoes that never missed a step; ‘Darling’ he said, ‘what rumors do you hear of the Countess Automaton and her piratical sub-siblings in the boiler room; isn’t it scandalous?'”
  • Raygun Gothic: Though not strictly a subgenre, this type of retro-futurism based in part on Art deco and streamlined modern styles has been used for a number of science fiction settings, usually in movies. Coined by William Gibson, the term has become more useful in the context of Steampunk as the fiction has come to feature more and more tinkers and artists. “Ainsley soldered the door to the boiler room shut in an attempt to stall the Revolution a couple of hours more using his ultrachic GSG (Gothic Solder Gun), which he had baroqued-up on the orders of the Queen herself.”
  • Stitchpunk: Fiction influenced by the DIY and crafts element of Steampunk, with a prime example being the animated movie 9, in which cute Frankenstein doll-creatures stitched together by bits of burlap sack try to save the world. In a wider context, Stitchpunk emphasises the role of weavers, tinkers, and darners in Steampunk. “Ainsley was soon accosted by the homeless tinker-weavers living in the shadow if the boiler room. ‘Only through the loom may you ge free, comrade,’ they would say.”

Very shortly, I will have the following two items in my hands. And I don’t think they will be my last!

Steampunk Salvaged Apocalypse Watch
Anatomical Rib Cage Pocket Watch from Steampunk Fans
Tim Alderman (C2016)

The fountain pens that first drew my attention to Steampunk
Steampunk Movement Toad Sunglasses
iRobot Pendant – Jewelled Watch Movement
Steampunk Necklace – Bumble bee pendant with silver watch movement
Steampunk Cufflinks – Steam Designs
Steampunk Gold Filigree Ring Victorian Watch Movement with Clockwork Gears Topaz Blue Swarovski Crystal with Adjustable Band
Steampunk Ying & Yang Pendant
 

ESS Watch Steampunk Skeleton Watch

Further Reading

References
1: Sheidlower, Jesse (March 9, 2005) Science Fiction Citations

2: Huffington Post 17 December 2011

3: July 12 2015 (USA). According to IMdB “Documentary · VINTAGE TOMORROWS examines Steampunk’s origins, explosive growth, and cultural significance. Is the Steampunk movement a homogenized, privileged subculture or a reclamation of technology …”

4: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk

5: The Steampunk Bible

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4 thoughts on “Steampunk’d

  1. Most of the Steampunk Enthusiasts I know personally are cosplayers taken with the Aesthetic and with the Gadgets. As a writer, I am intrigued with the birth of the Industrial Age corresponding to the civil rights movements, particularly for women.

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