Steampunk: Introduction and Analysis
A subculture based on Victorian fashions, strange technology and the celebration of freedom and imagination, Steampunk is a glorious magpie. It is gleefully meta, taking elements from everywhere and combining them into new ideas. We find zombies, the Cthulhu Mythos, Martians and fairies within Steampunk, as well as more mundane elements. We find tributes to the greatest science fiction and horror stories that exist within our world, all reinvented into faux Victorian versions. The tribe draws from two distinct forms from the Nineteenth Century, using them as foundations to build upon; the novels of Wells and Verne, and the Edisonade, an American form of penny dreadful which posited exploits of daring do on the American frontier, perhaps most famously in The Steam Man of the Plains. The latter form is optimistic, while the British and European novels are less so; creating a strange confluence between two different viewpoints and emotions that somehow struggle into a unified whole. It may be that like the Visi Goth and Ostro Goth (extrovert Goths who go clubbing and introverts who stay at home and write poetry, respectively) these two strands are reflective of two different forms of expression, of an outgoing nature on the one hand and of fear of the future on the other. Modern Steampunk fiction consciously began in the early 1980s with the three ‘Men from California’, Jeter, Powers and Blaylock. The terms was coined as a joke, spinning off Cyberpunk, that most Eighties of Sci Fi trends, in a letter by Jeter.
Many modern works share more with the Boys’ Own Adventures novels than they do anything else, but there are some works that are notable. From work within the tribe, pessimistic novels are rare, but at the same time the likes of China Mieville, Bryan Talbot (in his Grandville graphic novel series) and Lavie Tidhar have unashamedly explored the darker side of Victoriana. Plus, there’s this essay by Charles Stross: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/10/the-hard-edge-of-empire.html, which is, admittedly, from ages ago but which underlines a lot of the issues inherent in exploring this time period. In addition, while Steampunks do claim Michael Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Streams novels as inspirations, we must not forget they promoted Communism and skewered the ideals of imperialism.
Steampunk grew out of Goth, beginning in America as a way for Goths who were brassed off with the increasing commercialisation of their subculture to strike out in a new direction. As chains like Hot Topic packaged Goth into one commerically viable bite sized life style; something you could buy in one place without effort, the founders of the new tribe wanted to recapture the idea that you had to hunt out your own styles, and build your look yourself. Quite why they settled on the Victorian period, I’m not sure but it shares roots with Goth, so it may be that it felt like a natural step, as more styles from that period were explored in black and purple, the shift to other colours may have been seen as a simple one. In addition, as a rebellion against the homogenisation and over commercialisation, the allure of a simpler time where craftsmanship was valued and the artisan was king may have been an appeal. I think we all share, and taps into the Arts and Crafts mentality of the likes of William Morris, who was so committed to this ideal he espoused it in his novel News From Nowhere. Like Morris, I am not sure how you square the circle of promoting craftsmanship and beauty, but cheaply enough to be affordable, and I should warn readers who are looking at this lifestyle, it isn’t cheap. Subculture has always been a middle class phenomena but Steampunk raises the bar and makes it hard to get into unless you’re well paid.
Ironically, it is a materialistic culture, for something that rejected the standards of the modern age, it sometimes feels like its credo is ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. To see a group of Steampunks going off to an event confirms what all those servants were for, the acres of cases taking up more space than your average first year student on their way to university. The result is stunning, beautiful costumes (though more so for women than for men, male clothing has its limitations, arguably the subculture celebrates the era at which male couture began to be drab, in sober grey and austere blacks as a contrast to the bright colours of the Regency. Of course this was because of the invention of aniline dyes, black ceased to be a hugely expensive colour in the Victorian period, as did purple and it tied into the model of masculinity that the Victorians believed in, and which still rears its head every so often today). In addition we find amazing toys, ray guns, gadgets, gizmos and the like. Add to that medals, jewellery, USB sticks in wooden casings, corsets, and so on, all sold at artisan prices and its clear that Morris’ problem remains. Beauty costs; there’s a reason we have automation. Ironically, attempts to sell Steampunk styles to the general public have failed for the most part, sinking without trace when fashion houses like Prada tried their hands at collections. In this way Steampunk has maintained its authenticity, and exclusivity. Not being able to dye your hair black, stick on a black tee shirt and some skinny jeans and declare yourself to be part of the group has its benefits, after all.
The tribe draws on many groups, older Goths, historical re-enactors, ‘makers’, artists, historians, people who are just looking for something different. Gatherings tend towards the genteel side, picnics, museum visits and the like. There is drinking, gin has adopted at the signature tipple of choice, and of course in Britain there is a lot of tea. Tea Duelling is a phenomena, though one I have never partaken in. The Asylum, held annually in Lincoln, is the largest Steampunk gathering in Europe, possibly the world.
The movements’ rebellion is as much an economic one as it is a sartorial one, and it is here that my concerns over the emotional heart, and the conventions of the movement manifest themselves. I would never say that I am a Steampunk, my connection to it isn’t that strong and I’ve lurked at the edges more than anything else. That probably means I miss some of the in jokes, and I’m happy to admit that. However, it also means I get to see it in a different way than someone who is fully immersed. My concern is that it actually embodies the spirit of our age, from the celebrity culture, to the fetishisation of war and the fighting man and the lamentable amount of nostalgia we see in our society. I asked on Facebook what the movement’s emotional heart was, and received a number of answers, including a succinct one from Theresa (our gracious host): ‘Cogs! Just joking. It’s fire, spirit, the risk to take change and run with it’. To an extent I agree, though I’m not sure about how it is applied. This is because if I pull strands out from the culture I see things that are only reflected in the mainstream, almost every Steampunk persona is one of the great and the good, for instance, and a gathering is almost like a celebrity gathering. In a society where gossip magazines sell more than novels or newspapers, I find myself how this is rebellion. In a similar fashion, when we have been at war since the early part of the 21st Century, MPs are pushing for an Armed Forces Day and the Pink Stinks (http://www.pinkstinks.co.uk/) campaign notes that boys’ toys and fashions are ever more warlike, is it rebellious to dress up and play soldier as an adult? Our culture seems to be looking back, television offers us the panacea of programmes about our past, the soothing idea that we were great once, but is that enough in an increasingly perilous world? Perhaps part of the rebellion is to say that we shouldn’t worry, we’ll survive in a world that besieges us with problems, economic, environmental and so on, ad nauseum.
I cannot answer these questions, all I know is that the people in the tribe have either made their peace with them, or have let them slip by in the night like an experimental submersible. To reach back to the works I mentioned earlier, Talbot, Mieville, Moorcock etc, this is my Steampunk, the revolutionaries.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells: Perhaps the finest time travel story ever written, and a prescient comment on the class system, the story concerns an unnamed traveller who heads into the future and discovers what appears to be a paradise peopled by the Eloi, a race of fragile but beautiful beings. It is only later that the cost of utopia is revealed. Wells was a very active critic of the times he lived in, and the Time Machine really shows this.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson: A classic horror tale, perhaps more Gothic than it is Steampunk but one that discusses the gentility of the middle classes and the idea that something must be repressed under the surface. A fascinating tale, it delves into the mystery and raises the issues inherent in the class system. Stephenson manages to ratchet up the tension, while at the same time underlining the lack of passion within the lives of the protagonists, and indeed of Dr Jekyll himself.
Grandville by Bryan Talbot: A graphic novel series drawing on the paintings of the French artists ‘Grandville’ who depicted genteel scenes with anthropomorphic animals, and Quentin Tarantino’s films. The world is a decidedly alternate history, where Napoleon conquered Britain and was eventually repulsed by active resistance and guerilla warfare. The stories Talbot tells here are relentlessly modern, focused on what he sees as the great ills of our age, from rapacious business owners, terrorists, and other ne’er-do-wells. You can find the trailer for the first book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqMuf2ejpok.
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: Technically part of the New Weird movement, Perdido Street Station fits into Steampunk quite well, presenting an ur city of science, terror and strangeness, where Jack Half a Prayer terrorises the citizens and a secret police keeps tabs on everybody. The story follows a couple, an artist who is commissioned to make a statue of a crime boss and her lover, a scientist who is approached by an outcast from a bird people whose wings have been destroyed as a punishment for a crime he renders a legalese gabble that leaves you wondering what he’s done until the very end of the book. A dark novel, this has an air of Steampunk Brutalism about it but is built in a fascinating world with fascinating and horrifying action.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling: The most ‘mundane’ Steampunk novel I’ve ever read, Difference Engine concerns the theft of a set of cards intended for one of the miraculous Difference Engines that, in this universe, Babbage and Lovelace got to work. Its as much a crime novel and operates on similar lines to a Cyberpunk novel. There is little in the way of amazing technology here, rather the novel is grounded and positively restrained in the face of what other people have done with the period. In truth this is one of the things I like about it, and feel that that feeling of restraint only makes the piece feel more authentic.
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Steve is a self-confessed newbie to Steampunk and is very much a feminist, so wanted to know about more Steampunk written by women. Though there are lots to choose from (see my Steampunk issue of Andromeda’s Offspring on Efanzines) I recommend;
The Alchemy of Stone is a tremendous look at identity, gender and slavery. It does exactly what Steve is looking for in his Steampunk; challenges and questions.