Why Steampunk?


Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real. ~Jules Verne

I want one of these

It would appear that the momentous sea change I’d been anticipating is at last here. No, I’m not changing jobs or running off with a handsome Russian hockey player or buzzing my hair. No, ladies and gents, it seems as though my Current Obsession has changed. I still dig The A-Team, but it’s now a little more The A-Steam. I’ve become a Steampunk girl.

Steampunk, for those who may be unfamiliar with the term, is a kind of pseudo-Victorian  counterpart to the Cyberpunk movement of the 80s. Some would argue that H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were the real progenitors of the trend. Whatever its origin, Steampunk mostly involves the combining of elements from the Victorian era (c. 1840-1900) with fantastic elements of science fiction and the future: robots, airships, time machines, and advanced technology. In short, it is the perfect draw for someone like me who loves classic literature, the elegance of the 19th century, and kick-ass men and women in amazing clothes.

Use the Force, Brisco!

I guess I’d actually been into the movement all along without knowing it. I devoured all the Verne books in our local library, and later read Terry Brooks’ Armageddon’s Children and Shannara series, Gail Carriger’s  Parasol novels and S.M. Stirling’s  Emberverse Saga. Not to mention I inexplicably loved Back to the Future Part III when all my friends hated it, and faithfully followed that wacky, underrated Steampunk Western, “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” I just thought it was awesome to see cowboys, 19th-century aristocrats and schoolteachers doing battle with aliens from the future and dastardly scientists while wielding an array of futuristic weapons. Who wouldn’t?

Recently the Steampunk movement has gone about as mainstream as a cult trend can, with celebrities from will.i.am to Bjork getting in on the action along with legions of conventiongoers and cosplayers. I’d throw Helena Bonham Carter in for good measure, but she isn’t cosplaying. She just is steampunk personified. What gives? Why aren’t people wanting to re-enact, say, the 18th-century days of the American Founders? The Hundred Years War? The conquests of Genghis Khan?

Yes, a man could once wear this without having his ass kicked

I have a  couple theories on this phenomenon. One is the simple matter of a 100-to 150-year cycle for nostalgia. America and Britain, the two great powers of those respective eras, are now in decline culturally. Who wouldn’t want to not just relive a glorious past, but imagine it even bigger and badder and awesome-r (is that a word?) than it actually was? The Victorian era was also very unique in that several cultural shifts began to take place. It was the heyday of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of moden science (this explains the airships and the robots omnipresent in steampunk). Women and non-whites began demanding to be treated as people and not as chattel (in steampunk, these two groups are usually fairly represented). And rail travel allowed clashes of cultures: poor and rich, European and non-European, urban and rural (usually steampunk has one of these conflicts at its core). We just don’t have this richness and dynamic set of conflicts to explore in earlier times. Sorry, George Washington and Eleanor of Aquitaine. That’s not to say other eras in history can’t be steampunk and interesting. I’ve read good stories set everywhere from ancient Rome to the far future that contain elements of the genre.

Publishers are jumping on the bandwagon, too, which gives me hope that my alternate history/steampunk/feminist story might one day be published. I know time is of the essence, because who knows how long the bandwagon will last? Will steampunk become the next Sweet Valley High or Twilight that spawns half a bookstore full of bad, imitative literature?

I really hope it isn’t just a flash in the pan. I know the Victorian era had its multitude of downsides…child slavery, exploitative colonialism, mounds of horse manure in the streets, no suffrage for women…but it was visually a very appealing time in history, which is just one reason I love it. Maybe the reason I’m most drawn to steampunk is it combines the very best elements of the past (formality, elegance, innovation, discovery) with those of the future (technological savvy, equality for all, foresight). And that’s more than enough to hook me.

If and when I publish my book, my only hope is that it might be popular enough not to be used as airship fuel sometime in the distant future. Tally-ho!

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MY PREDICTION for the Super Bowl tomorrow (Feb. 5): Patriots 30, Giants 27 (I think I hate Tom Brady less than Eli Manning. I think.)

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on February 4, 2012.

6 Responses to “Why Steampunk?”

  1. I learned about Steampunk in a Writing class I was taking. The normal aged students were explaining it to the old lady (me). I enjoyed your post. It was a nice overview of the phenomenon.

  2. I think it will be around for awhile. The style appeals to table top gamers of all sorts (I’m one of them.) It’s vivid but dark at the same time (part of the appeal of the goth-punk style of the World of Darkness games.) Most of all it allows for an amazing hodgepodge of ideas.

  3. Loooooooooove steampunk, and it sounds like you’ve been into it for a lot longer than you realized. That’s great.

    I assume you’ve seen this?

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