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Steampunk: An Overview

Posted August 26, 2009 to photo album "Steampunk: An Overview"

In anticipation of the release of Shane Acker’s steampunk-influenced animation 9, Jeff Vandermeer presents a primer on the fantasy subgenre.

Slide 1: An Introduction
Slide 2: Jules Verne
Slide 3: The American "Edisonade"
Slide 4: The Rise of Modern Steampunk
Slide 5: The Role of
Slide 6: The Aesthetic Influence on Movies
Slide 7: The Role of DIY Fashion
Slide 8: Steampunk Art
Slide 9: Reimagining Technology Through the Maker Movement
Slide 10: The Future of Steampunk
Slide 10: The Future of Steampunk

Slide 10: The Future of Steampunk

The new animated film 9 exemplifies several elements of the modern Steampunk subculture and the related literature. The characters themselves seem made out of used parts—think of Gail Carriger’s “old meal buttons and beads of different sizes”—and occupy a landscape that Verne would say was caused by mad inventors who went too far. Like Steampunk makers, the main character creates solutions to problems in part out of other people’s junk. In its commentary on a degraded environment, 9 confronts, in a dystopic way, the central issue of our times, which is also a central concern of the Steampunk subculture. As Von Slatt says, “‘We prepare for the apocalypse so that we may avoid it’ is the watch-phase of the politically- and environmentally-aware Steampunk.”

What will Steampunk look like in the future? Von Slatt believes the mutable aspect of the aesthetic is a strength: “I've come to view Steampunk, the combination of a Victorian aesthetic and a punk rock attitude, as a sort of cultural mule. A mule is a hybrid creature that is strong and robust but can't reproduce.  Steampunk is like that in that it has been popping up in various forms for generations, but doesn't really have a continuous presence. What we call Steampunk today will likely run its course, but as long as there are horses and donkeys there will continue to be mules.”

Steampunk enclaves exist all over the world, making the subculture truly international. From Russia to the Philippines and beyond, Steampunk is in the process of becoming more than an Anglo-American experience—and each community and enclave is defining Steampunk in a different way. In addition to sharing a DIY ethic and using the past as “a springboard to the future” as Von Slatt says, the subculture is now also rediscovering its roots in the literature of Steampunk, which will have additional effects moving forward.

Recently, too, Bruce Sterling wrote about Steampunk on his blog, saying in part of its ongoing appeal: “We are a technological society. When we trifle, in our sly, Gothic, grave-robbing fashion, with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech. Steampunk is popular now because people are unconsciously realizing that the way that we live has already died. We are sleepwalking. We are ruled by rapacious, dogmatic, heavily-armed fossil-moguls who rob us and force us to live like corpses. Steampunk is a pretty way of coping with this truth.”

Many thanks to Jake Von Slatt of the Steampunk Workshop for allowing me to use elements from a jointly created book proposal for this feature. For an overview of classic Steampunk stories, consider Steampunk (Tachyon Publications), edited by me and my wife, Ann VanderMeer. For an anthology of contemporary stories, pick up Extraordinary Engines (Solaris), edited by Nick Gevers. I am also currently working on the Steampunk Bible, a definitive text-and-image overview of the subgenre and culture for Abrams Books.