Steampunk: An Overview

Slide 1: An Introduction

My Steampunk equation pictured above, in a lovely design by John Coulthart, was meant to describe Steampunk literature, but it does point to a few facts about Steampunk generally. First, it’s both retro- and forward-looking in nature. Second, it evokes a sense of adventure and of discovery. Third, it embraces divergent and extinct technologies as a way of talking about the future.

Over the past decade, Steampunk has gone from being a literary movement to a way of life, a part of pop culture, and a mechanism to look at the idea of “progress.” Steampunk has gained strength and momentum as it has transitioned from a “movement” to an “aesthetic.” A Steampunk aesthetic now permeates movies, comics, fashion, art, and role-playing games, as well as events such Maker Faire and the Burning Man festival. Media coverage from juggernauts such as the New York Times and MTV has fostered its spread through the zeitgeist.

Steampunk draws people from all political persuasions and social classes, but the best of Steampunk in my opinion is unabashedly progressive, proactive, and deliberately pushes against a cynical and jaded world with a brand of cautious optimism. Steampunk also serves as a potent entry point for people to reclaim technology and to talk about a sustainable way of life. Both the Maker movement and the Green movement have become part of the Steampunk subculture.

An exploration of Steampunk begins more than a century before the term was first coined in 1987.

Slide 2: Jules Verne

The mechanical elephant that forms the centerpiece of the “Machines of the Isle of Nantes” exhibit in France gives physical form to a central image from an early example of proto-Steampunk literature. This vast and whimsical creation—the crew actually enters through an aperture beneath the tail—is taken from the pages of Jules Verne’s The Demon of Cawnpore, Part I: The Steamhouse (1880), a novel in which four Englishmen travel across India on a huge steam-powered mechanical elephant. Verne’s use of such inventions in his fiction, including the famous Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869), would prove a potent influence on Steampunk creators in the 20th century. Verne’s motif of the mad inventor whose invention poses a threat to the world first made its debut in the person of 2000 Leagues’ Captain Nemo and in his novels about the mad aerialist inventor Robur. In such works, Verne also had begun a form of imaginative extrapolation about technology—in which elements of art and the decorative mesh with the functional—that would fascinate members of the modern Steampunk subculture, regardless of whether they also took from Verne’s work the cautionary message.

But at the same time Verne was imagining dangerous inventors, advanced submarines, and impractical steam-powered elephants, a second source of Steampunk influence was becoming popular in American pulp magazines: the “Edisonade.”

Slide 3: The American "Edisonade"

In the last decades of the 1800s, an American can-do attitude and a period of industrialization led to stories called “Edisonades,” in which the inventor became a kind of artist or hero, at odds with Verne’s more pessimistic views. Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett’s Boilerplate (2009), recounting the adventures of a robot during momentous parts of American and world history, represents a modern form of the Edisonade. In a sense, Boilerplate provides a metafictional gloss on the traditional Edisonade, while dispensing with the more disturbing elements of the originals, which could be seen as nationalistic and perhaps even at times jingoistic.

The first Edisonade was published in 1868 by Edward S. Ellis and appeared in Irwin P. Beadle’s American Novels #45 (August 1868).  In the story, a hunchbacked dwarf inventor creates a steam man—literally a man-shaped steam engine—and goes off into the West to fight Native Americans, coming back rich and successful. Similar stories appeared throughout the late 1880s in various American pulp magazines. They reflected the national fervor for expansion and a belief in Manifest Destiny, while blithely overlooking the tragedy and consequences of those actions.

Contemporary riffs in this century include Joe Lansdale’s amazing mash-up of a story “The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel,” (The Long Ones, 1999) which mixes elements of the Edisonade with elements from Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) in an X-rated journey that makes a thorough mockery of its source material and debunks the false innocence of period pieces in general.

Lansdale’s story and the more innocent Boilerplate demonstrate direct ways in which the Edisonade still exerts direct influence.

Slide 4: The Rise of Modern Steampunk

The Godfather of modern Steampunk is clearly Michael Moorcock, whose Nomads of the Airseries (1971-1981) features amazing battles between opposing fleets of airships, along with complex political and military intrigue. The novels were, Moorcock says, “intended as an intervention, if you like, into certain Edwardian views of Empire...They were intended to show that there was no such thing as a benign empire and that even if it seemed benign it wasn't. The stories were as much addressed to an emergent American empire as to the declining British.” In a political sense, then, Moorcock’s novels supported Verne’s cautionary posture toward the role of technology in the world.

But it wasn’t until 1987 that K.W. Jeter coined the term “Steampunk” to describe his new novel Infernal Devices. In the pages of Locus Magazine (#315, April 1987), Jeter rather blithely wrote, “I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term...like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps.” Jeter, along with fellow writers Tim Powers (Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (the novella “Lord Kelvin’s Machine”), spearheaded the Steampunk literary movement, despite being largely forgotten by the Steampunk community today.

Blaylock and Jeter in particular are to Steampunk what John Fitch was to the Steamboat. Fitch created a working steamboat, but Robert Fulton made the steamboat commercially successful. In the case of Steampunk, the iconic cyberpunks Bruce Sterling and William Gibson together play the role of Fulton. Their The Difference Engine (1990) is most often cited as the seminal Steampunk novel.

The Difference Engine could be seen as “historical cyberpunk,” another term for Steampunk. Set primarily in 1855, The Difference Engine posits an alternate reality in which Charles Babbage successfully built a mechanical computer, thus ushering in the Information Age at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. Juxtaposing Lord Byron, airships, and commentary on the unsavory aspects of the Victorian era, the novel’s many Steampunk pleasures include a vast and somewhat clunky mechanical AI housed in a fake Egyptian pyramid. Sterling and Gibson, like Moorcock, also comment on the negative role of new technology in propping up regimes, with a powerful British Empire facilitating the fragmentation of the United States into several less powerful countries, such as the Republic of California and the Republic of Texas. However, The Difference Engine, by positing a premature information revolution, also focuses on repression through invasion of privacy caused by an all-seeing mechanical "Eye."

But regardless of whether a particular Steampunk fiction addressed political or social concerns addressed, a focus on perceived “Victorian” technology would remain a constant.

Slide 5: The Role of "Victoriana Technology"

The Steampunk love for outdated and “baroque” technologies tends to focus on the real and fanciful evolution of “big concepts” like airships and robots. By 1987, however, very real technological extrapolations envisioned for better or worse by Verne and in the gung-ho Edisonades had mostly come to naught. (For example, the Hindenberg disaster that killed the dirigible as a viable competitor to the airplane.)  Thus, this fixation on the machines of yesteryear means that modern Steampunk fiction always runs the risk of descending into irrelevance. The tension between the real and the unreal has created works with a sense of irony and loss, but it’s also created works that operate by way of nostalgia and that achieve their effects using Steampunk images without any accompanying “weight of the real” behind them.

As Michael Moorcock says, once Steampunk was named, “I was shocked when the tools I'd selected to tell [my Nomads of the Air stories] were taken up by many others merely (in my view) to tell cool adventure stories where airships buzzed about the skies and had big fights and stuff in a world, say, where World War II was still being fought or whatever. The very nostalgia I had attacked was celebrated!” 

By contrast, the most vibrant parts of the Steampunk subculture—which remains somewhat apart from the literature—tend to use this type of extrapolation about technology as a necessary antidote to the seamless, unattainable technology of modern times, in which none of us can fix our own cars, for example. One aspect of steam technology that makes it of interest, then, is that it seems less inscrutable—you can see how it works, down to the gears and spouts and widgets.

As Steampunk has spread into different media and different contexts than fiction, it has correspondingly changed in texture and in intent. However, it has always retained a fascination with Victorian-era technology.

Slide 6: The Aesthetic Influence on Movies

Many of the films of Hayao Miyazaki demonstrate that a parallel Steampunk aesthetic had entered the cinema by the time the literature had a name, probably influenced by, again, Jules Verne. Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), with its clanking, clunky, smoke-stack-riddled Steampunk redoubt, shows a fascination with baroque retro-tech. But as early as 1986, Miyazaki had released Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which features an alternate Earth complete with zeppelins, metal men, and steam-powered inventions. As with the best Steampunk novels and stories, Miyazaki weds his Steampunk images to social or political issues—in his case, concerns about the environment. Thus, his version of Steampunk has a kind of purpose underlying it that’s most akin to Moorcock and Sterling/Gibson, even if his emphasis on good stewardship of the planet creates radical differences.

Beyond Miyazaki, there are many examples that use elements of baroque retro-tech but few that seem definable as “Steampunk.” Steamboy (2004) may be the most obvious, although it doesn’t feature a compelling story. Other films, like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), City of Lost Children (1995) and Hellboy (2004) partake of the aesthetic in small ways, while The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), based on the marvelous comic by Alan Moore, is an example of Steampunk eating itself on celluloid—and, sadly, imploding. The Golden Compass (2007), based on the Philip Pullman novels, would have been the definitive Steampunk film, but tends to downplay many of the source material's most interesting Steampunk elements. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny movie with Steampunk elements is The Mutant Chronicles (2009), which features an airship so heavy and absurd in its movements that it’s impossible to believe for a second that it could actually make it more than a few feet off the ground. Unlike the magical absurdity of Howl’s Moving Castle, this effect is almost certainly not intentional.

Despite the lack of a definitive Steampunk film, the variety of ways in which movies have used Steampunk elements—or even just neo-Victorian elements—has influenced such aspects of the Steampunk subculture as fashion and art, perhaps more so than the literature.

Slide 7: The Role of DIY Fashion

Steampunk fashion is all about doing it yourself while still creating something beautiful. Gail Carringer, pictured above, designs some of her own clothes and is also a Steampunk scholar and novelist.

Carringer says of her dress that “The top part is a Dark Garden corset I deconstructed (read: tore apart). I then sewed a whole bunch of old metal buttons and beads of different sizes onto the bottom of and then attached an old metal belt. Along the bust line I attached brass teaspoons from the 1950s I found in the garage (just because), and I used brass paperclips to attach cover buttons down the front. The skirt part is made from two thrift store finds with curtain ruffles attached. Hanging from my belt are some World War II army pouches. The hat is made from a 1960's velvet fez, bent into a new position, and decorated within an inch of its life.”

Libby Bulloff, fashion designer and editor of Steampunk Magazine, says: “What keeps me interested in what steampunk fashion has become is the fact that nearly all of the best of it is heavily detailed, massively modified, and personalized down to the underpinnings to reflect the needs and desires of the wearer. Unlike mainstream clothing, steampunk fashion is whimsical, cheeky, questionable, and totally unique.”

Steampunk fashion incorporates elements from several other traditions, including punk, goth, movies, comics, and Victorian history. As Bulloff says, “You'll never see two steampunks wearing identical outfits unless they've outright done it on purpose for laughs. Even if an outfit is impractical, ill-fitting, poorly sewn, or just looks wrong, the wearer always seems one hundred percent dauntless. That kind of tenacity does not exist anywhere else.”

Slide 8: Steampunk Art

Whereas fashion can serve a functional and artistic purpose, other art connected to the Steampunk subculture exists to be purely decorative and playful. For example, The Insect Lab’s Mike Libby makes clockwork insects, which he feels have a strong “Steampunk aesthetic.” Libby’s fascinating intersections between the organic and the mechanical use clockwork bits and pieces as add-on or replacement parts for insects. The results almost seem like delicate, impractical machines.

As Libby says about his work, “Robot-like insects and insect-like robots are the stuff of science fiction and science fact. In science fiction, insects are frequently featured as robotic critters. Either scurrying across the galaxy as invading aliens or as robo-bug counterparts to a futuristic human race. From Cronos to The Golden Compass, the insect/robot archetype has been used, re-used, and re-imagined countless times. In reality, engineers look to insect movement, wing design and other characteristics for inspiration of new technology....Manmade technology is finding that the most maneuverable and efficient design features really does come from nature. Ironically and often, this technology closely resembles the musings of science fiction. Insect Lab celebrates these correspondences and contradictions. The work does not intend to function, but playfully and slyly insists that it possibly could.”

Libby’s creations are one step away from perhaps the single most important element of the Steampunk subculture today: the Steampunk Maker movement.

Slide 9: Reimagining Technology Through the Maker Movement

The Steampunk Maker movement is a relatively new trend within the subculture, and perhaps the most powerful, featuring as it does the creation of functional machines, the repurposing of modern technology, and an emphasis on green technology as part of an overall progressive movement toward a sustainable vision of human life. Creators like Jake Von Slatt of the Steampunk Workshop (pictured here with a working Wimshurst machine) are tinkers who came to Steampunk in the last few years, finding in its ethos a chance to be part of something larger that partakes of both history and the future.

As Von Slatt says, “Steampunk creations are by their nature DIY projects, thus the tools and techniques with roots in the 19th Century are often more appropriate for the individual crafts-persons or small collective who does not have the resources to make huge capital investments in equipment and facilities. From a DIY technology perspective, Steampunk is a romanticized cousin to the Maker movement—and the Maker movement is the hardware-based offspring of the hugely successful and important Open Source software revolution.”

Publications like Steampunk Magazine (Seattle) support these efforts by taking the “punk” part of Steampunk and interpreting the steam element as, for example, helping create a future where anyone can fix their own car or build their own (steampunk) bicycle. Thus, in a sense, Steampunk Makers are re-inventors who occupy a practical, forward-thinking space between the pessimistic Verne and the falsely optimistic Edisonades.

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.

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