Steampunk Philosophy

© Dave Clifton 2011

A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to host a steampunk discussion at Mythic Faire, a fantasy/myth/alt culture convention that features live music, masquerade balls and special guests. I had a stellar time, both as a guest and an attendee, with the steampunk panel discussion being the highlight of my weekend. I  type “panel discussion” with a bit of a smirk, because truth be told it was just me up there on the dais.  Every faire or convention has it’s little surprises and this wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself without panel partners. Thankfully I’m an experienced public speaker with a background in theater and improv, so crowds of people wearing expectant expressions don’t generally intimidate me. And hey, at least I know how to make an entrance.

The great thing about doing a panel discussion on your own is that you have the freedom to turn what would be an “us talking at all of you” experience into an “all of us talking to each other” experience. So that’s what we did. The result was a lively and informative discussion on the deep roots and underlying philosophy of steampunk. Beyond top hats and goggles, beyond modded keyboards and brassy rayguns, beyond cos-play, corsets, and Lord and Lady RPG – what exactly is at the heart of steampunk?

What we discovered as we explored this topic together is that to many of us (certainly to the people present in the room that day) steampunk is so much more then a simple aesthetic. It’s a philosophy for life. Steampunkian principles can be applied to any aspect of your life. A commitment to self sufficiency and the creativity of the individual, support of small and local business, respect of artisanship and traditional materials are core steampunk concepts. Hardcore steampunk enthusiasts tend towards a longing to downsize the material aspects of their lives, while simultaneously demanding more function, better design and romantic execution of the objects they choose to have around them.

In fact you might say that the steampunk philosophy could be summed up in this golden rule:

‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful‘

Guess who said that?

William Morris, the Victorian era designer and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.

I firmly believe that steampunk as a philosophy has it’s deepest roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1860s. This movement was largely a backlash to the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s. Arts and Crafts philosophy favored the skilled work of human hands and master craftsman over mass-produced and commercially made items. It was this same debate that dominated the discussion at Mythic Faire. Is the value of an object inherent only on it’s surface? What about how, or where the piece was made? Is an object steampunk because you’ve glued cogs to it, or because of it’s purpose? It’s this very same discussion that spurred on the development of glorious movements of art and design that we so treasure today. 150 years later we are having the same debates over mass produced imported goods, versus locally made and artisanal items. It’s a good debate, with complex questions and few simple answers.

For my part I enjoyed the lively discussion that manifested and look forward to exploring the connection that steampunk philosophy has to current social and economic issues more in the future. What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments!

Editor’s Note: There’s still time to enter to win one of Brigid’s Steampunk figurines! Deadline for the giveaway is Sunday night.

A Steampunk Primer

Wikimedia Commons: vonslatt

Steampunk. The name evokes an atmospheric vision of London; streets shimmering with damp, the faint glow of yellow gaslight as it barely penetrates the pea soup fog, and swirls of steam rising up from the pavement.

Perhaps you have never heard of steampunk. Or have only heard the term, but have no clue as to what it means, in which case you are no doubt thinking: That’s all very well and good, but what, precisely, is steampunk? For you, dear reader, we have created a steampunk primer.

Gail Carriger has the simplest, and perhaps, my favorite, definition:  “…steampunk is the future as the Victorians imagined it, where steam power never died, and electricity never dominated.”

At its heart, steampunk is a celebration and reinterpretation of the Victorian era. It takes the technology of the time and builds on it, often taking it much farther than any actual Victorian could have imagined.

Think the Industrial Revolution gone mad.

It is rife with brass goggles, airships, gears, springs, and sees both the beauty and the monstrosity that is inherent in machines. While it is most often associated with the Victorian and Edwardian eras, it can also involve Victorian-based technologies brought forward into a modern, contemporary or dystopic setting.

There are two theories as to where the punk part comes in. Some claim it has to do with the subculture aspect of steampunk–the genre has spawned  an entire subcultural. Others maintain that punk refers to early steampunk literature’s addressing of societal and political themes. There is often an undercurrent of social injustices and class disparities, often reflected in an oppressive environment with a discontented social or working class. Many steampunk works explore the cost of industrial advance when weighed against the cost to society or man as well as the consequences of a despotic government or exploitative empire.

The seeds of today’s steampunk can be found in the likes of Victorian writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, whose vivid imaginations took science to places it had never been in real life. K. W. Jeter first coined the term steampunk, back in 1987 and he, along with Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Michael Moorcock are seen as the inventors of the modern steampunk genre. Up until the last five years or so, steampunk was a small but respectable, subgenre of speculative fiction. But recently, a few authors have brought steampunk genre to a much wider audience: Scott Westerfeld, Cassandra Claire, and Gail Carriger’s books have all hit the NYT bestseller list.

There are some differences of opinions on what qualifies as true steampunk. (Like Switzerland, I am neutral on the subject.) Some say it can deal with any alternate technologies and any time period; others say different historical time periods featuring other than steam technology require a different label. For example, clockpunk—which deals with extrapolating the earlier technology of clock gears—is separate from steampunk while others declare it a subcategory.

Either way, there is a high level of individualism running through the genre. It is all about interpreting rather than replicating. Of infusing it with the creator’s own vision of Victorian ideals and technology run amok.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, if you’re interested in further reading you might check out:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • Nomad of the Time Streams by Michael Moorcock
  • Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
  • Mainspring by Jay Lake
  • Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • The Hunchback Chronicles by Arthur Slade
  • The Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
  • The Iron Duke by Meljean Brooks
  • Souless by Gail Carriger
  • The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith
  • The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

School Library Journal also has a terrific list of ten classic steampunk works along with ten more recent titles.

Steampunk in Film & TV:

  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
  • The Wild, Wild West
  • Van Helsing
  • Sherlock Holmes (2010)
  • Warehouse 13

But steampunk is not just about books and movies. It also encompasses art andfashion. It is an entire subculture and aesthetic movement. The artwork often involves a highly distinctive fusion of gears and mechanics, with a heavy dose of Victorian flavor. Fashion, likewise, is a highly individualized mix of the antique combined with the merely old, finished off with a heavy dose of brassy whimsy.

Some more general links to explore if you’re so inclined: (A writers and artists guild)

So there you have it. This primer is not by any means exhaustive or even the ultimate authority on all things steampunk, but it will bring you up to speed in time to help you enjoy the rest of steampunk week here on GeekMom!