sci_frey (sci_frey) wrote,

What is Steampunk?

An interesting conversation came up at work today - a resident artist in the Harris Collective Gallery sold two of a set of four of my favourite Encausic pieces. They were titled the "Sky Blue Series" and were beautiful wax renderings of Victoriana flight machines.  

I got into a conversation with the artist, Jane Longman, about the pieces, and told her that I loved them because they were so clean and steampunk-y. She mentioned that another artist, Eric Allen Montgomery, was speaking to her about Steampunk and wasn't certain she understood what I meant by them. And so, for Jane Longman and for everyone else, a primer on Steampunk: Steampunk is an artistic (literary, performance, textile,  visual, etc.) asthetic - sometimes a full lifestyle aesthetic - in which the world is reimagined to subsist on technologies that were prominant in the Victorian era, and primarily in the British tradition. It "envisions a future that has collapsed onto a re-imagined Victorian past” or an alternate world where for one reason or another, the Victorian era has held on. 

From Wikipedia:

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, frequently featuring elements of fantasy, that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian eraEngland — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of "the path not taken" of such technology as dirigibles, analog computers, or digital mechanical computers (such as Charles Babbage's Analytical engine); these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or with a presumption of functionality.


Steampunk is often associated with cyberpunk and shares a similar fanbase and theme of rebellion, but developed as a separate movement (though both have considerable influence on each other). Apart from time period and level of technological development, the main difference between cyberpunk and steampunk is that steampunk settings usually tend to be less obviously dystopian than cyberpunk, or lack dystopian elements entirely. Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by individual artisans into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical "steampunk" style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk.

What the above description is missing, however, is an understanding of the imagination and imagineering that is requied to Steampunk, and how facinating it is to see how and with what Steampunkers create their arts. As items that might have been common in the Victorian era are no longer common (gas lamps, whale bone corsets, spats, top hats, etc.), Steampunkers must rely on their own inginuity to create thier pieces. Costumes become wearable and worn art; functional items, like the above computer, are transformed into pieces worthy of gallery showings.  The amount of time, effort, and creativity that even the smallest of mods or creations requires is boggling and comparable to that which master craftsmen or professional artists spend on their work.

At science fiction and fantasy conventions, or just a meet ups, Steampunk is often closely entwined with Cosplay. (see Leaving Mundania or the Wikipedia entry on Cosplay)  Often, Steampunkers create personas, backstories, and narratives surrounding their costumes and creations and interact in a Steampunk Society at meetups and social events. Like LARPing, Ren Faires and SCA events, such meetups offer people a carnivalesque atmosphere in which to play out fantasy and have fun while forming tight social groups and making friends.

There are some problems with Steampunk, of course, just like any other genre. While it tends to be more gender balanced in terms of who the heroes can be, and what their abilities are, and more of an equinamity in labour division, there is a strong undercurrent of Orientalism and Colonialism simply by virtue of the era in which the majority of the art is set.  That is not to say, however, that it's fans and participants aren't deconstructing that false binary simply by virtue of being various genders, sexual orientations, races, and creeds, and forcing the art to reflect this multiculturalism by their participation. 

There is great potential for Steampunk to blow open many of the race and gender issues to which other science fiction and fantasy genres are prone, because participants and artists often write their texts and narratives directly onto their own bodies. Steampunk has gained attention lately because it is coming to the attention of the mainstream.

Last season, fashion house Hermes' models all resembled sky pilots, and some of the best selling Children's and YA books in recent years have been at least slightly Steampunky - The Golden CompassLeviathan, and Skybreaker to name but a few.

And for further adventuring, some Awesome Links:
Teacups & Couture

The Traveller's Steampunk Blog 

Steampunk Magazine

Doctor Holocaust  


JM's "Skylark"; a sky pilot from the Sealy Nation. Photo by Derwin Mak. Costume design by JM; Costume created by Strange Days Clothing.  Made from a deconstructed kimono. 
Tags: steampunk

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