“Tell me all about steampunk,” she says. She knows nothing about it other than she’s going to a steampunk art opening soon. “What is it??”
“Well,” I say. “Have you read much science fiction?”
She holds up her thumb and fingers making a perfect zero in the air.
I sigh. “Um, okay, well…”
It started with dreamers and writers. Or perhaps it started with the printing press. How could we have popular novels without an easy way to reproduce them? How can a painstakingly handwritten book become widely read? So the printing press. It made it possible for all kinds of books to get into all kinds of people’s hands. Well, literate people to begin with. And wealthy, sure, because it still wasn’t cheap. But prior to the printing press I don’t think there was much speculative fiction. Science fiction. Wild ideas and impossible adventures written into a book.
Back in the mid-eighteen hundreds, Jules Verne wrote several adventurous books that became quite popular and remain classics: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and more. His influence was so profound he is considered the grandfather of science fiction.
At the time Verne was writing these fantastic stories, much of what we know of modern technology didn’t exist yet. In fact, many young scientists were inspired by such stories and dedicated their careers to developing machines, devices and technology that they read about in early science fiction. From such a spark came the submarine, helicopters, airplanes, and rockets, and other advances in astronomy, aviation, and exploration.
The prevalent technology during Verne’s career was the steam engine. It had been around a very long time and reached its zenith in the nineteenth century. The internal combustion engine existed, but without the widely available oil and gas which came later in the century, it was a minor player. And now we get around to steampunk.
In my understanding, the world of steampunk is a parallel world in which the prevalent technology of the mid-eighteen hundreds continued to evolve and refine. Instead of the increase in gas and oil leading to the dominance of the internal combustion engine, the steam engine maintained its hold on technological advancement. The root of this parallel branch is also the Victorian era: excessively ornate and elaborate but combining many styles like Gothic, Tudor, Rococo etc.
So take the steam technology, the ornate decorative style and the late Victorian fashion sense and evolve it through time in a different path. The shift to humming electric circuitry didn’t occur, but things did get smaller and more efficient. Devices are more mechanistic, requiring cogs, wheels, spokes and such. Steam and pressure drive the technology, so gauges are crucial. As computers were born, their look was inspired more by Verne and less by Kubrick.
The steampunk fashion aesthetic combines both Victorian and nineteenth century wild west Americana. The old TV series the Wild Wild West is tagged as one of the earliest steampunk projects in which the use of fantastic devices suggested an alternate history. In the 1999 movie version this steampunk sense is fully developed.
Steampunk also involves goggles. I really didn’t grok the whole goggle thing, aside from Victorian adventurists requiring them as part of their ensemble, until I saw this:
For that we go back again to the literary roots, this time to the twentieth century. Science fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s often depicted a utopian future. Technology led to happy, peaceful life. But in the 1980’s a sub-genre of science fiction was born: cyberpunk. The future was not so bright in these dystopian and gritty novels. The urban settings were raw and ugly and the heroes were hackers. Then Infernal Devices, by KW Jeter came out in 1987, He used the word “steampunk” to describe a cyberpunk style science fiction novel set in Victorian England. So steampunk embraces the gritty, raw and at times dystopian world we (might) live in.
For some, steampunk is simply fashion: jewelry, clothing, cool goggles. For others it is a lifestyle. And that leads to the question: how is an artistic and literary term a lifestyle?
Well, I’ll tell you. It’s the art. Or so I see it. When the desire to embody a concept comes along, you can’t just go to JC Penny’s and grab yourself a Victorian-era alternate-future-history ensemble complete with ray-gun gadgetry. It’s something you have to create yourself. And this DIY attitude infuses the steampunk scene leading to a reduce-reuse-recycle non-corporate creative ethic that seeps into daily life.
I think there is also a political aspect as well: the factors that play into the adaptation of new technology into everyday life. Why does one idea get all the way from initial concept to everyday use? It takes money to develop ideas – where does the money come from? Why this thing and not that? I carry around a fantastic device of electronics and plastic with which I can speak long distances to far away people, take a picture of myself and post it for millions to view in an instant, but I drove to work in a car using an internal combustion engine.