Steampunk – ok I think I get it

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Steampunk

My partner asked me to define steampunk and I got stuck when he said, ‘so, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea‘. I realised I couldn’t offer a ‘clear’ ‘definition’ and wasn’t sure how the genre wrote its own history, so… I got my hands on Henry Winchester’s Steampunk… easy to read, lots of direction on how to explore the genre (across genres), beautiful art, thank you thank you…

‘Push past the artificial boundary of time to ask the real questions: What does it mean to be human? What are we going to do with all this technology? How can we create the future we want and need?’
James H. Carrott (quoted p.14)

Fiendish SchemesSteampunk is such a wide and varied term that it’s quite difficult to nail down, but in a nutshell it’s a way of looking at the future based on the collective imagination of the past. The past in question is generally defined as the period of Queen Victoria’s rule in Britain, from 1837 until 1901. During this time the Industrial Revolution caused huge social and economic change, and steam-powered factories and vehicles completely changed the face of the Western world. However, steampunk doesn’t just take ideas from this period – it also raids other parts of history, such as Wild West conflicts and 1930s Art Deco.” (p.10)

the adventures of langden st ives“As we look back through time, it’s easy to see things that we could now consider ‘steampunk’ – the design of the submarine in Disney’s movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), or the premise of Ronald W. Clark’s novel Queen Victoria’s Bomb (1967), in which a nuclear weapon is created during the Victorian Era. But steampunk as we know it today began primarily as a form of literature in the early 1980s. Its analogue, mechanical nature was intended as a riposte to cyberpunk’s tales of the digital and the binary, and a big part of steampunk’s attraction remains the way in which it rejects sleek modern technology in favour of something more primitive.” (pp.10-13 (pictures only on pp.11,12))

Fullmetal Alchemist“There remains a great divide in the steampunk world between those who simply embrace its unique aesthetic, and those who delve into its rich literary trappings. It’s best summed-up by Reginald Pikedevant’s humorous song ‘Just Glue Some Gears On It (and Call it Steampunk)’, in which he states that: ‘Calling things “steampunk” to try to sound cool makes you look like a bloody fool!’ It’s an incisive view into what steampunk has become to some people, transferred from a well-informed and meaningful discourse into the mere act of applying a layer of fake brass to an everyday object and, indeed, gluing some gears on it.” (p.14)

Perdido street station“The Industrial Revolution changed everything in the Victorian era – including fashion. The sewing machine was arguably as important an invention as the car or the steam engine, and huge factories could pump out hundreds of items of clothing a day. It became critically important for the ruling classes to be well dressed. However, this revolution was contrasted with a prudish attitude towards what women could wear….” (p.21) “The Victorian era saw the beginnings of a shift in gender politics towards women.” (p.21)

the court of the air“Of course, if you dress in a purely Victorian style you’ll be mistaken for someone from the nineteenth century. The word ‘punk’ was added to steampunk for a reason, and the late-1970s movement pioneered both music and fashion. Key to the latter was the idea of recycling items found in charity shops, and customizing second-hand clothes with rips and badges. It parallels the steampunk movement nicely as both are based on ideas of taking something from the past and retrofitting it to create something modern and eye-catching.” (p.24)

Leviathan“Despite being such an aesthetically-based movement, steampunk’s roots lie primarily in literature. It plucks elements of classic novels by Dickens, Shelley and Wells and stirs in modern facets, or says what could have only been whispered in Victorian times. Steampunk is, in a way, a set template onto which authors can apply their own ideas and build upon those of others. One author may write about the role of women in Victorian society by creating a superpowered heroin, whereas another may comment on the class system by envisaging a race of clockwork robots who do humans’ dirty work.” (p.32)

Reeve's Infernal DevicesApparently, the phrase was coined by K. W. Jeter, who “forwarded a copy of Morlock Night to the influential science fiction magazine Locus, accompanied with a letter. ‘Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself,’ he wrote. ‘Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steam-punks”, perhaps.'” (p.44)

Cityscapes

the city of lost childrenOne thing that does interest me is the apparent importance of cities to this genre. Hadn’t put two and two together there. Certainly, Winchester places the subtitle ‘Cityscapes’ at the forefront of his whole discussion; in this he writes: “Our journey begins a long time ago, in a place familiar yet different: London in the Victorian age. It was a time of great change, of tectonic shifts that changed the face of the earth. But this isn’t London as you or anyone remembers it. This is a London that’s been mutated by the obsessions of the modern age. It’s a London in which empires never fell, in which vampires came to occupy the throne, in which steam powers just about everything.” (P.9)

Further on, he notes: “Victorian London is the setting for the vast majority of steampunk, but it’s not the only one – some stories take place in a far-flung, post-apocalyptic future, whereas others take place in an alternative version of the present day. alchemy of stoneAs a genre it fits broadly into science fiction, which predicts tomorrow based on today’s technology, but the twist is that it’s predicting tomorrow based on yesterday’s technology. Steampunk also pulls in many other genres, such as the romance, mystery, adventure and horror novels, all of which are blended to create interesting and exciting tales.” (p.32)

“Strange cities certainly took a hold on steampunk in the early 2000s. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) applies Darwinian thought to the evolution of cities themselves….” (p.50)

“Metropolises are an ideal setting for steampunk illustrations and artists can go to town (literally!) on background details.” (p.97)

‘The punk in steampunk is partly nineteenth century adventure, which was not self conscious, crossed with twentieth century characters who are self-conscious.’ Tim Powers
(quoted p.42)

Reference: Henry Winchester (2014) Steampunk: Fantasy Art, Fiction, Fashion and the Movies. London: Flame Tree Publishing

NB websites the book refers us on to include:

http://www.steampunk.wikia.com
http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com
http://www.steampunkscholar.blogspot.co.uk

Thief_box_arthttp://www.steampunklab.com
http://www.steampunkworkshop.com
http://www.thesteampunkhome.blogspot.co.uk

http://www.steamcon.org
http://www.steampunk.synthasite.com
http://www.steampunkworldsfair.com

http://www.steampunkcostume.com

http://www.littlesteampunkshop.co.uk

http://www.steamwords.wordpress.com (though Winchester notes that KW Jeter is more active on Twitter @kwjeter)
http://www.jamespblaylock.com
http://www.theworksoftimpowers.com

Mysthttp://www.philip-pullman.com
http://www.multiverse.org
http://www.nealstephenson.com / @nealstephenson
http://www.stephen-baxter.com
http://www.chinamieville.net
http://www.philip-reeve.com
http://www.stephenhunt.net
http://www.ekaterinasedia.com
http://www.gailcarriger.com
http://www.scottwesterfeld.com
http://www.gdfalksen.com

Also note, The Libratory Steampunk Art Gallery (in Oamaru) http://www.localist.co.nz/l/giznva

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