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On Steampunk

(or, Sign Me Up for Airships, Adventure, and a Pair of Those Ravishing Goggles)

For a long time, I only recognized steampunk as this sort of fringe fad within geekdom.  In my college days, it was the reason why there was always that one booth at conventions that sold ornate goggles, pocket watches, and impossibly tiny hats.  My opinion began to change in recent years as elements of steampunk culture and aesthetics grew more pervasive, or at least more noticeable within my own interests.  Now, I confess, I walked into a used book store seeking one work of steampunk-vs.-zombie fiction (in this case, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest), and yet I walked out with two.  Clearly, this has become a bigger sub-genre than I was previously aware.

© Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons

Truth is, there’s something vastly appealing about the whole steampunk aesthetic.  My current writing project even includes some steampunk elements.  But what is it about the genre that’s made it so popular, especially in recent years?

All I can say is what draws me to the genre.  For one, the pure visual aesthetics it offers are captivating.  On the one hand, you have the environments: sometimes bleak, grey, and heavily industrialized, other times elegant and ornate in the Victorian tradition.  Either path provides a reader, viewer, or gamer with a world packed with visceral detail, something familiar enough to be relatable but foreign enough to be exciting.  The environment can channel the gritty, coal-spattered atmospheres of industrialized 19th century Europe and America, where the working class struggled through harsh or potentially lethal conditions for the sake of progress, industry, and the ability to keep their families fed, or it can surround you with the captivating wonders depicted by authors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, wrapped in an opulent, artistic setting.  Sometimes it can do both.  Then, there are the clothes, the devices, the vehicles and inventions.  There is something deeply satisfying about appropriating the ultra-feminine but ultimately restrictive Victorian era women’s clothing into something fit for a fearless explorer of the unknown, likewise with taking the garb of a proper gentleman and turning him into some sort of clockwork crusader.

Part of what makes the aesthetic so fascinating, particularly in regards to the mechanical aspects, is the sense of imagination it represents.  When you were a kid, did you ever try to make home movies, improvising flashy special effects with whatever you could find lying around the house?  Sure, someone somewhere with fancy cameras and computers could do it better, but you enacted your alien invasion scene using kitchenware and some of those leftover poppers from the Fourth of July, and it was epic.  In steampunk, there is a strong sense of scientific inquiry and wonder, but rather than leading to the inventions we now have, it leads to elaborate (and sometimes completely unrealistic) devices based on the technology they did have at the time.  The genre often utilizes the scientific and exploratory tone of science fiction, but it doesn’t hold itself wholly responsible to science fact.  Is it possible to create an automaton powered by clockwork and steam that can function for millenia, or a device made of brass and crystal that can travel through time?  Sure, why not?  The stance of steampunk seems to be that any logical hypothesis can be brought to fruition eventually by someone clever enough.  Still, even the most bizarre pseudo-science is governed by certain rules when it’s done well, just as good magic is governed by rules, so within its own paradigm, it remains believable.

Of course, as I pointed out earlier, there are many sub-sub-genres within steampunk.  Not all of them take such an optimistic approach, but they all seem to have some element of wonder, exploration, and discovery.  Maybe that’s what draws me most of all.  There is a promise of adventure, of unexpected marvels and untold dangers.  You don’t find yourself following “chosen ones” and impossibly powerful demigods, but regular people driven by curiosity and intellect, or resourcefulness and survival.  When these factors come together in the hands of a skilled storyteller, you’re in for a good time.

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