Didn’t that title grab your attention? Okay, okay … it was cheesy, but I made you look, eh?
Library at the End of the Universe (http://www.libraryattheendofuniverse.com/2013/09/welcome-to-steampunk-september-2013.html?zx=49c495143d7ccdac) is holding her Steampunk September Extravaganza again! Interviews, book reviews, and book giveaways. The Yankee Must Die penny dreadfuls are going to be part of this autumn fun, and so too a couple of articles from me … Which is where I NEED YOUR INPUT.
Believe it or not, I’ve been asked to define what Steampunk is. I think it would be easier to be blindfolded and asked to identify an elephant’s trunk. Steampunk is many different things to different people. I’m posting my article here, for you to read now, because I would love to hear back from you. Better still, if you are so inclined, go over to The LatEofU site and see what is in store today.
Here is my take on what is Steampunk:
(Oh, and I’m trying one of the polls at the end of the article.)
Steampunk. It’s a made up word for a literary genre that has expanded into a cultural phenomenon. And I love it, so don’t get me wrong with the description above. Shakespeare made up plenty of words and we think highly of him, don’t we? Yes, Steampunk as a term has yet to make it into most dictionaries, but it is quickly becoming a word people know.
What the heck is it? It’s a dream of what might have been had history gone just a little bit differently starting back in the early 1800s. It is paradigm filled with Victorian computers, airships, submarines, and tons of ornate brass fittings. It is a world that one might prefer, with practical things made to be beautiful as well as useful. It is what we think we no longer have: style and form, with good manners.
Early Steampunk was derived from the literary genre called Cyberpunk, stories of futuristic worlds filled with over-the-top technology and unhappy post apocalyptic people fighting for survival, but given a different spin. Where Cyberpunk was pessimistic, original Steampunk was a tad more sanguine – possibly because we could see that such historical worlds didn’t actually come to pass and that we’re safe, where a downer version of the future might still happen. The “punk” part of the description comes from the tendency for the genre to cheer for the rebels, anti-heroes, and dissenters standing against the “Man.” Authors writing the punk into their stories often rage against governments and social inequality.
Since its emergence in the 1980s and 90s, Steampunk has had its fair share of cheerleading for air-pirates and lightning thieves – questionable protagonists who fight against a system that at once exploits and vilifies them. The British Empire of the 19th Century, if examined closely, serves extraordinarily well as the Evil, Oversized Antagonist with its blatant racism, nationalism, misogyny, and elitism – all concepts we today find abhorrent. It’s easy to look back in time and point to those elements we no longer find acceptable. For writers, such bad behavior is a magnet to draw iron to the plot. It is a pre-made villain; most especially if you are not an upper class British male.
Yet, current Steampunk has gone beyond this and found at its heart a sense of optimism. Clever or self-deprecating bad guys are appreciated; hence a group of fans out there called the League of Villains – villainous and proud of it (said with tongue firmly in cheek.) Steampunk has a funny bone that it regularly tickles with hysterical self parodies. And, from the literary base, a whole subculture has emerged. Fashion, music, and lifestyle are strong examples of the culture. Conventions across the country have popped up, drawing anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand attendees, all dressed in variations of top hat, corset, bustle, and ray gun. Go to a large chain fabric store and you can get books on Steampunk jewelry making or find knick-knacks to decorate with (watch faces, keys, Victorian picture frames.) On-line and brick-n-mortar bookstores have specific Steampunk sections. You can even go onto Etsy and buy a Steampunk’d computer keyboard made from wood, brass, and old typewriter keys.
What Steampunk is becoming is anyone’s guess. Rest assured it will include creativity, plenty of bronze and brass, and a great deal of acceptance. The culture seems (thank heavens) to be uninterested in maintaining the elitism of the Victorian age (discrimination against women or LGBT folks, British only culture, classism, etc.) and yet very accommodating of the better practices (beautification of ordinary objects, classic dressing style, good manners, tea …) It is, in a large way, our new, 21st Century Cult of Beauty (a 19th – 20th Century artistic movement that included Impressionism, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Arts and Crafts movement.) Steampunk has at its heart a sense of hope: that we can enjoy elegance without the ugliness of past mistakes, all with a lot flare.