What is Steampunk?
I could say it was “Neverwas.” That’s how a lot of people describe it. A lot of people talk about gears and goggles. “When a Goth discovers brown” is a phrase I have heard more than once.
I could, but I won’t.
It can’t be “never was.” Authors from HG Wells to Cherie Priest, and before and after and in between, wrote about it, so it was in the pages of the “Time Machine” and “Boneshaker.” Musicians like Robert Brown sing about it, so it was in the songs of bands like Abney Park, The Clockwork Quartet, and The Cog is Dead. Makers like Jake von Slatt and Kyle Miller build it, so it was in their workshops. Photographers like Lex Machina take pictures of it, so it was in their photographs, moments caught in time on film. Conventions, parties, societies, blogs, forums, role playing games, and on and on and on. It was in the minds of the people who create it, and continue to create it, an evolving, expanding world of imagination and creativity that can boggle the mind in its sheer scope.
Steampunk is a lot of things. It’s in literature, music, art, fashion. It’s a fad, a trend, a lifestyle. It’s a community that spans age, race, sex, and nationality. Steampunk is a lot of things, to a lot of people. Someone asked me to describe it in five words, and I told her I could do it in two. “What if.” No matter how one goes about being a Steampunk, they always start with that one question in mind. What if. It’s a powerful thing, creating new inventions, new sounds, new looks, new outlooks, new worlds.
The word was first used to describe books that were similar in style to cyberpunk fiction, where the technology becomes a character in its own right, but steampunk in literature could be argued as predating the coining of the word that describes it. When it comes to steampunk fiction, not even the sky is the limit. Jules Verne took us to outer space, with “From the Earth to the Moon,” and HG Wells brought outer space to us in “War of the Worlds.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took us on a journey to a “Lost World,” and how can we forget traveling with Captain Nemo “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
Others love the look of the fashions, from NeoVictorian to Post-Apocalypse and every idea in between. And isn’t it refreshing to see a fashion statement that doesn’t equate sexy with barely enough fabric to avoid indecency? Although some might shy away from corsets and bustles as outer clothing, one can find attractive outfits updated from outfits that covered a person from neck to ankles.
The music often fuses disparate concepts into a new blend that at times can be discordant, loud, distrubing, and often unusual, but it is just as often soothing, inspiring, or uplifting. It’s rarely angry, disrespectful to others, or depressed. Even when it is angry or sad, I still haven’t come across a negative song.
There are drawings and paintings and photographs that can boggle the imagination. Often they are inspiring and adventerous, just like the music and stories and clothes. The sculptures and machines and gadgets and contraptions do everything from pour bevarages to connect to the internet. Sometimes they do both. Often they are made from “found materials,” which I suppose is a more professional way to describe dumpster diving.
Of course, when something gains momentum, or a following, it creates trends and fads. On sites like Etsy and Ebay you will find all kinds of jewelry, clothing, accessories, props, and other merchandise that use the label steampunk to try to sell it. It’s making the rounds on the runways with fashiopn designers discovering an untapped market. It’s something book publishers are looking for to expand their audiences. Bands like Sugarland have tried to tap in. Panic! at the Disco invited League of STEAM to participate in their latest music video and the episode of Castle titled “Punked” features steampunk, as well. It’s like Rule 34 of the Internet. Oh, and by the way, Rule 34? Steampunk? No exceptions. It’s out there. Does it take away from steampunk? I don’t think so. We all have to pay rent somehow, and while the Rule 34 might be a little crude, so was the Victorian Era. Mark Twain described it as the “Guilded Age, gold covering dross.”
It’s grown from a tongue in cheek quip to a community of creative, imaginative, enthusiastic participants all around the world.
I think that is its most important feature, actually. The community. We all come from different places, and we are all seeking different things. We are different ages, we speak different languages, we live in different countries, we listen to different music. And yet, we all find a common ground here.
I have heard a couple of times “Steampunk saved my life,” and I can identify and empathize with those people. They tended to be young, often troubled, needing an escape from a reality that left them disconnected with society, injured emotionally and sometimes physically, and in desperate need of a place to belong where they could find the shelter and the help that would allow them to heal. A lot of steampunks are misfits that don’t fit in well with world at large. Too geeky for the geeks, too freaky for the freaks. I know all too well how those people feel, lost and alone in a world that doesn’t understand them. I was one of those lost, after all.
I am the guy sitting by himself in the corner of the bar, quietly drinking a Guinness and doodling in a sketchbook or writing in a notebook, not really talking to
anyone. I am the guy who works behind the scenes in the kitchen, emptying trash, doing dishes, fetching things, fixing things, the stagehand that is making the show
happen, but is invisible to the audience. I have participated at several levels at various Renassaince Festivals for years. And even among these anachronauts, I often didn’t make a connection with many people outside of my own little world. Drinking too much is about the only “normal” thing I do. Overall, and despite dressing as a pirate and hitting people with swords, I am a pretty introverted, private, socially awkward, and very shy person. Many of my attempts at connecting with others have been such abysmal failures that it makes me even more cautious, like a turtle pulling his head into his shell at the shadow of anything looming above him.
But, the community of Steampunks changes that, for me, at least. The conventions are a place where I can dress as I please without getting odd looks and whispers behind my back. I can fence and duel, enjoy a beverage, and socialize with people with whom I have more in common then people I meet in daily life, or even among other “geeks and freaks” groups. And in the age of the Internet, there are places that are like vast, on going, virtual conventions that I can go to no matter when or where I am. On web services like Twitter and forums like The Steampunk Empire, I am Syfer Locke, the slightly damaged, but still dashing and dangerous, swashbuckling gunslinging rogue sky pirate. I am accepted. I fit in. That sense of belonging to a society of people is a precious thing that extroverted people often take for granted, but that sense of “What if” that drives steampunk gives us a common ground where we can be accepted for who we are.
Maybe that got a little personal, but steampunk is personal. Steampunk proves the cliche “ask ten people a question and you will get ten answers.”
What is steampunk? It is imagination, it is creation, it is drawing together the things that are different, unusual, maybe a little bit broken, and creating something new. Something that is so much more then just the sum of its parts. Something that changes the world, by changing our minds. It’s a revolution, not a rebellion.
What is steampunk? To quote Roald Dahl, in the words he gave Willy Wonka: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
I am Syfer Locke. I am steampunk.
Kent Gooch, aka Syfer Locke, is a Steampunk writer and artist based in Kansas. His day (or actually night) job is cook in a restaurant, but in his off hours he’s a sword-slinging, hard-drinking Steampunk-loving pirate.