The steampunk community is wide and varied, with participants from every walk of life, every corner of the globe, and every level of interest, exposure and experience.
Within our community there are a handful of areas of interest and entry points whereby a person discovers steampunk and finds their interests fulfilled. As I’ve met more people, read more articles, blogs, and forums, and generally became more involved over the years, I feel that there are four (very) general categories which describe how people express their interests in steampunk.
- Narrative – literature, movies, fanzines, blogs
- Cosplay – fashions, seamstresses and tailors
- Makers – artists, musicians, builders
- Ideology – politics, lifestyle
First, I admit that these are very general terms which encompass more granular detail and that they really function as a simplistic label in communication to give people a common ground within which to work.
Second, each describes an area of interest in steampunk, not a person. A person might have an interest in only one area, or perhaps in all, and that person would still self-identify as a steampunk.
Which leads to a thought about the use of the word ‘steampunk’. As a single word, I have seen it used with multiple meanings and forms. It can be a noun, adjective and a verb.
- I am a steampunk. (As in “I am a fan of ‘X’ ” Whovian, Trekker, Lostie, etc)
- The steampunk aesthetic.
- One might steampunk their computer.
Of course, the appropriateness and accuracy of such usage is open for a completely different discussion.
The Great Steampunk Debate site has had a number of interesting discussions since the forum opened on May 1, 2010. Topics range from reading lists to cosplay to politics and everything in between. Relating to this blog topic, there is one post by Jack Horner describing his impression of the various facets of the community and the details of each as he sees them.
When I first thought about the facets of the community, the mental image I had was of Steampunk City, where each type on interest was a neighborhood, all centering around a common park in the center. OK, yeah, I’m weird that way.
My initial official point of entry to steampunk was through the original gateway which started everything – narratives. For me, it was the 1990 release of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I was fresh off reading Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and kept thinking “How cool would it be to have these cyberpunk stories set in the world of my favorite book ever, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?” And as fortune would have it, there it was.
K.W. Jeter’s term for such a story was already three years old by then, but even with my first computer, I still had to dig long and extensively to find other stories to read and other references for information. These days with the Googleization of all online data, there are a gazillion results to peruse for ‘steampunk’. Since my initial introduction two decades ago, there have been more books, movies, fanzines, comics, blogs, and in the last few years, mainstream media articles.
- The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James Blaylock
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1 – Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
- Steampunk (anthology) – Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
- Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon
- The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers
- Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
- The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
- The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
- Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Stirling
- Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola (because it makes a great way to compare the original and the steampunked version!)
Such a list would include, among others:
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
- Captain Nemo and the Underwater City
- The Time Machine
With more local meet-ups and conventions happening each year, more and more people are entering the community via the cosplay and fashion expression of steampunk. Within this group, there are seamstresses and tailors, custom made outfits and off the shelf wear, and people who just dress up to look good along with those who come complete with a character and back story.
People indulge their fashion interests for a wide variety of reasons, all very personal. For some, it’s their way of expressing their interest in steampunk, just like an author writes a story. For another group, it’s coming to the party in great looking outfit. For others, it’s about acting, becoming a character, a chance to step outside their own daily lives and be someone different.
My experiences with people who dress have always been positive. People’s creativity is amazing, how a common theme or archetype can be expressed in so many different and spectacular ways. Some people can pull together approval-winning outfits from pieces already in the closet. Some of us have no fashion sense beyond t-shirts and jeans but with a little inspiration from others can create a fun outfit, too.
However, other people have expressed negative experiences with cosplay and its participants. Some people’s ‘acting’ isn’t seen as a character performance but as real personal interaction, which has led to misunderstandings, and perceptions of all sorts of negative, offensive, and demeaning ‘–isms’. Also, there are people who find various outfits themselves intrinsically offensive as seen through a lens of stereotyping, and that an outfit means that the person wearing it completely supports and endorses the behavior of that given role in the nineteenth century – people who wear aristocratic dress are elitists seeking to control others, those in military uniforms believe in warfare and subjugation, those in street urchin/ruffian attire are engaged in unethical behaviors…
While people are people, with all the good or bad characteristics that may be accurately applied to them, steampunk cosplay and dress per se are not strict Victorian recreations, nor are steampunk attitudes and beliefs completely Victorian in substance. A steampunk wears their outfit of choice for their own reasons which usually have more to do with resources, abilities, and a desire to look good than to advance any display of or support for outdated, non-inclusive sociological or cultural views. If a person is inherently a jerk, they will still be a jerk if they wear a steampunk outfit or not.
In the last few years, online images of the steampunk technological design aesthetic have been another way for people to first experience steampunk. Artists and builders have created images, props and technology which entice the curiosity and imagination. The recently concluded Museum of Oxford Steampunk Art Exhibition drew crowds to see objects from the future that never was. Conventions this last year were also venues to display this form of creativity, such as Tom Sepe’s motorcycle at Nova Albion.
There’s always a discussion somewhere about how this design aesthetic started, how important it is and where it’s headed. Check out the Great Steampunk Debate site, and the forums on Brass Goggles, and Steampunk Empire, among others.
More recently, there’s a growing group of people who see or promote an action-oriented, or political, agenda within the steampunk community. This ideology is as varied and wide-ranging as the people in the community. Some follow the philosophy of reuse and recycle in every aspect of their daily life. Others encourage more self-reliance, personal accountability, and self-determination over government assistance programs and perceived forms of interference. There are philosophies to buy locally, avoid excessive consumption, and resist crass commercialization; engage in conservation and cooperation.
Are these ideas, values and actions necessarily part of the evolving steampunk community, or should they reside as a choice of the individual? Is a political agenda the expected result of how a person adopts those Victorian, neo-Victorian, and steampunk attitudes and philosophies into their daily lives? Is it important that the community have any stated or defined political agenda or actions? Or is it sufficient that members will find others of a similar temperament to talk with about issues of the day? Is it even possible to have one set of political ideas that the whole community could agree upon?
There’s also a small group of people who say they live a steampunk lifestyle. I don’t see it, personally, but that’s how they describe how they live their own lives. There are a few threads on the Great Steampunk Debate site which discuss this and how one considers their life to be steampunk in nature. I also came across this post from 2008 where many of the comments relate to a lifestyle, or not. This other post had several good ideas and was more convincing that other postings which seem to indicate that wearing Victorian clothes, having antiques in the house and using a straight razor constituted a lifestyle instead of being a decorative veneer or affectation.
The steampunk community has grown and changed over the years in some significant ways, not always to everyone’s satisfaction, and chances are that it will continue to evolve. Whatever one’s initial entry point and interests are, there are other facets of the community to explore.
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!