Steampunk encourages intellectualism, valuing independent thinking, questioning, and the pursuit of knowledge, on many fronts and for many reasons. Investigate the unknown. Challenge authoritarian proclamations. Validate speculation and hypothesis. Experience your erudition as a positive and meaningful life for yourself.
Intellectualism is an act of rebellion against the control of fear, falsehoods, and ignorance by basing our actions and beliefs on informed logic and reason combined with curiosity and creativity. It is a fight against immutable ideology, prescribed doctrine, and contradictory precepts. It is a confrontation of infallible authority, conformist truths, and hypocritical perceptions.
Therefore, using information as our flame, inquiry as our sword, and experimentation as our shield, steampunk is rebellion.
Even the most minimal participation in the various forms of steampunk culture and community practically begs for, if not demands, ongoing, open-ended, ontological education. We are not content to be told how things are, what we must do, or how we should act. In our steampunk revisions, reinventions and recreations, we seek to understand how things originally work so we can make our own changes and build something new. We seek to analyze in order to know the underlying meaning and significance. We seek to try new experiences so as to expand the boundaries of our lives.
Our stories are not just about literacy but request the ability to comprehend, understand, and relate to an alternate, if not altogether new, world, to analyze the underlying themes and symbolism, and to interpret the messages beyond the surface plotline.
Our fashions are not just imitations but new creations, not just pulling together disparate elements in a haphazard way but with structure and desire to project a specified image.
Our technology is not just reimagining or reinterpreting but forging something new from reusable materials using a different perspective.
For all of these things, we need to constantly review and deduce how people are, what history is all about, and why things actually work. It goes beyond a desire to merely learn new topics, it is an innate drive to experience and absorb those untried ideas and concepts and then to combine them into something hitherto unforeseen. Much like our symbolic brass, our inventive enlightenment is about the connection and integration of the unrelated, the fusion of contradictions, and the amalgam of diversity.
Writers learn the techniques of their craft but then must also go on to learn about the people and the world around them. Successful steampunk authors aren’t telling a formulaic story with the superficial trappings of the nineteenth century. Their characters aren’t one-dimensional caricatures or stereotypes. Their commentary is not shallow. In creating a believable world setting, they must understand cause and effect and real world history in order to present plausible explanations for differences. For characterization, they need to understand the psychology of human behavior and motivations, how people change and why they stay the same. There is an understanding of symbolism and metaphor, of structure and tactics, of the form and impact of the very words themselves.
Designers learn the initial construction process, but then examine history for inspiration. The fantastic outfits we see at conventions and in artwork are not mirrored replicas. They are not even simplistic interpretations of a bygone era. There is thought and planning behind the image to project, the character to be, the attitude to own. The colors and patterns are not splashed together like abstract art, the shapes and functions are not cubist elements brought together as crude building blocks, and the final collection is not just the sum of its parts but is a greater composition with its own substance and meaning.
Makers learn about technology and how things work but then move on to experimentation and pushing the boundaries of mechanics and imagination. In all forms of the arts – technology, sculptures, drawings and more – they create realities out of dreams. They are the ones who bring the tools and toys to life, transforming the potential into the tangible. It is hands-on skill combined with creative vision which creates objects of inspiration and wonder.
All of this is the result of investigation, research, and practice. It is questioning what is and asking “Why not?” It is that inherent drive to take one idea and walk down multiple surprising new paths of study and interest.
Every steampunk is an author, a designer and a maker in their own right. Each of us has those aspects, grown and nurtured in everything we see, read, and do. Each of us writes a story every day in our beliefs, actions, and attitudes, if not actually on paper then on life writ large. Each of us creates images of how society and culture might be, how people could be, and how we as individuals should be. Each of us builds new constructs, if not tangible artwork then as imaginings, discussions and friendships.
You rebellious steampunks think you are so smart.
Thankfully, you are.
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!