Steampunk is a cultural genre that fuses science fiction and the Victorian Era into an alternate universe where steam industry is an integral part of daily life. Steam power is either combined with other means of generating energy and propulsion in that alternate universe, or the only means. The stories, characters and aesthetics within the genre are expressed by individuals and groups through costuming, music, visual art, games, comics, writing and much more besides. Satire and humour are an important feature, for example in plays and fictional newspaper articles. Steampunk fiction often, but not exclusively, features paranormal or fantastical elements, mythical beasts, or cameos from personages and creatures from original Victorian Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.
One of Steampunk’s most distinguishing features is the building of contraptions both whimsical and functional, to be shown in exhibitions and at conventions. Those who build and make often take the DIY and innovation to great artisanal heights.
At social gatherings an updated Victorian model of etiquette is employed, focusing on mutual courtesy and doing away with historical colonialist attitudes. This enables folk from all social strata, persuasions and cultures to participate. Similarly, traditional restrictive women’s fashions like corsets abound, but the integrated decorum in both manner and dress do not preclude emancipation in this alternate Empire! The ‘punk’ aspect comes into play through more politically minded Steampunks, who might modify the sensibilities of the 1900s to raise social or political awareness, or use them as polemic in alternate historical fiction.* First things first: not everyone will agree completely with this description, or incorporate(s) the more ‘high-faluting’ ideals in their participation in Steampunk. The ‘What is real Steampunk?’ – question is batted around ceaselessly, though the main elements have long been firmly fixed. The primary sneer of purists is how “Some people just don goggles, glue on some gears and think they’re Steampunks.” (I hold that anyone using a sentence beginning with ‘Some people…’ needs to be held at bay with a chair and a whip, with the exception perhaps of ballads where they call a chap a space-cowboy.)
Undeniably goggles and gears have become emblematic of the genre. But some enthusiasts have neither the skills nor the resources to do much more with their costume and it seems churlish to be judgemental. Usually when this discussion crops up, especially online, you’ll see the hem of my saree vanish via the nearest exit quicker than you can say Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. The pitfall of any genre is becoming trapped in circular discussions about what the ultimate definition of that genre is. Agreements are reached, outrage is caused, loud separatism follows, golden means are found, glasses are raised, offence is taken, fists are shaken, trolls are fed, tears are shed, flames are fanned, offenders are banned, amends are made and so the Red Shoes danced on and disappeared into the deep forest forever.
Luckily, my experience with Steampunk in general is that it’s actually more willing to be inclusive than most subcultures I have observed and/or been a part of. Were that not so, MultiCultural Steampunk would not have gained such traction since Diana Pho started ‘Beyond Victoriana.’** Meanwhile Steampunk is becoming more mainstream and I hope this growing inclusiveness does not get lost due to a wish for elitist genre-ism. It would utterly contradict the idea that Steampunk tries to transcend the superior colonialist stance of the Victorians – and one of the most pervasive elements of Steampunk is that it is fluid. Like language, it continually evolves and by osmosis incorporates other elements. Steampunk India is the niche I have created. I would like to build upon it until it’s a force. Through writing Indian Steampunk fiction I hope for a fuller incorporation of an Indian strain of Steampunk within the greater culture. Where native characters of all genders, backgrounds, sexual persuasions and castes have impact and import as much as the Caucasian ones. Where the alternate Empire can at last become truly alternative.
For the record: it’s also perfectly fine with me if someone else’s Steampunk persona is an upper class Victorian, or an elite scientist in the Queen’s service. If they dare to wear it with the proud classist disdain or callously privileged dandyism that goes with it!
The front-burner discussion in geek culture at large ultimately boils down to: Do what you love best, as long as you’re not a nitwit – or nitwette – about it and common sense makes an appearance somewhere along the line. With that in mind, my first true service to Steampunk as featured on this Brave New Network is to share this spiffily lighthearted article, written by eminent Steampunk Austin Sirkin. He affirms why taking oneself too seriously can be a liability to one’s quality of life, by describing ‘Fifteen Types of Annoying Steampunks’. ***
* Such as Steampunk Emma Goldman: http://anachro-anarcho.blogspot.co.uk ** Beyond Victoriana – MultiCultural Steampunk: http://www.beyondvictoriana.com ***I claim no affiliation, positive or negative, with any persons mentioned, or possibly lambasted by inference, in this article. Try the cardamom snaps, I made them myself. Chai?
Suna Dasi is a passionate geek with a pen. Her profession as a singer has taken her all over the world. She currently records and performs with Texan artist Erin Bennett. Being a woman in the creative industries led her to co-found female film and music production company Art Attack Films/Attack Agency. Two of her short stories are due to appear in anthologies in 2016.