Of Cogs and Culture: The Steampunk Renaissance
Being a Short Treatise on the Prevalence of Neo-Victorian Retro-Futurism in Modern Society and Its Associated Philosophical, Social, and Artistic Implications
Take three parts science fiction creativity, two parts mechanical ingenuity, and one part aesthetic sensibility. Stir delicately, strain through late 19th Century technology and fashion, and viola: Steampunk. The Steampunk movement, simply put, combines Victorian Age fashion and settings with fantastic steam-and-gear contraptions. One can recognize a Steampunk immediately. He will be wearing a top-hat, vest, and a long coat, while she will be wearing a full skirt or dress with a corset. They might be wearing goggles, or they might have other cogs, levers, and pistons scattered about their person. This growing cultural phenomenon also expresses itself in literature, art, and sculpture. It has a philosophical side that would surprise the casual observer. From a hobbyist’s creativity to an armchair sociologist’s world-saving thoughtfulness, the Steampunk movement has something to offer everybody.
Steampunks express themselves in literature, visual art, fashion design, and functional sculpture. The visual theme (wood, brass, levers and cogs) can be applied to practically any object. The world and environment lend themselves to virtually any story. Steampunk literature views the world through the lens of a Jules Verne or an H.G. Wells, speculating on the technological and societal possibilities at the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Many regard The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, featuring a steam-powered mechanical computer, as the seminal Steampunk novel. Since its publication, Steampunk as a literary genre has spawned vastly different works tied together by the same retro-futurist sensibility. From popular alternate history epics like Eric Flint’s 1632 series to Dexter Palmer’s Shakespearean work The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Steampunk has proven itself amenable to many different novelistic forms across all levels of literature. The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest is a prime example. Breaking free of the Victorian setting, Priest’s novels take place during the same era in Gilded Age America. Dirigibles, zombies, and deeply human characters make for both raw entertainment and thoughtful rumination.
Unlike the calcified Sword & Sorcery genre, Steampunk has no fixed plot formulae; no canonical characters or settings; no endlessly imitated and eminently predictable 15-doorstop epics. The formalisms of Steampunk — historical, technology-oriented prose — spur tremendous creativity in its authors as they bend their visions and imaginations to a pre-electronic, mechanical universe. Steampunk has outgrown its British roots to embrace the Wild West and the Kung-Fu East. Hollywood is beginning to catch on, with admittedly mixed results, and the basic format shows much promise of becoming a genre-busting theme all to its own.
Steampunk is far more than a literary movement, however. In fact, most people’s exposure to the culture comes from the aesthetic side. Steampunk fashion is driven by the resurgence of Victoriana and other formal styles. Contrasting dramatically with the sloppy grunge and industrial movements of the past few decades, Steampunk dress represents a return to classical notions of style and panache. At the same time, it is far from restrictive, incorporating as it does the personal artistic creations of legions of individual tailors and fashion designers.
Metalworking, jewelry-making, and mechanical creation, as well as found-art and object reclamation, are experiencing their own revolution alongside Steampunk. Individuals in their backyards and garages invent astonishing gadgets and devices, turning fantasy into reality for no motive beyond artistic fulfillment. A Steampunk laptop will have circular typewriter keys and be done up tastefully in wood and brass. A Steampunk guitar will feature pipes and old-fashioned knobs. Virtually any item can be “Steampunked,” and Steampunk jewelry is becoming ever-more common even in mainstream fashion. Some folks have built motorbikes that are actually steam-powered, and not unpleasant to look at either. In fact, the Steampunk artistic movement shows all the signs of evolving into a bona-fide engineering philosophy. Practical designs are very possible, including designs that do not require fossil fuels to power them.
Steampunk yearns for a lost era of craftsmanship. Our modern-day utilitarian aesthetic pays attention only to function, with little thought to visual and tactile pleasure. Even the most notable exceptions, Apple Computers and its imitators, opt for a sleek, cold, minimalist approach. Steampunk design, on the other hand, embraces the elegant flash of the late 19th Century. Wood and brass lend an organic, human warmth, while intricacy of mechanism and pattern fascinate and delight the senses. Steampunk reunites form and function, ending their 20th Century estrangement. It reminds us that something does not have to be useless to be considered art, nor must something functional necessarily be ugly.
As the Steampunk movement continues to grow, it will embrace more and more modes of expression. Steampunk music, while a far cry from Victorian chamber orchestras or large brass bands, fuses folk, gypsy, jazz, blues, and industrial in a bizarre yet strangely intriguing tonal medley. The genre is still in its infancy, but in this era of digital music even niche bands can achieve a significant following. Notable examples of Steampunk music include Abney Park, Hydrogen Skyline, Sunday Driver, and Steam Powered Giraffe.
Part of Steampunk’s persistence stems from as-yet unplumbed philosophical depths, which reach far beyond Arts & Crafts hobbies and mere entertainment. Steampunk represents a literal renaissance — a rebirth of old, rediscovered values and beliefs. Just as the Italian Renaissance modeled itself after ancient Rome and Greece, Steampunk takes its inspiration from Victorian England, Gilded Age America, and the Belle Epoque in France. The scientific spirit is rampant in Steampunk, along with the notion that man’s limits are dictated only by his ingenuity.
Steampunk invokes Enlightenment thinking with its fascination for science and reason, as well as an emphasis on the virtue and personal excellence of Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. The “punk” designation of any movement refers to its anti-establishment, counter-cultural leanings. Steampunk is unique in that the culture it rebels against is one of laziness, selfishness, disrespect and a low-minded resentment towards anything exceptional.
Thus, in order to be revolutionary, Steampunk returns to an older philosophy of bearing and personal excellence; of class and attention to detail; of mankind’s inherent greatness and that siren which calls us to ascend, progress, and advance beyond the limitations of nature. Nor does Steampunk shy away from the underbelly of the Victorian Age. Themes of working-class liberation, feminine strength and capability, and the dangers of industrial pollution and environmental destruction show up throughout the literary genre. At the same time, when folks dress up in full garb for fairs and conventions, they tend to adopt the persona as well. Polite, courteous, well-spoken interaction contrasts almost as dramatically with modern day society as do top hats and corsets.
The growth and development of the 21st Century’s cultural character will be strongly influenced by the Steampunk movement, as will its deeper philosophical character. Perhaps we will return to a more formal sense of etiquette as a social norm. Perhaps our day-to-day interaction will regain a sense of honor and respect that it has lately been lacking. Perhaps we will find solutions to our climate and energy problems in a reconsideration of mechanical power. Steam certainly doesn’t imply coal, of course — in fact, a solar water heater is Steampunk design in its essence. Just make it look nice enough to keep on your roof for all the world to see.