Chilly Sunday Musing "What is Steampunk?"

Sunday, October 21, 2012

With my mug of hot, dark and strong, coffee in hand on this chilly Sunday morning, it is time to ponder...

The more I wear my Steampunk clothes out in public,the first question, after the obligatory "Why are you dressed like that?", is usually "What is Steampunk anyway?"

I've given a variety of answers, depending on the context. Things like; it is neo-victorian, or quasi-victorian, or an alternate history, or techno-fantasy, or like the Wild-Wild-West, Sherlock Holmes ( the movie), or the stories of Jules Verne or H.G.Wells (and others I can't recall at the moment). 

While these are all reasonable catch phrases to use to describe Steampunk, they are just that, "catch phrases", and not really a description or explanation. Consequently, I usually get a request for more information, which is where I usually fall back on the traditional comments about: "What if Babbage's engine, mechanical computer etc, had worked." or "What if the technological development had stopped with Steam?" or any of a half dozen other "What ifs".

A difficulty with explaining Steampunk, is not an uncommon problem. Looking up "What is Steampunk?" in Google will turn up many pages worth of different descriptions and explanations, long and short, most of which can be traced to elaborations on the comments above.

So why is it so difficult to distill Steampunk down to a sound bite, or even to a nice socially digestible paragraph or two?

I think it is because the Steampunk world is actually a "World" in the big sense of that word. It is not simply a costume style, alternative music scene, design aesthetic, or social subculture. Steampunk encompasses all of these, in many ways it is more diverse and complex than the Goth and Punk movements, with which it shares many costuming and social components. Not having been a member of either the Goth or Punk scenes I have not had to describe them to others, but I suspect it is just as difficult to do.

At first it seems that Steampunk should be relatively easy to put in a soundbite box, the "What ifs" and Neo-Victorian costuming are probably sufficient for most people. On further reflection it becomes apparent to me that there is vastly more here that should be explained, if only to promote our interests to others. Steampunk is surprisingly attractive to many people. People that one would not at first expect to be interested at all, are donning a corset and goggles, or a top hat and cravat, and heading out for tea at the nearest fancy hotel or quaffing a pint at an English style pub. People who would never think of taking their car apart for fun, are tearing apart old clocks and gluing and sewing their gears to their hats and delving into the arcane mysteries of Babbage's Difference Engine and watching in fascination the Youtube videos of old steam engines, airships and early motor cars.

I've noticed an interesting pattern, when there is one Steampunk there will shortly be more!
(Heh. No comments from the wags about cockroaches! )

Once people perceive that it is OK to dress up and pursue their interests, in the way the Steampunk scene allows them to do, it doesn't take long before they start to do just that.

But what is it about Steampunk that is so attractive to so many people?  It is not simply a matter of being "Goths who discovered brown" as a friend once snidely remarked. Nor is it strictly speaking a "Geek" thing or an "historical re-creation gone bad" thing, although that is part of it I think.

Why is it so hard to pick a few common elements to use in a description? My own reasons for being active in the Steampunk World aren't the same as yours or anyone elses, and like most things in life, our motivations are idiosyncratic and the result of our own history and experiences. So trying to distill "Steampunk" down to a soundbite is just as hard as doing that for our real life, and perhaps, just as futile. However the process of trying to do this may give us some insights that are otherwise lost in the complexity, and there may be some common elements that would be interesting to identify.

In future posts I'm going to describe some of my ways of looking at Steampunk that might be useful, or at least interesting.

Thanks for reading.
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.
KJ


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