Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Weird Hobbies: Steampunk


As some of  the you may have noticed, I’ve been talking a lot about Steampunk lately. I’ve gotten a few questions asking just what ‘Steampunk’ is, and I decided that to properly cover the topic, I needed to write a post about it. This will be a bit 'out there' for people not already used to a sci-fi subculture, but I promise, it's a ton of fun and all good fun!

To start, I figure I might tell you a bit out my persona in the Steampunk world: Willow Quinn. She was born in 1887 in one of the various tunnels that runs underneath the city of Dublin, Ireland. Her parents were very poor, and these tunnels were the only semblance of safe housing they had. However, as happened often in those days, they were mysteriously found dead one evening, causing the then 9 year old Willow to turn to the only thing she knew: Stealing to survive. Luckily, she was always a very bright child, and excelled in this. During her years in the Catacombs, she honed her skills, and was one of the most sought after ‘Acquirers’ in all of Dublin by the age of 18. She’s secretly a shapeshifter though, as were her parents, and can take the shape of a Silver Fox. This does wonders for her profession. In the 23 years of her life however, she’s been on a constant watch for those who hunt her, the men and women who make it their goal in life to destroy the Beast Kin, as they call her kind. She is easily given away by her voice, as Beast Kin voices are often a mixture and melding of many different accents, and fluctuate often. She is safest when keeping silent.


What is Steampunk?
In three short words, Steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Here “Victorian” is not meant to indicate a specific culture, but rather references a time period and an aesthetic: the industrialized 19th century. Historically, this period saw the development of many key aspects of the modern world : mechanized manufacturing, extensive urbanization, telecommunications, office life and mass-transit. Steampunk uses this existing technology and structure to imagine an even more advanced 19th century, often complete with Victorian-inspired wonders like steam-powered aircraft and mechanical computers.


Where did Steampunk come from?
In some sense, Steampunk has existed since the 19th century. The Victorian period had its own science fiction, perhaps most famously embodied by the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and throughout the 20th century there have been later-day science fiction stories set in the Victorian period. However, the term “Steampunk” was not coined until the late 1980s, when author K. W. Jeter used it humorously to describe a grouping of stories set in the Victorian period written during a time when near-future cyberpunk was the prevailing form of science fiction.

The line between Steampunk and period Victorian is narrow, and sometimes the two are indistinguishable. They are separated only by Steampunk’s status as science fiction, albeit heavily inspired by the historical fact of the Victorian period. This is generally accomplished in one of two ways. The “proto-Steampunk” stories of the 19th century can be seen as a parallel to our own science fiction; that is, a view of the future from the present. For the Victorians, this meant imagining a future that looks dramatically un-modern to modern eyes. Submarines, space travel, aircraft and mechanized life were all imagined by the Victorians, but while some of these came very close to the mark they still differed from where the future actually went. For modern writers, with the benefit of modern science, Steampunk becomes a re-imagining of the 19th century with a view of where science will one day go. In this way, Steampunk often works to translate modern concepts such as the computer revolution, spy thrillers, noir mysteries and even the Internet into a Victorian context using Victorian technology. Steampunk becomes the perfect blending of alternate history and science fiction.


Where does the steam come in?
Steampunk’s steam references more than simply the technology itself, although steam engines are a vital aspect of life in a Steampunk world. Steam more generally signifies a world in which steam technology is both dominant and prolific. During the Victorian era, steam power revolutionized almost every aspect of life. The steam engine made full-scale industrialization possible and produced mechanical power more efficiently and to greater degrees than human and animal labor could manage on their own. Mechanized manufacturing and farming caused an upheaval in the structure of working life, but they dramatically increased society’s productivity and freed up an entire section of society to form the modern class of professionals and office workers. The changes in society brought on by steam-driven industrialization allowed for the unprecedented developments in sciences, society and goods that came to be associated with the Victorian era. Steampunk takes inspiration from these changes and applies them to whatever culture it influences.


What about gears?
The gear is an easily recognized symbol of Steampunk, but it is not unique to the genre. It was invented long before the 19th century and it remains in use today. The gear in Steampunk joins related devices such as flywheels and pistons as the “power lines” of the steam age. Steam power is mechanical power and its transmission demands a network of moving parts in the same way that electrical power transmission demands wires. The gear on its own is not especially “Steampunk” but when put to use in 19th century machinery it becomes a key icon of the genre. I myself don't have any gears in my outfit, as what good would a thief be with loud gear-workings on her?

What about goggles?
Goggles are often encountered in Steampunk clothing and imagery, and this can create the misleading impression that they are somehow fundamental to the “Steampunk look.” Certainly, goggles are associated with both science and mechanized travel, both of which are common themes in Steampunk. However, this does not mean that everyone in a Steampunk setting wears goggles; in fact, only people who have a reason to wear them do so, and then only while it is useful. As with scarves, driving coats, aprons and overalls, goggles are a piece of fashion that can help give life to a Steampunk world when used properly and in moderation, but can rapidly border upon the ludicrous when turned into an end rather than a means. I myself have no use for goggles in my persona, therefore, I don’t have a pair. I decided to focus more on what my Persona would actually need, instead of giving in to this certain craze of the Steampunk universe.

What is the appeal of Steampunk?
A genre as large as Steampunk has a wide-ranging appeal. Some people are drawn to it from a love of the Victorian period, like myself. Others enjoy Steampunk’s unique approach to technology: re-imagining modern capabilities with 19th century machines.  Many people are drawn to it in light of its fashion aspects, which allow them to sample and even combine a range of clothing styles and accessories from across the 19th century world. One critical aspect of Steampunk is the tremendous diversity of appeal it presents, which allows it to offer something for just about everyone. The genre possesses a life of its own that draws in fans from countless directions and backgrounds into a world where fashion is tailored to the individual, goods are made to last, and machinery is still regarded as a thing of visual majesty.

Steampunk sounds great! Where’s an easy place to start?
The basic rule of thumb for Steampunk is “start period and then add.” One of Steampunk’s great advantages is that the period it is inspired by, the Victorian era, saw the invention of photography and cinematic film. These in turn allowed for a visual record of people from all different classes, cultures and backgrounds, providing an unprecedented amount of reference material. People looking for fashion ideas, character inspirations or scenes to describe can find a wealth of starting points in the countless vintage photographs and film reels left over from the 19th century. All that remains is to add to or modify the depictions to taste. I myself have used various components from my Civil War Reenacting and reincorporated them into my Willow persona. For instance, my utility belt is made up of cap pouches and a cartridge box on a Georgia frame belt. My corset will now be worn on the outside of my clothing, all my boots are interchangeable, etc.

I hope this clears a few things up for those of you who asked, and I plan to have more posts about my Steampunk adventures in the future.

Love and Lightning Bugs,

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31 comments:

Joy Harris said...

I really like Steampunk! Great article. Can't wait to read more.

Shawna said...

I have to say that this is my bit of new knowledge for the day! I have always admired Victorian style clothing - I love the vintage look because it's so very romantic. However, I didn't know that it was referred to as steampunk! Thanks for the enlightenment and absolutely love the post and pics!

Kelley @ Kelley's Passion for Nutrition said...

This was a fun trip back in time. I had no idea this style was called steampunk. Very interesting. I would have loved to dress up and do a fun photo shot. Thank you for sharing this.

Norma Neal said...

That was a lot of good information. Thank you.

Patty A said...

I've never heard of this, but I love everything Victorian. Can't wait to read more articles on the topic.

Amy V said...

the first place ieverheard of this was on a cake show where the baker was making a wedding cake...a 'steampunk' wedding cake!! If you happenened to see that episode i know you'd love it. Sorry I can't remember the name of the show-it's not on but the baker was Christopher Garrens (spelling?)in CA. It was very intricate and wow-it looked hard. to be honest you did a better job explaining it-i wasn't really sure what it was!

Amber Trievel said...

Never heard of this, but it looks like fun! I love the outfits you wear!

Erin Slocum said...

Love that redheaded outfit(green top and divided corset) Super cute! Not something I'd do, but I love the clothes era!

Beverly Abrego said...

Thanks for the post. I have always heard this term but had never know what it is exactly.... Now I know and I am fascinated.

Christy Ann said...

Glad I finally know what Steampunk is! Thanks for this detailed post! Very interesting.

Janelle said...

I've heard Steampunk mentioned a few times lately and was wondering what it was all about!

Jessica said...

I LOVE this. It's beautiful!!! I have starting reading steampunk novels and I love them!!!

Isra said...

Wow I feel like I took a trip back in time..which I can see is the allure of it, thanks for explaining it so well!

Danielle Meek said...

I feel so out of the loop... I've never heard of Steampunk before... Thanks for all the info :)

Freebies WITH Attitude said...

You're a very interesting soul, I like that. You don't find it too much anymore..everyone always wants to conform to what they're around....but I'm myself and will never be like anyone else and I see that in you too.. Good for us LOL

Jessi Timmermans said...

I had never heard the term steampunk until reading this, but I have seen the style before and did not know what to call it. Looks like your having fun though. :)

Jennifer said...

Interesting - I've never heard of this before. Can't wait to read more!

Kim said...

New to me too. looks like a great Halloween costume for all of you. Have fun!!

Amanda said...

This is really interesting! Love it.. ;)

hippie_mom said...

I had never heard of Steampunk before this post. Thanks for enlightening me!

The Attic Girl Site said...

I'd never heard of this before now. It sounds interesting.

Jaredamy said...

I too had never heard of Steampunk before, but I am glad I read your post about it-very informative, and cool! p.s. your blog design is beautiful!

HauteSingleMama said...

That's super interesting! I've never heard of that, but it reminds me of the historical fiction I used to just *love* when I was younger - just in real life!!! Very neat.

LOVE MELISSA:) said...

I had no idea what a Steampunk is. You rock- you find the greatest posts! I love history and you seem to bring me back to it.

Isabella_Grey said...

Thank you! I love blogging about my passions, and I'm glad someone else likes it too!

Isabella_Grey said...

Thank you! I designed it myself. I'm always open for commissions!

Mellissa Hanks said...

Huh interesting I had never heard of it before thanks :O)

Alyssa McVey said...

I've never heard of that before. Very interesting!

Erika said...

Wow, I have never heard of that before, but it looks pretty neat. Thanks for the info!

Molly said...

So fascinating! I've heard of it, but never knew exactly what it was, thanks for breaking it down and sharing!

Coupons and Friends said...

Wow, I feel out of the loop, my form of Punk is Operation Ivy:)