Thursday, November 26

The Joke that is Steampunk!

So I know we still need to post about AAC, and that will eventually happen...but I have put something off for long enough. A while back I posted about an FAQ on Steampunk Empire. Now I finally have something to show for it, but the original intent got hijacked halfway through, so I began to re-write it. I finally can show you it. Hope you enjoy!

The Remnants of My Steampunk FAQ


The Joke that is Steampunk!

I think that in order to love something, you have to be able to laugh at it.

I honestly believe that in order to appreciate something, you need to include the flaw of the thing. You cannot simply clog your ears, scream 'LALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!' and honestly care for something. That's disillusion and outright disrespectful of your object of admiration. The same obviously applies to Steampunk.

Now, when I speak of Steampunk, I am talking about the Genre/template/subculture/style/WHATEVER it may be to you. But when you start splitting hairs, declaring something 'not steampunk' or 'the only way to do steampunk' you begin to water down the conversation. Let's try not to do that.

With Steampunk, I feel that since it started as a sideways smirk at cyberpunk, it should retain that attitude. The tongue in cheek aspect of Steampunk is the most prominent thing to me, and as a Steampunk, its crooked smile is the saving factor of the growing subculture.

These are my personal takes on a number of questions people have asked me about Steampunk. I've eventually come to the conclusion that it is best to answer some of the 5 W's and so on. Because it all seems to boil down to that. Most notably are "What is Steampunk?", "When is Steampunk?", "How are you/do you do Steampunk?", and "Why Steampunk?"


When is Steampunk?

There is no time-line.

Anyone who says Steampunk is in 'such and such' an era is lying to you. Steampunk never happened, therefore it does not need to be tied to any point in time. This allows for alternate time-lines and realities to be created and explored. Perfect examples are the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Full Metal Alchemist, and Girl Genius. Thought each will call itself something different, they are widely accepted as 'Steampunk'. They each happen in an alternate reality where (respectively) literary figures of the Victorian era roam free, Alchemy is a magic/science that has replaced modern technologies, and robots run rampant. Most Steampunk worlds and styles pull from different eras and time periods, yes. Most noticeably the 1800's into the early 1900's, When technology was on the rise. But the wonderful thing about Steampunk is the historical vandalism. Writers, artists, costumers, and artificers all around are taking indiscriminately from our cultural history and retrofitting them for their own purposes. Hell, it is happening so frequently we could even coin a word for what they do! I personally like 'anachro-fitting', but that's just me.

Being historically accurate is for re-enactors and historians.

Most every aspect of Steampunk is a romanticized view of our past. Our cultural heritage, or others heritage. Much like the modern romanticization of pirates, we look at these things after the fact, and see something beautiful and entertaining about them, though they had negative connotation at the time. With the buffer of time on our side, we can start to enjoy aspects of history which then were restrictive and disheartening. (I'm looking at you industry and social stricture!)


"How" is a lot easier to me, because all you have to do is look around and steal ruthlessly. Be it from fashion, textbooks, movies, manuals, artists. All can be cannibalized for the sake of Steampunk.

Though it often has a basis in history and science, Steampunk uses reality and fact as a springboard to jump into the surreal and extravagant.

You start to get the Steampunk feel by looking at the past and putting something there that doesn't necessarily belong. Again, favored era's are Victorian, Edwardian, and Turn of the Century, but you can go beyond that. Wild west, far eastern imperialism, WWI & II, futuristic post-apocalyptic worlds, ancient Rome, New Jersey. All are ripe for the picking to the Steampunk mind! Mad scientist during the reign of terror? Mechanical cowboy in the American west? Biplane pilot for her majesty Queen Victoria? Coal powered Samurai? Steam powered Darth Vader? Robotic President Theodore Roosevelt, aka ROBOVELT? All of these are possible and more when you take historical and scientific fact out of the equation. Hell, you can make a Victrola powered by hamsters, and make it look Steampunk!

The basic aesthetic is that of technology. Whether it be future technology or retro and archaic is up to you. Most people only go so far as to add brass and copper piping to things. But some folks actually like to learn the sciences and facts behind the prominent tech of the time. Those people I have the utmost respect for, because they are taking a hobby and turning it into a learning experience, instead of simple escapism. The downfall to these folks tends to be that they only see the scientific facts and become very cemented to them. Anyone comes near them with a modified NERF gun, claiming it shoots lighting bolts, and these folks become very angry. Understandable. They are learning how these things can actually work, and someone comes up and tries to engage them by saying they have a Tesla coil powering their toaster. It's fantasy and impossibility. (now I am going to have someone e-mail me saying 'But you CAN power a toaster with a Tesla coil!')

Not everyone can go out and become a tinkerer or contraptor. Some people don't have the time, patience, or capacity for those things. It can be very demanding. Yet they still like the look of machines and contraptions. They begin to make up their own toys and stories, and they are rather proud of them, because that might be something they are good at, or they at least enjoy. They want to share that in much the same way you want to share your hand powered engine, or Jacob's ladder. You both appreciate mechanical things on different levels, and why get angry they are on a different level when you can get together, look at a Train engine, and agree it is a thing of beauty? They enjoy the form, you enjoy the function.

I seem to be a little sidetracked.

How do you Steampunk? Research can help with that. (message me for resources, or simply trust google authority!) There are a number of resources to give you a start, if you want to costume, make toys, learn how steam engines work, read the literature and history of the times, or just put a top hat on and dress in brown. There are varying levels, and just because someone else is not as in depth doesn't mean they are any less important to the Steampunk organism. Again, laughter is the best medicine. If someone is only wearing a vest, bowler, and runs around saying 'Bully' more than is humanly normal, they are poking fun at a preconceived notion some have about our past and it's culture. They have the right idea. So I'd shout "BULLY!" right back and curl my handlebar mustache at them. Then we can all grin about this superfluous and wonderful exchange over a cup of tea or absinthe.


'Why Steampunk' is much more personal to me, and I believe it should be for each person.

It could be as deep as:

"I grew up in a dying mill town where everything had gone to shit with the creation of highways. Before my time trains use to bring people by the hundreds to our main streets for celebrations, work, and commerce. It was a thriving community, and when cars made trains inefficient, my town began to die. I can walk around and see the old train tracks, the decaying paper mills, the dirty brick buildings, and see that there was once life and vigor here. Nowadays it's rust and dirt everywhere. But I appreciate Steampunk because it celebrates and borrows from a time when my hometown was a community, instead of a dirty concrete ghetto."

Or as Simple as:

"I look damn good in suspenders and bow ties!"

This is where my love for Steampunk shines the brightest. That people from diverse and varied backgrounds can come together, look through rose tinted goggles and rejoice in the fact that this science, or this fantasy, or this art, exists. Science, Art, Literature, History, Fashion, Fiction, Non-Fiction...all of them are ingredients being thrown in a blender so we can have ourselves a Steam-smoothie.


I am setting a challenge for myself. I am only allowing myself to use one sentence to describe Steampunk to someone who has never heard of it before. You can knit-pick and argue all you want, but there is a specific image that we all have of Steampunk, and that is what we need to get across to someone who doesn't know what the devil we are talking about.

"Steampunk is taking aspects of history, technology, and culture, and placing them where and when they have no business being."

Now, is it perfect? No. Is it right? Debatable. Is it accurate? I believe it to be, but that's my humble opinion.

There is one last question that was asked, and I loved this one gent's answer to it, so I figured I could share it:

Do you really think you are a Sky Pirate Captain?

"No, but I'd be happier if I was."

This is a wonderful answer to a question I've had to field before. Do we believe these things are real? No. It is fantasy, and solely for our amusement. We write stories about being sky-pirates, play music and singing about wind up dolls, dress in period clothing with a twist, and incorporate dead and dying ethnological anomalies into our everyday lives. (or not so everyday lives!) Why? It's fun.

To get back to my original statement, You cannot truly love something until you learn to laugh at it.

Our history can be sordid and sundry. We cannot deny that fact. There are aspects that horrify us and repel us and our 'modern sensibilities'. But why ignore the aspects that were good, enjoyable, and outright fascinating? The failings of our forefathers do not justify abandoning the things they got right...and sometimes the things they didn't get right, just to shake things up.

So this entire wacky Steampunk "Thing" started with a sneer and a snicker, and has turned into a full on chuckle. I say we let it become an all out gut wrenching bout of hysterical laughter. We should look at history as if it were a joke, and why not enjoy how bad a joke it really was? We know the joke, we've seen the punchline, and we are going to laugh at it, dammit!

When I see someone taking this thing too far, I wonder why it means so much to them. Why they are putting down others for trying to appreciate something they both clearly like. The only thing I can think of is that they believe that their way of loving something is the right way. The ONLY way. That you have to get it right in order to be a part of this cavalcade of anachronism.

I think they are doing it wrong.

This is an opportunity for Steampunks, Dieselpunks, Neo-Vics, Gaslamp Fantasists, and Retro-Futurists the world over to come together, put their collective boots, heels, spatter dashes, and gaiters down, let out a resounding "Poppycock!" and have a good time, in spite of what our history and civilization chooses to ignore and cast aside. (whew...tough sentence!) We'll catch what falls to the wayside, and dust it off, polish it up, and put it on a pedestal for all to see. These things had value at some point in their existence, and we aren't going to allow them to become one more bit of refuse and cast off in the name of something new and sleek and shiny.

Before I get too preachy, let me wrap up:

I am not a scholar. I dislike scholars. They tell us what is true, because they are self important and, well, scholars. They believe facts are the only things that hold weight. What can be put on paper is the end all be all. But some of us know differently. Sometimes fiction tells us more about who we are than empirical evidence ever could. So we turn to things like Steampunk. (which, need I remind you, never happened.)

I wrote this for fun. I enjoy thinking about these things, and playing around with ideas. It's entertaining to me. It's one aspect of joy that I gain from Steampunk. So when I write this, I am not attempting to make a 'Guide to being Steampunk'. I am not telling you this is the right way to do it, or even the only way.

Alan Watts said it better than I can.

"I have nothing to sell. I am an entertainer. That is to say in the same sense that when you go to a concert and listen to someone play Mozart he has nothing to sell except for the sound of the music. He doesn’t want to convert you to anything. He doesn’t want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart’s music as opposed to Beethoven’s. And I approach you in the same spirit, as a musician with his piano or violinist with his violin, I just want you to enjoy a point of view which I enjoy."

So remember to giggle at gadgets and chortle at history...unless you might not get the joke.



  1. Excellent, Cap! Well written and illuminating. Thank you.

  2. "Gaslap Fantasists,"

    I know it's only a type-o but it sounds like a "Farting on your lap," fetish... and I'm OK with that ^_^



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