The Far Reach of Steampunk

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By Jonathan Boorstein
Windy City Banner



Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
The monthly meeting of NYC Steampunk was up one flight of Dickensian steps on a side street near Bloomingdale’s.  A woman welcomed me to the future as it might have been.  Dressed in a black corset and matching Degas-like tulle petticoats – as much Victorian prostitute as 19thcentury ballet dancer – she had a Buck Rodgers ray gun slung on one hip.

Of course, I should have arrived by the night pneumatiquefrom London, that speedy parlor car capsule shooting its way under the Atlantic, or at least the Hohenzollern, an 81-hour zeppelin trip out of Berlin.   Instead I rode the Lexington Avenue Local, which at least was built in the era many Steampunkers fancy.

Steampunk has become something of the fashion and the buzzword of the moment.  It conjures retro images of goggles and dirigibles, ray guns and high-button shoes, rocket ships and walking sticks.  For the fashionista, it’s a mash up of military, Edwardian, and neo-Victorian style, as Ruth La Perla points out in a 2008 New York Times article.  Indeed, another visitor to the steampunk hall was dressed as cross between a Second Empire funeral director and the Mad Hatter.

It’s easy to define steampunk by its visual clichés: the geeks and gadgets in period drag; the preference for fin-de-siècle savoir-faire; as well as the look and feel of down and dirty DIY.  The woman who greeted me at the top of the stairs plans to create a steampunk GPS based on the astrolabe.

Art Donovan, curator of the world’s first steampunk museum exhibition at Oxford University, who spoke at that meeting, defines steampunk as “a unique fantasy version of nineteenth century Victorian England, now imbued with high-tech digital devices, fantastic steam-powered machines, and all manner of surreal electro-mechanical contraptions that could only have been conjured by a mad twenty-first century scientist”, in his book, The Art of Steampunk, which is also the follow-up exhibition catalogue.

Jeff Ayers, store manager and buyer for Forbidden Planet, a comic-book shop, that is effectively the geek epicenter of the New York metropolitan area, describes steampunk as the mechanical universe of Jules Verne brought into the twenty-first century.  Donovan’s book, incidentally, is one of Forbidden Planet’s steampunk best-sellers.

In The Steampunk Bible, Jeff Vandermeer couldn’t resist explaining steampunk in the form of a scientific equation: STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam x airship or metal man/baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] = progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot.

(This reporter was unable to substantiate the rumor the Vandermeer is currently undergoing surgical procedures to remove his tongue from his cheek.)

As a serious art snob, I’d argue that steampunk is a techno-romantic sensibility (or aesthetic) marked by drag, whimsy, and bricolage – an outsider art that revels in outlaw status.  While drag and whimsy is clear, bricolage may not be.  It’s creating the elements of a sub-culture out of the cast-off elements of mainstream culture or from appropriating mainstream elements for the sub-culture’s own purposes or from its particular point of view.  It’s the outsider/outlaw that puts the punk into steampunk.  Or as Donovan says, “The “punk” is an important reference to an outsider attitude”.


While the origin of the name, steampunk, is clear and well-known – K.W. Jeter coined the term in 1987 in a published letter to the editor of Locus Magazine – the origins of the movement are less clear, if not quite unknown.  Ayers suggests it comes from Verne and Verne alone.  Vandermeer’s Bible credits Verne, but also H.G. Wells as well as Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others.

Steampunk may well be descended from late 1950s and early 1960s camp. Using as much charm as wit, it poked gentle fun at both the conventions and pretentions of what we now think of as the “Mad Men” era as well as the Victorian technology revolution, which was supposed to makes the world a better place for people in general and the British Empire in particular – an ironic “double-take” on an iconic age. 

Using the illustrations for Verne’s tales from when they were first published as inspiration, such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and The Fanstastic World of Jules Verne (1958) set the stage (or staged the set) for the proto-steampunk of the sixties.  The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (both 1965) take affectionate looks at the early days of automobiles and aviation, with vehicles of the period supplements by those created in that spirit, but in light of later developments.  Professor Fate’s entry in The Great Race is virtually James Bond’s Aston-Martin done up as a pre-World War I motorcar.


In 1967, Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (based on his From the Earth to the Moon) continues the style and even tries to cash in on the popularity of Magnificent Men with the alternate title, Those Fantastic Flying Fools.  The official follow up to Magnificent Men, Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) featured motorcars even more fantastic than the airplanes in the earlier film.  And long before Robert Downey Jr. portrayed Sherlock Holmes in grand steampunk style (2009 and 2011), there was the vastly under-appreciated Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).  The Art Deco infused Dr. Phibes diptych (1971 and 1972) feature elaborate death traps and contraptions that anticipate steampunk as much as they owe to Rube Goldberg.



Courtesy of IMDB.com
Television played a part in the development of the sensibility as well.  The Wild Wild West – James Bond reconfigured as a nineteenth century gunslinger – featured such gadgets as sleeve guns, canes that could send telegraph messages, stage coaches with ejector seats, life-sized puppets powered by steam, and giant tuning forks, according to Vandermeer, whose definition of steampunk sounds suspiciously like any and every episode of The Wild Wild West.   Dr. Who and The Avengers had elements of steampunk from time to time as did the odd episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

As the sixties went counter-culture, its irreverent, good-natured camp developed a more aggressive, dialectical stance, starting to anticipate the antagonistic situationisme of political punk.   The retro-futuristic Brazil (1985) might be a good example .  Despite the retro-politics, the zoomorphic military technology in Star Warscould be very steampunk.  My favorite is the All Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT), or Imperial Walker, in The Empire Strikes Back, a leggy dog with a nasty bite.


Despite the overall dark and sleek Goth look of Tim Burton’s Batman films (1989 and 1991), the use of streamline moderne in some of the sets and props gives it elements of steampunk.  Streamline modern as well as its glizier sister art deco inspired Rocketeer(1991), in a style William Gibson calls “raygun gothic”.  The director of Rocketeer, Joe Johnson, returns to the raygun gothic end of steampunk in Captain America (2011).

In between, such good and bad steampunk (or raygun gothic) offerings as The City of Lost Children (1995), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Van Helsing (2004), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Serenity(2005), Fido (2006), The Illusionist (2006), The Prestige (2006), and The Golden Compass (2009) were released.  Some argue the two Iron Man films (2008 and 2010) are borderline steampunk because the original suit is made out of found parts.

On television, steampunk has turned up as the subculture of the week in most of the major series.  As far as major series go, however, Torchwood and Dr. Who continue to have ongoing steampunk elements, while Firefly, Warehouse 13, and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. indulge in the retro-future techno-romantic steampunk proper.

It is however in books and graphic novels that steampunk has really taken off (no budget restraints on sets, costumes, and special effects, among other things).  A good, but far from comprehensive, list might include: Gail Carriger (Soulless, Blameless, Heartless); Cassandra Clare (Clockwork Prince, Clockwork Angel); Paul De Filippo (The Steampunk Trilogy); G.D. Falksen (Blood in the Skies); William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (The Difference Engine); K.W. Jeter (Morlock Night, Infernal Devices); Mercedes Lackey (The Fire Rose, Reserved for the Cat); George Mann (The Affinity Bridge, The Immortality Engine); China Miéville (Embassytown, Iron Council, Perdido Street Station); Michael Moorcock (The Nomads of the Air trilogy); Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates); Cherie Priest (Dreadnought, Boneshaker); Philip Pullman (The His Dark Materials trilogy); and Scott Westerfield (Bemouth, Goliath, Leviathan).  Although most of these novels are for adults, most are sold as young adult novels.

Graphic novels are probably dominated by Alan Moore and Bryan Talbot.  Moore, with Kevin O’Neill, produced The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series of graphic novels that epitomize what people think of when they think of steampunk (unlike the film version), while Talbot created Grandville, and with Moorcock, the witty and political Awkwright series.  Mike Mignola is best known for Hellboy, but his more overtly steampunk Amazing Screw-On Head is well worth seeking out.  There is also Sydney Padua’s Lovelace and Babbage as well as Ayers’ favorite, Phil Foglio and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius.  He maintains it is the best steampunk graphic novel he’s read, adding that female heroes dominate in the “genre”.

To the male side, such computer games as Edge of Twilight and the last two Final Fantasies are steampunk, among others.


But there is also steampunk beyond obvious geekdom.  In fashion, Jean-Paul Gaultier is well known for his fetish steampunk haute couture.  The aesthetic also infuses the designs of Nicolas Ghesquiere and Alexander McQueen.  In fashion retail, Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers (among others) use steampunk elements in the interior design of its boutique shops to attract customers.

Steampunk influences music and music videos as well.  Abney Park, The Clockwork Quartet, and The James Gang (featured in the Times article) are well-known inside the subculture, while Gorillaz, with its steampunk videos, have made it to the top forty.  Remember the windmill providing propellers to keep a flying island aloft and moving through the clouds in Feel Good Inc?  Steampunk even turns up in Coachella and Burning Man.


Given the wide range of areas to which steampunk has been applied, it can’t really be called a genre.  Movement or sub-culture might be more accurate, especially since it seems to refresh existing genres with its memes.  An artistic point of view or point of departure seems to be the most accurate way to think of steampunk for the moment.

As for me, if I take my steam-powered penny-farthing, I can still make the 12.23 clipper to Port-au-Prince.  The Orisha are rising.

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