The Far Reach of Steampunk
By Jonathan Boorstein
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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.