Why steampunk Works?

Everyone knows what steampunk is, right?  Especially those who are involved.  Or do they?

I’ve  read countless articles entitled, ‘What is Steampunk,’ that inform me, passionately, and at at great length about the roots of steampunk, and the influences that have contributed to its growth.  In fact, every steampunk website appears to have a ‘What is..’ section.  However, what concerns me is not the ‘what’, but the ‘why’.  Why steampunk?

On the surface, each different part of the steampunk movement: cosplay, speculative fiction, artisan designers, and a counter culture, appear to have only tenuous links to each other.  So what is it that binds these disparate elements together under the heading Steampunk?

It is tempting to compare steampunk to Trekies, Whovians, or Anime cosplayers.  But in each of these movements people are dressing up as their favourite characters from film, TV, books, and comics.  The characters and story worlds were invented first by authors, script writers, and illustrators, and the fans are exploring and extending these ready-made worlds.  But in steampunk there is no unifying story world or cast of character for fans to build upon – in fact, what characters do exist are either vague stereotypes (e.g. sky pirates), real historic figures, or borrowed from other genres.

If steampunk has a base it is rooted in real history.Tweet this!

Certainly there is a literary base, but it is so diverse and random that the steampunk movement could, and in some realms does, exist without any reliance on the literature at all.  If steampunk has a base anywhere it is rooted in real history.

I can see how steampunk literature grew out of the writings of Vern and Poe, and then out of Cyberpunk:  how Cyberpunk is at the hard end of science fiction, focussed on realistic depictions of future technology and how Steampunk is so much at the soft end it’s falling out of the science fiction genre altogether and leaking into fantasy – which is what I love about it.  I’m a writer, I understand the romance of mixing scifi and fantasy rather than literature.

I get that steampunk has entered mainstream fashion, but no doubt that most fickle of worlds will soon discard it and move on to a different fad.  Steampunk will be left again to the artesian tinkerers and cosplayers, who first developed it,  “to meet the needs of RPG and anime conventionists – by way of Goth and Cyberpunk”.

I get also that branding is a powerful driver.  So too is imagination, bring them together and you have a powerful stylistic trope.  Steampunk has also crept into television and cinema where I think it will have a longer lifespan, because mechanical marvels and cool clothing are just visually stunning.  Awesome is always in demand.

Steampunk is also a counter culture with a desire to ‘put the punk back into Steampunk’.  A culture with it’s own music, an emphasis on artisan design, and a do-it-yourself ethic – “a community of mechanical magicians enchanted by the real world and beholden to the mystery of possibility.”  Maybe steampunk’s lack of definition is the attraction for people seeking a riposte to our hightec, mass production, carbon obsessed world.  Though I admit this is the element with which I have the least familiarity and the most difficulty.

It has been suggested that steampunk culture is reminiscent of the eighteenth century Luddites, trying to escape the advance of modern technology.  I don’t buy it.  Steampunkers are drawn together by digital technology and use it extensively in the expression of their art.  In many ways it is a phenomenon created by the internet – about as far removed from Luddites as you can get.   Comparisons have also been made with the nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement, but it strikes me this was far more concerned with production techniques than just form and style, though I can see cosmetic similarities.

What about comparisons with Punk culture from the 1980’s?  Punk was an angry, young working-class, political rebellion, born out of the failure of British socialism; anti social, anti capitalist, anti Thatcherite, especially ani Thatcherite – I was there, I saw it first hand.  Besides, 1980’s punk was a British anti-establishment movement.  Steampunk is mainly an American movement, without any of the aggressive political vitriol of the original – I’m not convinced there ever was any real ‘punk’ in steampunk.

If it is any kind of rebellion, then steampunk is a genteel, middle-aged, middle-class, passive sort of rebellion.  A kind of vague disquiet with the complexity of the world.  Though punk too was kind of cool in its time.  Some of my school friends adopted the fashion elements and the rhetoric of punk, but without the aggressive anti-social elements – “Posh punks” we called them.  If it is any sort of punk, then steampunk has more in common with these ‘posh punks’ than the British 1980’s variety.  Not that there aren’t steampunkers who are rebelling against society in various ways, I just don’t think steampunk is a suitable umbrella term to describe their rebellions or agendas.

There are plenty of cross-overs between the disparate elements of steampunk: Writers draw inspiration from cool cosplay outfits, awesome retro future machinery, and beautifully crafted artisan objects (at least, I do, and I’m sure many others must).  Cosplayers, designers, and tinkers draw inspiration from the imaginative future retro worlds and tropes created by writers and comics.  And an artesian counter culture thrives on the possibilities of scientific romance as an alternative to the current world of massed produced plastic and big banking.

Awesome is always in demand.Tweet this!

However, we are still no further forward in discovering what binds steampunk together.  All the things I have mentioned so far seem to divide the different elements of steampunk rather than draw them together.  As a writer, I am an observer of society, a pupil striving to understand the fundamentals of human nature, but steampunk seems baffling.  There must be something else, so we must dig deeper.

By concentrating on the main themes of Steampunk, I think we can gain some clues that will help us break this phenomenon down into more basic motives:

Firstly, is the historical context.  Why a focus on the Victorian ere for Streampunk and the 1920 – 30’s for Dieselpunk?  As we are considering a movement that is dominant in the USA and Europe we must consider what was happening in the world at the this time.  This was a time of great expansion:  in the USA, a time of exploring the american continent and in Europe, a time of world-wide empires and conflict in far away places.  Going exploring in this time period was relatively easy, even for the well off amaturer.  For the poor, there was always the chance of being posted to some far off place if one joined the army, navy, or cavalry.

In our modern age the only real opportunities for exploring the unknown are within science, in the deep ocean, or in space – none of which realms can be readily accessed by the ordinary person.  These historical periods hold a certain romance in terms of adventure and opportunity.

During these times there were also great engineering and scientific advances made.  These were times of real optimism for the future, something we perhaps generally lack today.

Guns: they give power and control to ordinary people, and in literary and media terms create great drama.  I think guns are quite important to the growth of steampunk.  Let me explain why.  Ninteenth century Victorian Britain was awash with weapons.  Mainly brought into the country by soldiers returning from the eighteenth century Napoleonic wars.  A similar thing happened, though not to the same extent, after the first world war.

Fear of a working-class revolution (Kharl Marx lived and agitated in Victorian Britain) and a desire to take these weapons out of circulation was the start of gun control in Britain.  The Victorian ere is the last time gun culture in the USA and the UK was similar.  Our societies have continued, in this respect, to diverge ever since.

It has been said that, “In essence Steampunk is a US phenomenon, often set in London, England, which is envisaged as at once deeply alien and intimately familiar, a kind of foreign body encysted in the US subconscious,” (Peter Nicholls – Encyclopedia of Science Fiction).  Certainly I have had to accept that the majority of customers for my steampunk novels are in the US and I’ve had to adapt my spelling and grammar accordingly.  So I ask, would the media, dominated by Hollywood, have so readily taken up a neo-Victorian cultural movement, even one so romantically set in Dickensian Britain, if it did not involve the high drama generated by easy gun ownership?  I think not.

In part, the adoption of steampunk as a US cultural movement, and therefore the major element in its growth, is the Romantic infusion of nineteenth century American Wild West culture into the genre.  Something only possible because of a similar gun culture which existed in that historical period.

Now we move on to something more contentious: The Rule of cool.  TV Tropes defines the rule like this:  “The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to the element’s awesomeness.  Stated another way, all but the most pedantic of viewers will forgive liberties with reality as long as the result is wicked sweet or awesome. This applies to the audience in general; there will naturally be a different threshold for each individual.”

At about the same time as steampunk was taking off, Steve Jobs succeeded in moving computer technology away from the domain of nerds, who understood its workings, into the commercial mainstream.  Suddenly, we cared more about how cool it looked and the awesome things it could do, than how it worked.  Most of us understand so little of the technologies involved in making an iphone work that it might as well run on magic, or steam.

Unlike the average Victorian, the majority of us have no idea how our technologies work.  We have become so used to not knowing that we automatically blank it out.  Our desire to limit ourselves to technology we understand is directly proportional to that technology’s awesomeness: we apply the Rule of Cool.

In essence, the Rule of Cool has become an integral part of our everyday lives, and if we think seriously, it has probably played a dominant role in the evolution of human civilization for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years e.g. “That throwing stick, that makes your spear go further and more accurate, is awesome.  I want one.”  “Bringing people to live together in a city increases efficiency and creates a useful power base?  Cool – we can do that.”

So when we consider a steam powered jetpack, we are happy to blank out how it might actually work (because that is what we do with technology), provided it looks cool and is an awesome idea.

In other words, computer technology has paved the way for steampunk.  We could go further, if we wanted to be really contentious, and ask if Steve Jobs created Steampunk?  But that, I think, would be fanciful – there are just too may influences  coming together at the same time to identify a single factor as the main creative driver for steampunk.  But you have to agree, it would make an awesome title for this article.

Did Steve Jobs create Steampunk?Tweet this!

In fact, I have become so attuned to this rule of cool that when I analyse reviews for my steampunk novel, Gaia’s Brood, the main words I am searching for are ‘Cool‘ and ‘Awesome.’  If I get a few of these words in a review I know I have smashed it.  Also, tweeting these single words with a steampunk image gets me more retweets and page hits from steampunks than any other tactic I have so far discovered.

I set out to explore a fashion, literary, and artisan culture, in an attempt to better understand my readers – if I understood what drives Steampunk, I thought, I could write better in this genre.  Instead, I have discovered a fundamental driving force for the evolution of civilization, which is deeply rooted in the human psyche.  Also, I have discovered an unintended side effect of the technical age.

So back to my original qestion: why steampunk?  A stylistic fashion trope, an emphasis on style coupled with a relaxed attitude to technical understanding, an historical setting easily accessible to Europe and the US, a general unease with the current state of the world, and a desire for self expression through innovation and imagination.  These are the possible driving forces for steampunk, and they all came together at the right time to create a movement, fostered by easy communication through the internet.

But could it be that the force binding the disparate elements of steampunk together is nothing more than the Rule of Cool?

In my experience, the simpler the binding force, the more complicated, varied, and detailed are the explanations provided by the participants to avoid the basic, and sometimes embarrassing, truth, even from themselves – perhaps particularly from themselves.  And all these ‘what is steampunk’ articles certainly provide a plethora of detailed and complicated explanations.

I suddenly feel like the little boy in the story of The Emperors New Cloths, about to shout, “The Emperor is naked.  Look, he’s not wearing any clothes.”  Which in itself is a good example of how the Rule of Cool can hold sway over the masses.  But as a writer, in the steampunk world, I am loathe to burst the bubble, so here’s another possibility.

Steampunks are rebels; mostly mild none-specific rebels, but rebels none-the-less.  So maybe a loosely defined stylistic individualism, that everyone can reinterpret or reinvent in their own way, is what really powers Steampunk.

Once the fashion and media worlds have moved on to another fad, maybe the steampunk movement will continue to grow and evolve as an antithesis to the increasingly complex world we live in.  Maybe it will morph into a new Punk, new Occupy, or new Luddite movement?  Or maybe it will remain exactly as it is?  Who knows where the steampunk beast will head next?

In steampunk everything and everyone can be rebelliously awesome.Tweet this!

As a writer, I find definitions of the steampunk genre sufficiently blurred to accept my new story worlds, but defined just enough to provide structure and inspiration.  Maybe it is the same for everyone.  Maybe the cool thing about steampunk is that everything and everyone can be rebelliously awesome.

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One thought on “Why steampunk Works?”

  1. Excellent, thoughtful article, Nick! As for me, I write steampunk because it gives me a chance to write with satisfying nostalgia about an optimistic world burgeoning with fantastical technological possibility. I like to tell people my books are about a futuristic past that never was. Certainly the Rule of Cool is part of it for me; I find the visual esthetic is a large draw. But it’s the optimism that keeps me coming back. It’s so much more fun than writing bleak dystopia!

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A Dystopian steampunk Author

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