The Rise and Rise of Steampunk

9ae90dc639c8ba0054907af567eccff9   Writing contemporary fiction is hard:  you either include specific gadgets and gismos, in which case your fiction is out of date the moment you publish, or you mention technology in such vague terms your reader feels short-changed—and you can still find yourself quickly out of date.

Science fiction is even harder:  What future technology can you possibly imagine that some major corporation doesn’t market a year or two later? Artificial intelligence, human bionics, drones, robot warriors, genetic mutation, virtual reality, exploration of distant planets—it is all happening right now.  How can the struggling author possibly think far enough ahead of technological change to make a story world look futuristic?

Hence speculative fiction bursting into the ‘safer’ realms of the paranormal, zombie apocalypse, eco disaster, dystopian futures, fantasy, and Steampunk.  J.K.Rowling showed writers the way when she successfully future-proofed her Harry Potter series against technological innovation, by setting it in a magical 1950’s world. Retro Magicpunk?

But writing in this fast changing world isn’t the only difficulty:  living in it can be a problem too.

It has been said that we are assaulted by more data each hour than our ancestors processed each day—no wonder stress is such a feature of our modern lives.  I am well acquainted with this problem of information overload, which is one reason I write.  Others have their own, unique ways of dealing with stress.

At six-form college, I encountered a lad who played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, which was all the rage at the time (a fantasy board game people played before we had personal computers).  After one Christmas break, he returned to college with long blond hair, held in place with a jewelled band, and dressed in a rough woollen cloak.  In his hand he carried a long wooden stave topped with a large fake jewel, which he carried everywhere.  He refused to answer to any name except ‘The Wizard,’ which was the name of his D&D character.

I have no idea whether this unfortunate lad found role playing his D&D character safer or more comforting than living in the real world, or whether his frequent use of cannabis had brought on psychosis.  In any event, he was soon removed to a psychiatric unit and the local papers ran frequent stories on ‘The dangers of playing D&D.’  This was my first introduction to people using Cosplay to escape the stresses of the real world.  Needless to say, it was a negative impression.

At the time, ‘The Wizard,’ wasn’t the only one dressing up as a favourite fiction character.  Some of my friends joined a new fad and became ‘Trekies.’  They went off to sci-fi conventions at the weekends dressed as their favourite Star Trek characters.  There was nothing wrong with them, they were just having fun living out a fantasy life they saw every week on their TV screens.  I would have joined them if my parents had allowed.

Cosplay, (dressing up as fictional characters from books, films, television serials , computer games, and comics), first became a movement in Japan and Asia in the 1980s, fuelled by the Anime comic ad8406f4bf10fd4bc4642ed0b73386c38nd film scene—areas where technology was rapidly advancing.  But after the release of films such as ‘Mad Max,’ which drew on popular subcultures of the time, the western world soon invented its own brand of Cosplay: Steampunk.

I first encountered Steampunk when someone informed me that a novel I was working on, ‘Gaia’s Brood,’ fitted the Steampunk genre—they wanted to feature the story in an advert for the ‘Steampunk World’s Fair.’  I didn’t even know there was such a genre.

Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I investigated, and discovered a ready market for my fiction.

Blown away with the willingness of Steampunkers to consume my stories, I happily added more Steampunk elements to the ‘Gaia’s Brood’ story-world and my central character, Nina Swift, quickly developed a ‘punk’ attitude.  Both of which elements are accentuated and deepened in the sequel, ‘Coggler’s Brood.’

There is a curious interplay between the Steampunk Cosplayer and the Steampunk writer.  Whilst both are doing their own thing, and escaping the real world in their own way, they are both dependant on each other.  Cosplayers need the story writer / screen writer / game writer, to bring new characters to life that they can copy / adapt.  Writers draws inspiration from the photos of Cosplayers and their creations, which are brought so vividly to life.

Seeing Steampunk Cosplayers bring my characters into glorious three-dimensions would be the ultimate satisfaction.

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I used to think publishing my stories would bring me the greatest professional satisfaction, but now I know different.  Now, seeing Cosplayers bring my characters into glorious three-dimensions would be the ultimate satisfaction.  Why?  Well, what greater validation can there be for an author than other people wanting to bring their characters to life?  To add to the pantheon of Steampunk characters is now my ultimate goal—though a feature film would be pretty cool too.

What started as a narrowly defined Steampunk cultural, based on the writings of Jules Verne has, thanks to the advent of the internet, blossomed into a truly eclectic collection of cultural genres.  Whilst Victorian 613e61de30458ff240a8da28e02af69aBritain basked in the glories of empire, as the world’s greatest superpower, across the Atlantic a very different Victorian period was in full swing—the taming of the wild west.

So while Steampunk may have started in starchy empire uniforms and demure bustled dresses, part of it quickly morphed into gunslingers and corseted, short skirted, show girls.  Films such as ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ and television serials like ‘Firefly’ helped to cement this cultural change.  The ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise helped introduce 18th Century flintlocked pirates to the mix too.  Though to be fair, who is to say whether the films were inspired by the expansion of Steampunk or the culture diversified by the films?  Maybe the comics came first?  Or maybe it was the boundless imagination of the Cosplayers?498a1b306b3a5ef809fba782ba426353-copy_edited

So does the desire to escape the stresses of a technological life drive the growth of Steampunk?  I believe it does.  However, as a writer, I am a student of life; an observer of human behaviour; an analyser of culture, and noting is that simple.

Whilst technology may encourage some to seek a simpler, defined, fantasy life, Steampunk culture is very definitely an Internet based community, totally reliant on technology.  Before you joined you first group or attended your first convention, how many Steampunkers did you know?  I’m going to guess you knew very few, if any.

Ironically, the growth of a movement based on escapism, is itself only possible because of the very technology one seeks to escape.

Ironically, the growth of a movement based on escapism, is itself only possible because of the very technology one seeks to escape.  This should not surprise us, because humans are very capable of simultaneously holding many contradictory and hypocritical points of view.  It is one of tricks we writers use to make characters more believable.

What should perhaps surprise us, is that Steampunk is in danger of becoming a mainstream cultural phenomena.  This is perhaps due to the eclectic nature of Steampunk.  Increasing amounts of Steampunk elements are finding their way into popular films—perhaps film directors are encountering the same problems portraying contemporary technology as writers.  Even the latest series of Dr Who has a Steampunk themed introduction and the central consul of the TARDIS is looking more retro by the season.

The ultimate irony, of course, would be if Steampunk invades contemporary design, and technology becomes increasing retro.  Maybe then we will want to escape into a fantasy world of shiny screens, LEDs, buttons and beeps, and start dressing up as ‘old time computer geeks.’  I think steampunk has a long way to run before that happens though.

Gaia's Brood
Gaia’s Brood

I even bumped into a steampunk display stand in a Waterstones bookshop the other day—one of those temporary cardboard things.  Actually, I tripped on the corner and had to save it from falling over—literally hit in the face by steampunk.  True, I only had to replace three steampunk book titles in the stand, but still, it shows that even the big five publishers are waking up to the appeal of steampunk.

The big question: where next for steampunk?Tweet this!

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