In the olden days, back in 2009/2010, before AnomalyCon was even conceived of, I would have told you that Steampunk was Victorian Science Fiction. It was a pat answer many of the Colorado Steampunks settled for when trying to explain to passersby what we were doing in Victorianesque garb in the middle of a hot July. I would have linked you this 9 news story, wherein Aimee Matheny and I were both interviewed, wherein the Colorado Steampunks suddenly gained many members, and wherein the voiceover stole almost every line I said because they decided a male voice was more interesting than mine… really?
In that day I was still focused on the initial draw of Steampunk, the pretty side. The interesting costumes that usually have something to do with an era somewhere, the goggles and the personas and the idea that anyone could captain an airship. I grew up absorbing books like 101 Balloons and 20,000 Leagues and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Steampunk was right up my alley. It was defined as, at the most basic level, advanced technology powered by steam/gears set in the Victorian Era. In essence, the end of the Industrial Revolution rolled back to happen in the beginning.
But then I started writing Radio STEAM, thanks to the initial idea by Ryan, who is also on AnomalyCon’s board of directors. I started putting a lot of business and organization into the Steampunk hobby, and it became more real to me than just a Jules Verne novel. It became very important to me to empower creative people to make more of themselves than starving artists–to give musicians, artists and authors outlets for expanding their influence, improving themselves and creating more good stuff. So AnomalyCon has a beautiful Steampunk aesthetic, but the content is as much about becoming more or breaking into that creative thing each person wants to be.
You see, there are many facets to this genre that we’ve lumped together under the Steampunk banner. Sometimes those facets become factions, but like any large gathering of people, not everyone will always get along. Just ask anyone who plays first person shooters.
The first facet I focused on was that of women’s equality–and not just women, but also gays, lesbians, the bisexual, the transgender, the ambiguous and the certain. Those who wish to flaunt their sexuality and those who do not. In the Victorian era these things were acceptable, but only in private places (read or watch Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith if you dare). Steampunk brings postmodern sensibilities to a premodern design concept. I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in Colorado this is basically the only “geekdom” that is dominated by women–which reflects in the fact that AnomalyCon has a 60% female attendance, and that most of our biggest authors (Cherie Priest, O.M. Grey, Gail Carriger, Delilah S. Dawson, I can go on…) are female. Some men might turn their nose up at that, but the industrial gentleman will realize that means he is, as a person interested in steampunk, a commodity to the straight female audience. It certainly turns the tables compared to other fandoms where any woman daring to sneak her head into the door is instantly considered a piece of meat (anime fandoms sometimes not included).
The next facet that intrigued me was the availability of technology. As a systems engineer I design and implement huge environments, and I know why everything does what it does–but at the silicon level, the molecular level? The average person–even the average super genius–couldn’t tell you why all that green stuff with gold and silver wiring actually transmits the kind of data we process on a daily basis. In the industrial age, and even with Babbage’s machine, everything made sense when you broke it down into common components. You could pop the hood of a steam engine, so to speak, and tell where all the parts went and how they worked. I often hear mechanics bemoan that modern cars are impossible to work on unless you specialize, because they aren’t designed for average people to use.
Would I miss my smart phone? Oh yes. But read The Difference Engine. Look at designs by Da Vinci and, better yet, look at Al-Jazari, who was basically a robotics genius of the 13th century. (Read this article about badass pre-electric robots). While people of the age didn’t necessarily understand how the devices worked, it was likely because they were revolutionary at the time. Or the designers were better at protecting themselves under the hood…
The next aspect that really hooked me tied into the technology thought process–that of making, adapting, building, reusing, repurposing. Taking common junk that fills old houses and landfills and turning it into props, devices, aesthetically pleasing attire, decor, points of interest. Some of our local tinkerers are very good at this, but others have gained world reknown for their design choices. People can start at any level, from painting squirt guns to rebuilding them into something completely beyond the scope of plastic. People can sew their own clothes or cut, slash, tuck and adapt things they find in the thrift stores. The only limit to style is a person’s own elitism, because while the “Steam” has a basis in the idea of the Industrial Revolution, the “Punk” is when you adapt it to your own devices. It’s not just the maker ethos, it’s also making recycling sexy.
With these facets–equality, ingenuity and adaptability–I find that Steampunk is so far beyond just the Victorian era, or even the British/American concept. It is taking advanced technology powered by kinetic energy (steam, gears, etc) that is visible to the human eye, and putting it out of its time. Add a sprinkle of the idea that more than just one person in the world can be a creator, can build and design. Instead of being the minority, they are the norm. Empower the common human to have control over their life and resources in a way most people can’t imagine in modern life. And then, go forth and modify something.