The origins of what we know today as "Steampunk" began, along with Science Fiction as a whole, in the early years of the Scientific Romances, Victorian penny dreadfuls, and Jules Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires. An increasingly literate public took advantage of the opportunities for adventure and high romance offered them by Verne, H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, George Griffith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Garrett P. Serviss, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who were themselves inspired by the likes of Charles Babbage, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and the growing age of technology, colonialism, scientfic exploration and heavy industry.
That inspiration was a varied one and not easily categorized one way or the other. On the one hand there are American dime novels which celebrated technological progress and the expansionism that it permits. On the other there are the likes of Wells, who would just as soon destroy London at every opportunity. Consider Wells' War of the Worlds, in which martians successfully decimate the capital of the British Empire until they are themselves destroyed by bacteria, against Garrett P. Serviss' unofficial sequel Edison's Conquest of Mars, the title of which speaks for itself. Verne's first novel, Paris in the 20th Century, went unpublished until the 1990's because his publisher felt that it was too pessimistic, yet Verne never shied away from the dangers of technology is the hands of the misguided, the misanthropic and the foolish. Half a century later, Joseph Conrad responded to Haggard by exclaiming "the horror" of imperialism. The values and arguments were as diverse in Scientific Romances as they are in Science Fiction today.
However, for Wells and Verne, there was nothing "Retro-Victorian" about their "Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasies". The Victorian Era was then and now. Scientific Romances came to an end with the great Imperial Experiment and incinerated in the conflagration of World War I, giving way to the Pulp adventurers and the superheroes of the war era: Doc Savage, Blackhawk, Superman, Batman, King Kong, Orson Welles' War of the Worlds and later Tarzan books (an era given true homage in such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).
While silent and early sound films did appeal to the Scientific Romances for story ideas, these were often placed well within the 1920's and 30's. Georges Melies’ inspired Trip to the Moon was itself a Scientific Romance masterpiece, released only a year after Queen Victoria's death. Likewise, the first film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was released in 1916, just sneaking in under the wire. The silent adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, though written in 1912, looks to take place in the year of release, 1925. While Burroughs' novel shares The Lost World's publication date, the iconic Tarzan the Ape Man film starring Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan takes place conspicuously in 1932.
For the first film to purposely choose a period setting in which to unravel its Science Fiction, journalist and editor of the defunct Wonder Magazine, Rod Bennett, cites 1929's Mysterious Island. Of this Vernian adaptation, Bennett says:
Verne’s novels had been speculative when they first appeared, and many of them remained so for nearly a century. They were adventure stories, yes—but built almost entirely around elaborate prophecies of future technology. When those prophecies were fulfilled (as they were in the case of books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days) Verne’s novels didn’t seem futuristic anymore, or even quaint as they do to us today, but simply dated… hopelessly dated, and about as dated as any book could ever hope to be. Some of them languished in this condition for over 40 years—just old-fashioned Victorian curios, brick-a-brack on the shelves of literature’s antique store. But by the mid-1920s these books were passing into a new phase, a state of being wherein the very datedness itself had acquired a fascination. And this was the genius of the stroke: I think we can say with confidence that the producers of The Mysterious Island were the first filmmakers in history who’d ever dared, with a breathtaking flash of invention, NOT to update a hopelessly out-of-date book. They took Jules Verne’s daring predictions about the day-after-tomorrow and turned them into something else entirely—into a huge, elaborate alternate universe story. They created a 19th century of the imagination, where British Imperialists reached the Moon 75 years before Neil Armstrong, and electric submarines prowled the deep while Buffalo Bill was still prowling the West.Unfortunately, despite a pair of novel sound sequences, the film was a failure at the box office. It would be many years before another one of these deliberately Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasies graced the silver screen. In the mean time, only a handful of films made any attempt in that direction, such as the period-set Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) with Bela Lugosi, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with Boris Karloff and King Solomon’s Mines (1937) with Paul Robeson.
The two decades following the end of the Second World War – with the advent of atomic power, the Space Race and the Cold War – was a golden age for Science Fiction. The climate of limitless possibility mixed with xenophobia and apocalyptic anxiety in a future that had arrived proved incredibly fertile for films like Rocketship X-M, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, Invaders from Mars, the legendary Z-grade Robot Monster and Plan Nine From Outer Space, Them!, This Island Earth, The Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 million Miles to Earth, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Attack of the 50-Ft. Woman, and The Fly as well as Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the biggest of them all, Japan's Gojira (better known as Godzilla).
Amidst this atomic explosion of cosmic operas and prehistoric mutants, filmmakers of the Space Age turned their attention back to the Steam Age. In 1953, George Pal recruited the Martian hordes of H.G. Wells into the War of the Worlds. However, this, like the 1960 adaptation of Conan Doyle's The Lost World, was also set in the modern day, where UFOs replaced stilted tripods. The real gamble was taken by Walt Disney with the 1954 release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
With 20,000 Leagues, Disney was out to prove the mettle of his studio. Despite numerous awards for his work in short and feature animation, Disney and his company was still regarded as a maker of mere cartoons... Kiddie matinées. And in a sense, the public wouldn't have it any different. Though an artistic masterpiece, Fantasia played only to chirping crickets and wouldn't receive its due praise until latter day critics were accustomed to the fact that Disney is a cultural force that is here to stay, and therefore, its time to start taking a serious look at its productions. By the time production started on 20,000 Leagues, construction was beginning on Disneyland U.S.A. in Anaheim, California. Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier was obligating millions of American parents to buy their kids coonskin caps. This television success, along with the studio's first completely live-action feature, Treasure Island, whetted their appetite for a full live-action division.
20,000 Leagues was, first and foremost, Disney's attempt to prove that he could do more than cartoons. To seal the success of this venture, he recognized that a grand subject would be required. After all, much bigger than the Atomic Age aliens and monsters making the rounds at drive-ins were the massive-scale historical epics like Spartacus and deMille's The Ten Commandments. It may be impossible to find out what exactly prompted Walt Disney to choose to adapt a favorite boyhood author of outdated Scientific Romances, beyond the entrepreneurial genius of America's storyteller laureate. He evidently recognized that Science Fiction could be a serious genre, dealing with serious subject matter, and was worth investing millions of dollars in to move beyond cheap prosthetics to winning the 1955 Academy Awards for special effects, art direction and color. Spartacus himself, Kirk Douglas, was cast as the lead against British character actor James Mason's enigmatic mariner. Disney was, perhaps inadvertently, proving Science Fiction's mettle as well as that of his studio.
Then came the critical choice not to follow in George Pal's footsteps by updating 20,000 Leagues to the modern times. Like the preceding Mysterious Island (from which 20,000 Leagues borrows many story elements), this Vernian book was made into period piece. Another of Walt Disney's widely recognized character traits was a boundless confidence that the entertainment consuming public shared his interests and sentiments, even if they didn't know it. His success was based almost entirely on that confidence: "I just make what I like - warm and human stories, ones about historic characters and events, and about animals." and, "There is nothing wrong with good schmaltz, nothing wrong with good heart... The critics think I'm kind of corny. Well, I am corny. As long as people respond to it, I'm okay."
Disneyland itself would be infused with Disney's nostalgia for the turn of the 20th century: upon entering the park, the visitor must travel up a recreated Victorian American main street, or load on to one of the narrow-gauge steam trains. Perhaps, in addition to recognizing the capacity of Science Fiction to be serious entertainment, he also recognized that the Victorian Era was changing from the backwards past of our fathers to the gilded fairyland of our ancestors. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea banked on this, and art director Harper Goff created a riveted Nautilus on which could unfold the drama of humanity's uncertainty over unstoppable scientific power.
The wager paid off handsomely, and Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasies were ushered into the Atomic Age en masse. Disney, of course, milked 20,000 Leagues for everything that it was worth, advertising it over and over again on the Disneyland TV series, using its conclusion to introduce the Our Friend, The Atom documentary (including contrasting scale models of Goff’s Nautilus against the US Navy’s first atomic submarine), and creating a 20,000 Leagues exhibit of film props at his Disneyland Park. James Mason charted course on another Vernian epic in 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Ray Harryhausen animated The Mysterious Island in 1961 and The First Men in the Moon in 1964, topping those off with the mighty bronze Talos in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and the cowboys and dinosaurs film The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Vincent Price strayed from horror as an aeronautic version of Nemo in 1961’s Master of the World and returned for a combined Gothic Scientific Romance in 1965’s Poe-inspired War-Gods of the Deep. George Pal visited the distant future in the original version of The Time Machine, this time keeping the initial setting of this Wells tale. Disney delved back into the genre with the again excellently received Swiss Family Robinson, and then the less well received In Search of the Castaways. This 1962 outing was joined by Five Weeks in a Balloon, but the course for extraordinary voyages was charted by 1958's Around the World in 80 Days.
The comedic tone of the globe trotting Around the World set the stage for a series of satirical films towards the end of Victorian fantasy's Atomic Age. Blake Edwards, of Pink Panther fame, started it out in 1965 with The Great Race, which was joined later that same year by Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes. 1967 saw a similar film in Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon and in 1969, Magnificent Men had a direct conceptual sequel in Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (also known as Monte Carlo or Bust). The humor and length of the Victorian comedies (both Great Race and Magnificent Men average three hours, with intermission) were among the inspirations for the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The success of Disney's Victorian musical Mary Poppins was another.
Far away from the Hollywood and London film making scenes, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, was Czech auteur Karel Zeman. His distance from the engines of Walt Disney and George Pal gave him a uniquely European perspective on the writings of Jules Verne, creating what have come down as perhaps the most inspired films based on his work. Most advantageous were the visuals: while Harper Goff kept a Victorian look for his Nautilus, Zeman kept a Victorian steel engraving look for the whole of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958). Reviewers for the Science Fiction magazine Locus described it thusly:
Zeman lets out all the stops. This is a live-action black and white movie — but it uses every camera trick and every form of animation known in 1958... Methods include stop-motion, paper cutout, drawing and painting animation, drawn foregrounds and backdrops, dissolves, miniatures and models, double exposure (probably in-camera and superimposition), still images, traveling and stationary mattes — they're all here. There were at least eight people watching; someone yelled out at one point "There are at least seven different things going on in this scene!" (I counted eight.) And all this before the invention of blue screens!... There are lines drawn on sets, and even on people, to keep the original steel-engraving feel. The scenes of ships of the water have been treated with some sort of light, striped screen (probably cloth, probably double-exposed) that makes the moving waves of real water take on the appearance of the engraved lines in a 19th century drawing of the sea. There's a scene of a train coming down a track — the train is drawn; the wheels and the tracks are animated; the (real) engineer stands on an open platform in the engine's cab and (real) people lean out of the (drawn) passenger car. (It's so simple and powerful it takes your breath away.) Actors walk through back-projected sets; at the same time they're walking behind animated full-sized paper cutouts of spinning flywheels and meshing gears, all this in front of a painted set in the middle-background. For maybe five seconds of screen time. There's a scene of an animated shark attacking a real diver in a model set with painted water.This masterful mix of animation techniques resulted in films that not only brought Verne to modern day audiences, but looked like an original illustration from his novels come to life. Zeman has often, and rightly, been referred to as the heir of Georges Melies. Like Melies, Zeman did not create Science Fiction... He recreated genuine Scientific Romances.
The Fabulous World of Jules Verne - the magnum opus of these films - was based primarily on Verne's 1896 novel Facing the Flag, but it is to an extent as though it were based on his whole corpus. The combination of adventure on land, in the sea and through the sky was exactly the sort of thing that could have happened in a cosmos populated by Verne's creations. Fabulous World was followed by two proper Vernian adaptations in The Stolen Airship (1967) and On the Comet (1970). Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasy elements also appeared in other films of his, like Baron Munchhausen (1961).
As the 1960's drew to a close, so did the anxieties and culture that gave rise to the Atomic Age of Sci-Fi. Sputnik and the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went. The battlefield was no longer space and it wasn't being fought with lasers and atomic weapons... It was the forests of Vietnam, being fought by guerrillas, and the resulting MyLai massacres challenged America's status as the world's moral beacon. 1967 was the Summer of Love and 1969 was Woodstock (and the Stonewall Riots). 1969 was also the year when the Space Race culminated in the awe-inspiring and unparalleled moon landing, then sputtered into irrelevance. For a society embroiled in the greatest social and military revolutions since the end of World War II, both the scientific optimism and the dire atomic warnings of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were as dated as Verne's writings seemed at the beginning of the Great Depression. Yet the romance of the Victorian Era could not be escaped in its entirety, and several threads were fermenting that would, by the late 70's, mark the rebirth and eventual solidification of what would come to be known as Steampunk.
The term "Steampunk" itself came from one of these threads, as an outgrowth of the burgeoning genre of Cyberpunk. Blame or laud for the term goes to pioneer Cyberpunk author K.W. Jeter, who wrote the following letter to Locus in 1987:
Dear Locus,Michael Berry, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987, confirmed it:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in ‘the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate’ was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps...
Jeter, along with fellow novelists Tim Powers and James Blaylock, seems to be carving out a new sub-genre of science fiction with his new book. Whereas such authors as William Gibson, Michael Swanwick and Walter Jon Williams have explored the futuristic commingling of human being and computer in their ‘cyberpunk’ novels and stories, Jeter and his compatriots, whom he half-jokingly has dubbed ‘steampunks,’ are having a grand time creating wacko historical fantasies.This antiquated reimagining of Cyberpunk set 100 years in the past rather than 100 years in the future had its antecedents in the works of Ronald Clark, Christopher Priest, Philip Jose Farmer and Michael Moorcock. Moorcock's 1971 The Warlord of the Air began charting the territory, followed by his sequels in the collectively titled A Nomad of the Timestreams. Harry Harrison's 1972 novel A Transatlantic Tunnel Hurrah followed suit, as did comic writer and artist Bryan Talbot with The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in 1972 (to which he returned in 1999's Heart of Empire) and a stint on Nemesis the Warlock in the mid-1980's. Philip Jose Farmer introduced his "Wold Newton Family" - a pastiche that linked a good number of Victorian and Pulp characters to a fictional meteor impact at Wold Newton - with the pseudo-biographies Tarzan Alive in 1972, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life and The Other Log of Phileas Fogg both in 1973. As early as 1967, during the Atomic Age of Retro-Victorian film, historical biographer Ronald W. Clark drew many of the figures he wrote about into an alternate reality tale of a 19th century atomic bomb in Queen Victoria's Bomb.
The work for which Jeter coined the term Steampunk, and which Moorcock et. al. prefigured, was that of himself and his friends and fellow authors James Blaylock and Tim Powers. Jeter, as indicated in his letter to Locus, started it off with a Wellsian pastiche titled Morlock Night in 1979 and followed it up with Infernal Devices in 1987. Powers contributed The Anubis Gates in 1983, On Stranger Tides in 1987 and The Stress of Her Regard in 1989. Blaylock published Homunculus in 1986 and Lord Kelvin's Machine in 1992. This initial triumvate was soon followed by Paul Di Filippo's The Steampunk Trilogy, Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice, and Diane Duane's To Visit the Queen (also about nuclear arms in the hands of the Victorian British Empire) amongst others.
Perhaps the most popular and well known of these novels also inadvertently legitimized the label Steampunk. In 1990, celebrated Cyberpunk stalwarts William Gibson and Bruce Sterling co-wrote The Difference Engine. Working more feverishly with the Cyberpunk tropes they themselves helped establish, Gibson and Sterling created a gritty mid-Victorian world in which Charles Babbage, the real-life British mathematician-engineer, was able to realize his plans of a programmable, mechanical, analog computer. The Information Age met the Steam Age as the computer revolution happened a century earlier than it did in our world, with the consequent deleterious effects on society, politics and individuals. Though Gibson exclaimed that "I'll be happy just as long as they don't label this one. There's been some dire talk of 'steampunk' but I don't think it's going to stick." the name did indeed stick. Steampunk was as official as if it had been stamped by the Queen herself.
In reviewing The Anubis Gates, Sci-Fi critic John Clute deftly noted that the inspiration for this literary Steampunk came not from Jules Verne so much as from Charles Dickens (and his later imitators), who wrote of industrialized urban London. His commentary is worth quoting at length:
There is no getting away from the man who invented steampunk. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) may not be mentioned by name anywhere in The Anubis Gates (1983), but his shaping presence can be felt everywhere in the populous chortling shadows of the London of 1810 to which the twentieth-century hero of Tim Powers's time-travel fantasy travels, never to return. It does not much matter that Powers sets his tale in a time Dickens could never have directly experienced, and of which he never wrote, because novels like Oliver Twist (1837-1839), which depicts a London not dissimilar to that explored by Brendan Doyle, are a kind of apotheosis of the supernatural melodrama popular at the beginning of the century, so that Dickins's Fagin and Powers's Horrabin share a common source in gran guignol. Similarly, the Gothic fever-dreams of such writers as Monk Lewis or Charles Maturin can be seen to underpin the oneiric inscapes of the greatest achievements of Dickens - Bleak House (1852-53) or Little Dorrit (1855-1857) or Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) - those novels in which the nightmare of London attains lasting and horrific form, though it is almost certainly the case that Eugene Sue's The Mysteries of Paris (1844) developed the "Mysteries" plot - in which the City becomes an almost animate and deeply theatrical edifice - in a more directly useful and definite manner. For Dickens, that nightmare of London may be a prophetic vision of humanity knotted into the subterranean entrails of the city machine, while for Powers the London of 1810 may be a form of nostalgia, a dream theatre for the elect to star in, buskined and immune; but at the heart of both writers' work glow the lineaments of the last world city.Though Clute teasingly lauded Gibson and Sterling for the "tough job" of "making London in 1855 worse than it was in fact", he and his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction co-author Peter Nicholls picked up very early on the fact that there has always been a strain of nostalgia to Steampunk. The gilded fairyland of our ancestors which Walt Disney banked on was still present beneath the layers of Dickensian soot and grime. Clute continued:
Between Dickens and Powers, of course, much water has flowed down the filthy Thames. Between steampunk - a term which can be used to describe any sf novel set in any version of the previous century from which entropy has been banned as a metaphorical governor of the alternate industrial revolution of choice - and the desolate expressionism of its true founder lies what one might call Babylon-upon-Thames-punk. Fin de siecle writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and G K Chesterton attempted to domesticate Dickens's London by transforming it into a kind of Arabian Nights themepark capable of encompassing (and taming) all the strangenesses that an Empire in pullulant decline could possibly import. Even H G Wells was sometimes capable of quasi-Dickensian sentiment (as in novels like Love and Mr. Lewisham ) about the London he more normally wished utterly to destroy. That this enterprise of domestication was deeply suspect, most writers of Babylon-upon-Thames-punk knew full well, and as a result much of what they wrote gave off an air of bad-faith complacency, uneasy nostalgia, weird inanimation. It is from their doomed enterprise (and from other sources as well) that contemporary steampunk authors like K W Jeter and Powers and James Blaylock and others have borrowed not only a vision of a talismanic city, but also (it must be said) some of the complacency and diseased nostalgia of the epigones who thought to tame Dickens.
...Powers has invented a tale of paradise, where entropy lies down with the lamb and the steam yachts always run on time. In The Anubis Gates he has written a book of almost preternatural geniality, a book which it is possible (rare praise) to love. Let us all, it suggests, co-inhabit the Christmas London of Brendan Doyle, and gape like children at the pageant of the world-stage of his triumphs. We do. He is having the time of his life. We join him.Nicholls articulated what this fantastic London signified for Steampunk authors:
...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... It is as if, for a handful of sf writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor.Tat Wood, writer for the sometimes Steampunk prefiguring TV series Doctor Who, suggested that "Americans, especially in the era of Reagan, believed time and space to be interchangeable and West = Future, hence the genuine belief of American tourists that Britain is still physically in the 19th century." London, and by extension the British Empire and the Victorian Era, was a temporal, historical and physical ground zero at which the Industrial and pre-Industrial ages met, be it in the hordes of former English rural farmers migrating to London or wealthy Londoners vacationing along the mountainous rail lines of India and Canada.
One contributor to the CyberpunkReview.com message boards opined that:
I think Steampunk denigrates cyberpunk merely by it's association with it. Cyberpunk is at the hard end of science fiction, realistic depictions and intense focus on future technology. Steampunk is so much at the soft end it's falling out of the science fiction genre altogether leaking into fantasy.Much literature of the genre - like the acclaimed Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council by China Miéville or the anti-C.S. Lewis His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman - explored the frontiers of "Fantasy Steampunk" in the late 1990's and early 21st century. Joining them was painter James Gurney and his Dinotopia saga, including Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time and Dinotopia: The World Beneath.
Softer yet was another strand of Retro-Victorian Science Fantasy found in the role-playing game (or RPG) circuit. In 1988, Paul Chadwick created Space: 1889, an RPG scenario in which Thomas Edison ventured to Mars on an ether-flyer and opened the inner solar system to colonial exploration. The main pretense of the game - which expanded into several supplements, board games and a computer game - was that Victorian theories about the cosmos in general and the solar system in particular were correct, so that explorers could fly on ether currents between the primitive world of Venus or the dying world of Mars, sandwiched between the newly-formed Mercury and the disintegrated planet of the Asteroid Belt. Space: 1889 ceased publication in 1991, but the mantle was picked up by the fantasy game Castle Falkenstein (named for King Ludwig II of Bavaria's unbuilt castle). Taking place in the Steam Age of the alternate world of New Europa, Falkenstein mixed fairies, magic and mythical creatures in with its steam-powered insanity. Heliograph Inc. obtained the rights to republish the Space: 1889 RPG, as well as its newsletter Transactions of the Royal Martian Geographical Society, the Journal of Victorian Era Role Playing and Marcus Roland's shareware Forgotten Futures. Steve Jackson Games obtained the license to republish Castle Falkenstein as a supplement to their GURPS RPG system, and joined that with their sourcebook Steampunk. GURPS Steampunk won the Origins Award for Best RPG Supplement in 2000, sold out and was followed up by their Steam-Tech book of weird inventions and weapons and a horror-Steampunk supplement called Screampunk.
This nostalgia and "soft end" of Science Fiction found an even greater flowering in the far more public trickling of Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasies back into movie theatres. These films were completely unconnected to the parallel development of Steampunk in Sci-Fi literature, and unapologetically looked back to Jules Verne rather than Charles Dickens. A 1972 film entitled The Asphyx had the death-spirit of each person trapped in a strange Victorian contraption. This was followed by Disney's return with 1974's commercial failure Island at the Top of the World. Despite questionable dinosaur effects, 1975’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land that Time Forgot was a surprise hit that inspired the same company to produce At the Earth’s Core in 1976 and The People that Time Forgot in 1977. In the same year that Morlock Night was published, H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper visited swinging 70's San Francisco in Time After Time. Wil Vinton's Claymation technique was applied to the brilliant, beautiful, melancholy and moving children's film The Adventures of Mark Twain in 1986. Stephen Spielberg played with it in 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes and Terry Gilliam followed in the footsteps of Karel Zeman with 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly and Chrisopher Lloyd's Doc Brown returned to the Old West in Back to the Future Part III (1990), with a time traveling steam train and plenty of overt homages to Jules Verne in tow.
Ironically, this second wave of Retro-Victorian cinema peaked at the turn of the millennium, beginning with a film that was generally panned by critics and fans alike, but which became the most well-known public face of the genre for some time. By 1999, Will Smith - former rapper and star of Fresh Prince of Bel Air - had become a hot commodity for summer action movies, importing his street-savy "Fresh Prince" persona to police action movies (Bad Boys), alien action movies (Independence Day, Men in Black) and political action movies (Enemy of the State). Warner Bros. were looking for another big money summer vehicle for Smith, and it came in the form of an adaptation of the 60's TV series Wild, Wild West.
Unfortunately, while Smith was big, adaptations of 60's TV shows were bigger and the budget was Warner's biggest of all time, Wild Wild West itself was a critical flop. Critic Roger Ebert stated that it was "a comedy dead zone. You stare in disbelief as scenes flop and die. The movie is all concept and no content; the elaborate special effects are like watching money burn on the screen." Despite the best efforts of Smith, the cheesecake factor of female interest Salma Hayek, and the capable acting of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Brannagh, this brainless summer blockbuster was carried entirely by the concept.
As a concept however... a special effects laden adventure in Wild West-themed mad science gone awry... it perfectly encapsulated the aesthetic of the genre. Many a Steampunk fan swallowed their pride and, with a wince, forced themselves to tell people who asked that Wild Wild West was a bad example, but an example nonethelss. At the same time, Disney jumped back into the arena with a 1999 take on Tarzan, the 2001 Edwardian adventure Atlantis: The Lost Empire and an inventive 2002 fusion of Robert Louis Stevenson's 18th century seafaring with high end Sci-Fi in Treasure Planet. The way for these films was paved by the retro-futuristic remodelling of Disneyland's Tomorrowland in 1998, moving from the stark white of NASA into the gold and copper motifs of Verne and Da Vinci, taking a page from Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland, opened in 1992.
On the TV screen, cheap, hour-long Sci-Fi and Fantasy shows were springing up from the seed planted by Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World was given the treatment in a WWI-era show while B-movie maestro Bruce Campbell lent himself to both he Napoleonic Jack of All Trades and the Wild West Adventures of Brisco County Jr.. Usually these shows weren't very good, and the best of them was the Canadian production The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. Doctor Who was given a 1996 trial-run on American television in a made-for-TV movie that fulfilled Tat Wood's objection by making the good Doctor and his time traveling TARDIS a thuroughly Victorian creation.
Wild Wild West was the public face of what was coming to be known as Steampunk. Within the fandom, however, the most significant work of Steampunk fiction became the comic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Nothing before had created as much buzz or interest in the genre as this creation of writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O'Neil. League featured a pastiche of various Victorian characters drawn together by the British government to defeat all threats against her. Mina Murray (of Dracula fame), Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, under the tutelage of Campion Bond and the mysterious "M" (in a typically richly veiled James Bond reference) first rescued the anti-gravity metal "Cavorite" (familiar from H.G.Wells' First Men in the Moon) from Fu-Manchu. The second series, which ended this initial Victorian cycle (Moore promises further adventures with the Leagues of different eras) pitted the Extraordinary Gentlemen against the Martian invaders of War of the Worlds with a little help from Dr. Moreau.
Moore's name - already legendary amongst comic book fans - ensured that League would be a success. But few guessed that it would be one of the biggest successes of his career and catapult the genre that reviewers attached to the work - Steampunk - from a sideshow to the feature presentation. The series itself was a remarkable feat: between the comic stories themselves and the prose supplementary features (a pulp starring Alan Quatermain, H.P. Lovecraft's Randolph Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Carter of Mars, and Wells' Time Traveler for the first and a global gazetteer for the second), the exhaustive encyclopedic references to British fiction made it a veritable Steampunk bible. While there was a certain sarcasm to the comics, it still wove a high-tempo story that brought together the strains of British and American Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasy.
League also came at the exact right time... This critical mass of Retro-Victorianism coincided with the real emergence of the Internet into the popular consciousness. The Internet, with its plethora of message boards, websites and e-mail groups, enabled Steampunk to coalesce from its varied strands by allowing individuals from all walks of life and fandom to find common ground in what was ultimately a shared love of Retro-Victorian Scientific Fantasies, whatever their form. Cyberpunks were already considering Steampunk to be a dead genre so far as their literary interests were concerned, but the name itself served as an elegantly simple (and pleasingly edgy and alternative-sounding) name for what Clute described as "any sf... set in any version of the previous century from which entropy has been banned as a metaphorical governor of the alternate industrial revolution of choice." The increasing popularity and availability of anime brought in the "Otaku" who were enthralled with Japan's many and varied Steampunk franchises like Castle in the Sky, Howl's Moving Castle, Robot Carnival, Steamboy, Sakura Wars, Last Exile, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and Escaflowne, as well as Japan's Elegant Gothic Lolita and Elegant Gothic Aristocrat fashion. Lingering admirers of true Cyberpunkian Steampunk met with the die-hard gamers of Space: 1889, who shared ideas with Boomer fans of the old Atomic Age films and the young arrivals drawn in by Wild Wild West and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Steampunk's increasingly public profile and Internet presence brought in more people from the Gothic, Cyberpunk and Rivethead lifestyles, who in turn brought their interest in music and fashion. These interweaving strands of Steampunk were suddenly being given a look and a sound thanks to D.I.Y. fashionistas and musicians like Abney Park and Vernian Process. Tinkerers and artists, like Crabfu Steamworks and the creators of the Neverwas Haul had also been discovering Steampunk.
While several websites, databases and e-mail groups had existed previously, the Internet presence of Steampunk reached a critical mass with the creation of The Steampunk Forum. This message board served as an outgrowth of the Brass Goggles weblog - purporting to chronicle "the lighter side of Steampunk" - and the Aether Emporium user-edited "wiki" encyclopedia. Indicative of its role as an online catalyst, The Steampunk Forum gained over 600 members within two months of officially opening in late February of 2007, an unprecedented number. The board also served as the main stage for an often vicious and personal debate over the nature and definition of Steampunk.
The genesis of the controversy can be traced to the sentiment behind a 2007 Wired interview with Jake von Slatt, one of the preeminent spokespeople of the new Steampunk subculture:
The Victorian era was really the last era in which a high school graduate was given the complete set of scientific concepts to fully understand the technology of the age," von Slatt says. "Because of this, part of what I wanted to do was to co-opt the term 'steampunk' and imbue it with this DIY component. DIY wasn't part of the definition of steampunk … but I wanted it to be.This admitted co-option led to a debate between older and newer fans over the extent to which a DIY and Punk ethos was necessary, required or even wanted of Steampunk. The view that they were, championed by "makers" such as Jake von Slatt and Datamancer and media such as Steampunk Magazine, won out in short order and the dynamics of Steampunk as a subcultural movement were regimented.
One of the clearest articulations of this new ethic was voiced by the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective in the first issue of Steampunk Magazine:
Steampunk is a re-envisioning of the past with the hypertechnological perceptions of the present. Unfortunately, most so-called “steampunk” is simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia: the stifling tea-rooms of Victorian imperialists and faded maps of colonial hubris. This kind of sepia-toned yesteryear is more appropriate for Disney and suburban grandparents than it is for a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.They continue:
Too much of what passes as steampunk denies the punk, in all of its guises. Punk—the fuse used for lighting cannons. Punk—the downtrodden and dirty. Punk—the aggressive, do-it-yourself ethic. We stand on the shaky shoulders of opium-addicts, aesthete dandies, inventors of perpetual motion machines, mutineers, hucksters, gamblers, explorers, madmen and bluestockings. We laugh at experts and consult moth-eaten tomes of forgotten possibilities. We sneer at utopias while awaiting the new ruins to reveal themselves. We are a community of mechanical magicians enchanted by the real world and beholden to the mystery of possibility. We do not have the luxury of niceties or the possession of politeness; we are rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow. Our corsets are stitched with safety pins and our top hats hide vicious mohawks. We are fashion’s jackals running wild in the tailor shop.Speculation suggests that part of the reason for this idea was that much of the new audience for Steampunk came from a background of alternative and counter-cultural movements such as Punk, Goth-Industrial, and DIY hobby groups, rather than from a background in Science Fiction and role-playing game fandom (and thus marginalizing, consciously and unconsciously, the latter). However, as a direct consequence of Steampunk gaining popularity as an alternative, counter-cultural movement, it gained the notice of the mainstream media and cultural consciousness. Google Trends, an engine that tracks searches for and instances of a term on Google over time, records an exponential rise in the term "steampunk" over 2007 and into 2008. Steampunk was regularly featured in Wired, Boing Boing, Gizmodo, Forbes, Spin, the New York Times, and other newpapers, television programs and talk radio outlets.
Ironically, as a New York Times piece on Steampunk was published, Bruce Sterling prophesied the impending "death of steampunk" on account of its recognition by a newspaper of the highest echelon. This was one sentiment amongst many ambiguous and conflicting opinions surrounding the emergence of Steampunk as a subculture. Complaints of it being co-opted by the mainstream culture were answered by complaints that it already had been co-opted by the alternative culture movement. Meanwhile, non-Steampunk culture began reacting against the Steampunk trend through criticisms on forums like Boing Boing and Metafilter, articles like Randy Nakamura's Steampunk'd, Or Humbug by Design and satirical videos such as Merlin Mann's Steampunk DIY, in which he critiqued the self-aggrandizing rhetoric of the Steampunk movement by describing at length his credentials as a DIY enthusiast by way of a "Steampunk" masturbatory device (or put more simply, the assertion that Steampunks are wankers).
Most telling, perhaps, was that newer movies that could be legitimately described as Steampunk were avoiding that designation. Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel The Prestige was adapted into one of two period films about Victorian stage magicians released in 2006 (the other being the vastly inferior The Illusionist). Advertisements which presented it as a story about rival magicians (played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) vying for the affections of an assistant (Scarlett Johansson) did it a gross disservice. Instead, The Prestige is an exceptional exploration into obsession and revenge which leads one of the magicians to the doorstep of David Bowie’s Nikola Tesla. Two Oscar nominations for art direction and cinematography made it perhaps the best genre film out of Hollywood since Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Prior to that, the 2002 remake of The Time Machine, Universal Studios' monster-revamping Van Helsing and the 2003 adaptation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (or "LXG") were effectively ignored, having been just ahead of Steampunk's breaking into mainstream awareness. Unfortunately for LXG, a shoddy script that departed significantly from the original comic served to alienate both an uninterested public and fans of Moore's work. 2007's The Golden Compass, adapting the first book of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, was more honest about its Steampunk influences but withered under religious controversy.
Much like the predecessors to literary Steampunk, a great deal of the public presence of Steampunk is found in influences that are played off against other genres. Emergent Steampunk fashion is like this, with Steampunk and Victorian influences on (or variations of) what is otherwise standard Gothic, Cyber, Punk and Rivet style. Video games are another major area: Steampunk in one form or another is exploited in numerous games including the Final Fantasy, Thief, Tomb Raider, City of Heroes, Breath of Fire, Magic: The Gathering, The Elder Scrolls, Warcraft, Ultima, Myst, Castlevania, Ragnarok Online and Second Life franchises. One properly Steampunk game that received some press was Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, which the comic strip PVP humorously summarized as "dwarves with guns!"
However, in the underground, Steampunk fulfilled Jeter's prognostications largely amongst those who produced works with little to no conscious recognition that they were creating "Steampunk". That musicians like Vernian Process and Abney Park were even attempting something like "Steampunk music" testified to it, as did the informal designation of the term "Sepiachord", applied by the online journal of the same name, to musicians and performance artists reflecting Steampunk interests. In 2007, the French band Dionysos released a concept album, La Mécanique du Coeur, telling the story of a boy with a clockwork heart. The highly artisic 1995 French film The City of Lost Children followed in the European Steampunk tradition and set the stage for other art-film experiments like the award-winning (and Academy Award nominated) Australian Mysterious Geographical Explorations of Jasper Morello series of animated shorts. Blur Studios also created a computer generated short about a British and a French aristocrat battling with steam-powered robots over the affections of a buxom young lady in A Gentlemen's Duel. Mike Mignola, whose Hellboy and Batman: Gotham by Gaslight comics have Steampunk influences, wrote and drew the very odd Amazing of Screw-On Head, which was later picked up by the Sci-Fi Network as a pilot. Steampunk has proven to be a perennial favorite of DC Comics' Elseworlds line, which puts various superheroes in alternate realities. Comic publisher IDW chose Steampunk as the setting for their first Transformers: Evolutions series, Hearts of Steel, which turned the popular 80's toy and cartoon characters into steam trains and zeppelins. Studio Foglio's Girl Genius comic has remained popular, even after transitioning from print to online.
The cultural imprint of Steampunk continues to grow as the aesthetic fuels events in different venues, such as the Dances of Vice Festival, the Contraptors' Lounge at the 2008 Maker Faire, and the Malediction Society nightclub in Los Angeles. The aesthetic fueling events and fashion lent itself out to the exercise of DIY projects that regularly made the news. One of the first was the Steampunk Treehouse, making appearances at the Burning Man festival where Steampunk is becoming more and more common. The Forevertron, a massive roadside scrap metal sculpture park built by Tom "Dr. Evermore" Every, attracted much attention. A popular subject was the modification of computer cases and devices with a Steampunk aesthetic, including ongoing projects featured on von Slatt's Steampunk Workshop and Datamancer's weblogs.
As a subcultural exercise, the future of Steampunk is essentially forged in iron as it prepares to move through the same cultural life cycle that affected its predecessor cultures of Goth, Punk and Rivet. The pattern begins with a lengthy period of exploration and development falling under the cultural radar until it is "discovered" or "consolidated". This phase sees a sharp rise in both underground and mainstream attention as the culture escalates rapidly towards its critical mass. Steampunk's present standing of attracting new adherents, a flourishing "scene" landscape and acting as the latest "alternative" trend charted by media outlets reflects this phase. A plateau will eventually be reached in which the essential tropes, rhetoric and style of the culture become immovably codified and the system runs on automatically through a period of stagnation. Early adopters who entered at the beginning of the consolidation phase will, with cries of the culture being found out and sold out, give way to the early majority who segue the transition to the formalized and stagnant version of the culture as pioneered by the early adopters. As if on queue, Disney picked up on the market with a franchise entitled The Mechanical Kingdom in 2010, featuring Mickey Mouse and company in identifiably Steampunk outfits: sepia tones, goggles, and the other accoutrements. Following this is inevitable decline as subsequent generations find the subculture irrelevant to their needs, interests, tastes and values, finding an appeal only amongst the hangers-on, latest majority and cultural laggards for whom Steampunk will itself be "retro-2000's".
What bearing this development, consolidation, stagnation and decline of a Steampunk subculture will have on Retro-Victorian Science Fiction remains to be seen. Given that the genre has persisted in ebbs and flows since the Victorian Era itself, it is easy to imagine that it will go nowhere far in the coming decades. This nostalgic fairyland of Verne, Wells, Melies, Disney and Zeman in which "entropy lies down with the lamb" will resist that entropy as well as its fantastical contents do. As long as modern society exists, its crucible in the 1900's will be an arena for self-examination.
Brownlee, John. "Mr. Steampunk: Jake von Slatt". Wired. http://www.wired.com/culture/design/news/2007/06/vonslatt.
Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective (NYC). "What Then, Is Steampunk?" Steampunk Magazine. Issue 1.
CyberpunkReview.com. "Steampunk?" http://www.cyberpunkreview.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=21&highlight=steampunk.
Clute, John. Look at the Evidence. Liverpool University Press 1996.
Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Orbit 1999.
Bennett, Rod. VOYAGES EXTRAORDINAIRES ON FILM: A Survey of Fireside Science Fiction, Part One – to 1965. http://www.cornerstonemag.com/imaginarium/fest/2004/firesidesf/index.htm.
Person, Lawrence and Waldrop, Howard. "Fabulous World of Jules Verne", Locus Online. http://locusmag.com/2004/Reviews/10_WaldropPerson_Verne.html.
Bennett, Rod. VOYAGES EXTRAORDINAIRES ON FILM: A Survey of Fireside Science Fiction, Part One – to 1965. http://www.cornerstonemag.com/imaginarium/fest/2004/firesidesf/index.htm.
Nevins, Jess. "Introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk," Steampunk. Tachyon Publications 2008.
For appreciators of Steampunk prior to its breaking into the mainstream as an alternative culture, that discovery was, at best, a mixed blessing. At worst, it was an utter loss. Arguably, the last "golden age" for Steampunk was the turn of the millenium. Those closing years of the 1990's and opening years of the 2000's saw the rapid release of Wild Wild West, Back to the Future Part III, Disney's Tarzan, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet into theatres, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and the Doctor Who revival on television, GURPS Steampunk and Forgotten Futures into RPG store and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volumes I and II and Steampunk into comic shoppes. Notice that nearly every one of these qualifies as being mainstream, but also that nearly all failed in a bid for mainstream acceptance.
The irony is that mainstream acceptance would have to wait for Steampunk to develop into a "counter-culture" lifestyle. So long as Steampunk was a Science Fiction genre of limited resonance with most people, it would languish in relative obscurity. The succor was that the relative acceptance of Steampunk was a matter of indifference to most fans. The only concern was the number of things available to fuel that interest, the number of tales told to spark our own imaginations.
In the course of a one-year period, that changed entirely. It was that sudden, beginning no earlier than 2006 and being solidified by the close of 2007. It was a Devil's bargain was well, as Steampunk gained mainstream attention as a genre by trading in its qualifications as a genre for the badge of a lifestyle. Some of the means were relatively innocuous, such as the development of a Steampunk fashion out of the needs of RPG and anime convention cosplayers by way of Goth and Cyber fashionistas, or the development of a Steampunk "style" of music by such synthpop bands as Abney Park and Vernian Process (himself an old time Steampunk). Others were less so.
The dynamic creating the most problems was the infusion of Do-It-Yourself and Punk attitudes. Previously, there had been discussion as to how attractive and desirable the name "Steampunk" actually was, since most adherents had little interest in Punk as a movement. They won the debate in retrospect since the name held and became the basis on which to "put the 'Punk' back in 'Steampunk'", which is to say, putting the Punk into Steampunk for the first time and changing what it had meant into what it would come to mean.
Reordering Steampunk to affect these elements first and most notably changed what was being discussed. New and old favorite books, films, and comics, as well as true life excursions into far-flung locales and lessons in Victorian history surrendered to an endless stream of fashion photoshoots and craft projects...the accoutrements and accessories of a culture more amenable to Goth, Cyber, Rivet and Punk subcultures, of which Steampunk became the newest, hippest, least original and least interesting variation.
That in-itself is not so much a concern. There is nothing at all wrong with DIY projects in themselves, rightly understood as the expression of a personal artistic vision according to one's own habits and interests, as neutral as anyone else's tendencies to home rennovation, scrapbooking, painting, sewing and needlepoint, flower arranging, cosplaying, and so on. That may be taken simply as a logical extension of an interest in Steampunk as a genre and aesthetic.
The transformative innovation was in putting the Punk into Steampunk, attaching a social theory to it that aspired to revolution and instead created a pithy subcultural scene with pretenses of greatness. According to the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective in the first issue of Steampunk Magazine:
Steampunk is a re-envisioning of the past with the hypertechnological perceptions of the present. Unfortunately, most so-called “steampunk” is simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia: the stifling tea-rooms of Victorian imperialists and faded maps of colonial hubris. This kind of sepia-toned yesteryear is more appropriate for Disney and suburban grandparents than it is for a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.After that initial lob over the bow of what Steampunk had been, they continue:
Too much of what passes as steampunk denies the punk, in all of its guises. Punk—the fuse used for lighting cannons. Punk—the downtrodden and dirty. Punk—the aggressive, do-it-yourself ethic. We stand on the shaky shoulders of opium-addicts, aesthete dandies, inventors of perpetual motion machines, mutineers, hucksters, gamblers, explorers, madmen and bluestockings. We laugh at experts and consult moth-eaten tomes of forgotten possibilities. We sneer at utopias while awaiting the new ruins to reveal themselves. We are a community of mechanical magicians enchanted by the real world and beholden to the mystery of possibility. We do not have the luxury of niceties or the possession of politeness; we are rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow. Our corsets are stitched with safety pins and our top hats hide vicious mohawks. We are fashion’s jackals running wild in the tailor shop.It is a lot of dramatic talk amidst an overuse of the first person plural pronoun. The flaw of it is in the question of exactly what good has Punk really been to anybody. Where does Punk weigh in the balance compared to legitimate movements in criminal, social, economic and environmental justice? One would be perfectly justified in asking who has really done more good, a million Punk bands or a million black men marching on Washington? A million people "raising consciousness" at Burning Man or a million people organizing to secure universal suffrage and universal health care? Did Steampunk actually gain any viability and vibrancy in the deal?
Punk shares the same affliction as every other bohemian movement before it, from La Bohemme to the Hippies to those coloured rubber bracelets meant to demonstrate that one has the "right" feelings about a trendy cause. Comprised primarily of the most enfranchised members of society, their alienation and malaise has reached such a critical point that they consider adopting an alternative aesthetic to be a relevant revolutionary act while romanticising the legitimately class-oppressed. It is those ensconced in the mainstream who can think of no other course of action but to realize their sentiments through middle class materialism. This is especially true of the Steampunk subculture, which is primarily a theory of material goods and their aquisition. It is a deeply materialistic culture even as it claims to eschew the aesthetics and values of modern corporate consumer capitalism. That it enshrines the maker over the buyer, the creator over the consumer is a largely irrelevant point. That it is not recognized as irrelevant is only evidence of how engrained the proponents of Steampunk are in the mechanisms of materialism.
On this count, Steampunk is truly Victorian. Steampunk rhetoric is often criticised as being far removed from the values of the Victorian Era they claim to emulate, but that is only true on the superficial level. Steampunks claim that they stand in contrast to the deadening processes of mass production by their works of individual craftsmanship in echo of the Victorian exultation of the finely crafted work of master artisans and inventor-engineers. In the Victorian Era, however, those who espoused such values were the likes of the Luddites and the Arts and Crafts Movement, which despised the advent of modern machinery, the steam engine, the engineer's shop, and sought to emulate what they thought was a better, purer and simpler time. The authours of Scientific Romances were intensely critical of technology, including Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and anytime a Steampunk states otherwise, one is lead to wonder if they have ever read the authours from whose ideas they claim an inheritance. As Jess Nevins noted in his excellent essay in the Steampunk anthology, the Steampunk-like admiration for technology was found in literature and example most intertwined with values of commerce, capital and imperialism, such as the dime novel "Edisonades" and the Crystal Palace exhibition.
However, what Steampunks share most intensely with the Victorians is a fascination with things, with objects, with accumulation. The highest value it aspires to is that one's objects are of one's own creation, and does not look beyond the whole artifice of objects. It is secular par excellence, unconcerned with outward dimensions of spirituality and inward dimensions of emotion in favour of material goods. Curiously, this reflects the problem with revolutionary tendencies in a broader sense. Romanticism was born out of the failure of the American and French revolutions to create meaningful and lasting change. The problem, they felt, was its exteriority, that it was only about changing structures and not about changing people. Consider the closing refrains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's France: an Ode:
The Sensual and the Dark rebel in vain,This same pattern is reflected on a much smaller scale in the development of Post-Punk and Goth out of Punk, and more recently of Emo out of Hardcore. One can only sustain being angry about structures so long before it becomes emotionally and spiritually unsatisfying, or even damaging. After Punk failed, sputtered and died, which it did, it is understandable that the Post-Punks would seek out more dynamic, nuanced and multifaceted experience. Perhaps "post-Steampunk" will be more interesting, and I wonder if "Scientific Romanticism" is as "pre-Steampunk" as I suppose and not a form of "post-Steampunk". Thankfully one suspects that most people identifying with Steampunk have their head on straight about it, keep the objects in context and approach it more as a fun and interesting diversion or exploration of internal emotional and spiritual themes than as a desperately important revolutionary movement. Most are surely decent people, with only the voiciferous few making one sick to their stomach.
Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game
They burst their manacles and wear the name
Of Freedom, graven on a heavier chain!
O Liberty! with profitless endeavour
Have I pursued thee, many a weary hour;
But thou nor swell'st the victor's strain, nor ever
Didst breathe thy soul in forms of human power.
Alike from all, howe'er they praise thee,
(Nor prayer, nor boastful name delays thee)
Alike from Priestcraft's harpy minions,
And factious Blasphemy's obscener slaves,
Thou speedest on thy subtle pinions,
The guide of homeless winds, and playmate of the waves!
And there I felt thee! -on that sea-cliff's verge,
Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,
Had made one murmur with the distant surge!
Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,
And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,
Possessing all things with intensest love,
O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.
One must still conetnd with the revolutionaries who spoil the broth and create the gastrointestinal upset. One of the reasons that revolutions fail where social justice works is the emotional, spiirtual and structural holism that social justice embraces which is rejected by revolutions, which only seek to change the structures. Revolutions change the rulers, not the rules. These simple-minded revolutionary tendencies are best served by a naieve, unnuanced Manichaean dialectic view of the world. An assumed "us" versus an imagined "them".
The "us" versus "them" dialectic is pronounced in Steampunk and form the core narrative of a preference for hand-made, DIY craftsmanship versus the souless, mass produced objects of corporate consumer capitalism. Invariably this translates into Steampunks as people being more enlightened, deeper, generally better human beings than the "mainstream sheep" they despise. Perusal of any major Steampunk forum will reveal a hand-wrenching "critique" of mainstream society and a desperate fear of being "discovered" by it, devolving into an unflattering mutual reaffirmation of their shared "contempt for the common man".
The publication of any mainstream media article is an opportunity for Steampunks to voice their contempt for the plebian rabble, which is as ironic as it is obnoxious. The majority of people complaining about Steampunk being discovered are those who only discovered it themselves from 2005 onwards, meaning that they are decrying the very mainstream popularity that enabled them to learn about Steampunk to begin with. Compared to when Steampunk received no media attention whatsoever, it is easy enough to see how the transformation of Steampunk into an object-based lifestyle gave the media something more concrete to grab ahold of than the wistful pursuit of a handful of gamers and literary types. That it is an "alternative" subculture is what makes it interesting to the mainstream, including all the mainstream individuals who suddenly discovered that they were Steampunks all their lives and filed into line.
It shouldn't have to be said, but saddly does, that like any revolutionary dialectic, it is built on a straw man argument. Steampunks' view of the mainstream, of which they are more often than not themselves a part, is elitist and judgemental, uninterested in what actually goes on in the lives, personalities, ideals, beliefs, and practices of the massive lump of "everybody else". That may lend itself to thinking that their own craft projects are of revolutionary importance, since apparently nobody else does anything except consume mass produced objects like sheep (whereas if they were individuals they would wear leather, tophats and goggles). It does not say much of Steampunks and their rhetoric, which one user of The Steampunk Forum described as a "shitfeast".
Therein may lie the critical difference between a revolution and a social justice movement. A social justice movement is egalitarian, seeking to open up opportunity and enfranchisement for the greatest number of people, whether it has to do with votes, lunch counters or health care. Counter-cultural revolutions seek to uphold the status of the elite above the rabble surrounding them. Whether or not it helps anybody or does any overall good is irrelevant to keeping a certain group in the know, "enlightened", "saved". In Steampunk parlance, it is the difference between the "doers" and the "talkabouters". Even within Steampunk, there are the Steampunker-than-thou.
So far as that goes, Steampunks deserve the disdain of others... The same others they are so quick to disdain themselves. One has to admire the utter lack of self-awareness required for the snit thrown by Steampunks on the publication of Randy Nakamura's Design Observer critique, as though they were innocent of critiquing others. Can one blame the commentors on BoingBoing and Metafilter for being sick of and embarrassed for Steampunk, or Merlin Mann for his masturbatory allegory?
Steampunk DIY from Merlin Mann on Vimeo.
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton observes that the best way to respond to insanity is not with a rational argument, but with an open window. In the terms ofa friend of mine, the best response to whenever a Steampunk complains about the mainstream sheep discovering their scene and their enlightened critique of empty consumer values is a swift admonition to "fuck off".