I’d like to preface this by pleading that I have tried. I really have. I have watched many steampunk proponents wandering around in their elegant outfits, looking like they fell through a warp hole in 1840’s metropolitan England. I observed their special vehicles and modified instruments, I have visited their shops and heard their music, and even though the whole “movement” is technically just beginning, I am officially done. I hate steampunk.
I do not hate the concepts behind steampunk – rather, I find them quite interesting. Steampunk, for you odd few innocents, examines a world where either the invention of electricity and modern mechanics have not occurred yet, or an alternative present or future where electricity has been skipped entirely and the gap simply covered by earlier-found means such as steam power or clockwork mechanicals. Steam power, of course, tends to be the most prevalent, hence the name. It has also been frequently compared to “cyberpunk”, in the sense that although the technological background is different, it covers many of the same themes as cyberpunk does, such as rebellion towards authority. The original inspiration for steampunk can be traced back to a handful of earlier fiction works, such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the works of Jules Verne. Verne’s works did take place in Victorian times, and may partly have inspired the Victorian aesthetic sensibilities surrounding steampunk, but since they were created by an author living in Victorian times, readers most likely took it as being set in the present.
Other works employed steampunk principles throughout the last century, and the term itself was coined for a specific few writers in the late 1970’s. However, the novel that really cemented the reputation of steampunk as a distinct genre was The Difference Engine, published in 1990 by William Gibson — yep, same fellow of Neuromancer fame. His novel, set in an alternate 1855, shows a timeline changed by the invention of the mechanical computer (the “difference engine” of the title) almost a century ahead of schedule, thanks to Charles Babbage. As a result, London commenced through its Industrial Age and Information Age simultaneously. Welcome to dirigible platoons, early-edition credit cards, and “clackers” – hackers, give or take a few consonants.
Steampunk, or at least the basic principles thereof, has been unobtrusive and omnipresent throughout the last century. Everyone has had some small amount of exposure. If you’re a fan of the old, old, OLD school, you might have read the adventures of Tom Swift and his fantastic inventions. If you prefer to get your Nihon on, you’ve probably been exposed to a wide range of steampunk riffs from a variety of anime-based sources. The most popular that come to mind are Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Cannon Fodder” and “Steamboy”, as well as Hiyao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” or his misunderstood-badly-in-Spanish opus, “Laputa, the Castle in the Sky.” And even if you’re content with the here and now, odds are you’ve at least heard of “Wild, Wild West” — both the 60’s TV show and the 1999 movie. While employing an American western theme rather than Victorian, both are firmly entrenched in the genre of steampunk.
There’s a lot more to steampunk than I’ve even mentioned, and the more research you do, the more neat stuff you’ll find. Still, this serves a good basic view of the idea – which is all it really is, you know? An idea, and an idea, really, is nothing but a toy. It’s something you play with and toss it around in your brain. While an idea can be good or bad depending on context, when all is said and done, I can’t hate an idea.
What I can hate, and virulently so, is a movement, as well as the specific people who comprise it.
I can hate the people who attempt to project their own ideas about anything that ISN’T steampunk, onto steampunk. This can range from people who like to dress up in Victorian garb and arbitrarily declare themselves steampunk, to people who suddenly display an intense interest in steampunk ideas or scenes because it’s getting popular, to the cadre of complete morons telling a panel at a recent crafts-and-invention fair that they love steampunk because it’s so open-minded and queer-oriented. (Thanks to the quick reflexes and cool head of my compatriot, they did not end up covered in soda. Steam-operated machinery does not care what you have sex with.) I can hate a band that effectively turned steampunk, apparently not due to any great love of the ideas or literary history, but because they weren’t cutting it as a basic rock band and needed to appeal to a niche market. A band made up entirely of electric guitars and violins, an electric drum machine and a synthesizer – oh yeah, that’s FUCKIN’ steampunk! Certainly, I can hate every time one of you brain-dead meatbags opens your fat mouth and begins blabbing about air ships and gears and sky pirates with absolutely no background on what you think you are talking about, other than Final Fantasy X. You know what happens when you do that? Jules Verne, William Gibson (if he were, you know, dead), Michael Garrison and Benjamin Franklin knock on the walls of each other’s graves and start a contest to outspin one another.
But in the end, I can rest easy. You know why? The joke’s on you. People who have always been genuinely interested in steampunk will continue to be, in their own quiet way. They’ll be reading and writing and trying to recreate the engine room of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in their basement, and they will still be here when this shit blows over. As for you good folks, who are simply amped by being on the crest of the latest thing? Be proud, you are officially cool for the moment. You’ve got scenes all over, articles in Rolling Stone and the New York Times, your own fashion marketplace and all that jazz. But goth was only taken seriously for maybe half as long as punk was, and emo didn’t stay legit a quarter as long as goth, if that. How long do you suppose it’ll be before you see an illiterate 15-year-old girl in a mall wearing a watch necklace with exposed gears, for all the reasons you’d never own up to? Until “airship” aviation goggles are sold in Hot Topic? Until you realize that the only smart people in all this are the ones you are handing your money to, in one way or another, and that you’ve just fallen for everything, the way you always do, again and again, and have learned nothing?
Congratulations. You’re part of the next big thing. Take a taste of that, savor it, lick it and suck it down and swallow it. Because, in a couple of figurative seconds, it’s going to be gone. And the taste that follows is going to be bitter.
Audrey Soffa is the writer and artist for the online comic The Bunny System. She currently enjoys drawing, writing, shooting her mouth off, and combining two or more of these pastimes at once.
This piece was originally published on May 4, 2008.