I’m not interested in trying to define steampunk. Any number of articles and blog posts have been written on the general topic of “What is Steampunk?” While there’s a certain usefulness in that endeavour (Steampunk isn’t “anything you want”.), I’m happy to believe that steampunk can encompass, or at least cast its brass begoggled gaze over, an astonishingly broad swath of our sci-fi/fantasy microcosm.
Also, who am I to tell my fellow foot soldiers in Her Majesty’s Legions that their magic-infused automatons are any more or less valid than my British professor travelling the world on a Voyage of Discovery in his plasma-powered airship?
I would, however, like to describe what Steampunk has come to mean to me—my own personal, subjective opinion.
I’ve been interested in Victorian design for some time. I live in a 1880s Victorian house. I also have a deep fascination with Victorian Era technology, which is simple and visible enough to understand its function— the clicks of a telegraph key or the swoosh of a steam piston—yet powerful enough to build an Empire. Industrial Revolution practicality combined with completely superfluous decoration embody the two precepts of William Morris’s adage, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
There’s no functional need for a sewage pumping station to be so ornately decorated, but why not? Crossness Pumping Station, downriver from London. Source: Steve Cadman, flickr.com
I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about this thing called steampunk. It was likely sometime between a visit to Maker Faire and seeing my neighbors preparing for Burning Man. At Maker Faire I saw the League of S.T.E.A.M., a performance group of steampunk ghostbusters, as well as the group Obtainium Works, then known mostly for the Neverwas Haul, a self-propelled Victorian house.
Seeing these groups and their fantastic self-made outfits and props was truly inspiring, especially considering my science background and interest in the history of the Victorian Era. Who knew that there were others with the same combination of interests as me? And that they could build a functioning (well, mostly functioning) zombie immobilization engine?
Maker Faire became an annual event for our family, and we met many more amazing Steampunks wandering around the Faire. My sons wanted to make their own steampunk outfits one year and were searching for accessories to combine with pieces borrowed from the neighbors’ costuming box. I modded a neon-colored water pistol from the dollar store into a reasonably respectable plasma pistol for one of them to carry around. It was my gateway project that urged me further down the rabbit hole that is Steampunk. (My next pistol was built around a small plasma globe that I first saw as part of a steampunked electric guitar.)
Water pistol before…
Modded water pistol
Maker Faire (RIP) led to Nova Albion (RIP) which led to Clockwork Alchemy, the Bay Area’s steampunk con, and the Dickens’ Fair, a celebration of Dickensian Christmas which also attracts many steampunk fellow travelers.
“McCaig’s Folly” A plasma pistol based on a plasma ball.
So, what does steampunk mean to me? Steampunk is joyful and collaborative. It is the opposite of cynical and sarcastic. But witty though, it’s definitely witty. Steampunk is good-natured and and good-humoured. (Yes, I added a British “u” there, because it’s fun! Brits, you can omit your superfluous “u” if you want to explore Wild Weird West-style Steampunk.)
I delight in the Steampunk Aesthetic, in all its brass cogs, steam engines, airships, top hats and corsets. Self-made props and gadgets, some of which truly rise to the level of Art, astound me with their cleverness and sense of humor. Just as important is the generosity and sense of camaraderie amongst steampunks. I have found us to be always quick to help out with friendly and helpful advice on techniques and resources for the often arcane materials we might need to get that appearance just right. This sense of fellowship continues for my author comrades, the Treehouse Writers, at Clockwork Alchemy. They helped me get started writing with encouragement and suggestions when all I had was a first chapter, and misty visions. Now, three books and several short stories later, I know I can always rely upon them for advice and support.
And just last week, upon the cancellation of Clockwork Alchemy 2020 because of the pandemic, the volunteer organizers mounted a replacement concert, completely on-line with the artists that were to attend the con streaming their performances from bedrooms and basements to fellow steampunks around the world.
I have no doubt that the Steampunk Spirit will prevail and I’ll be attending Clockwork Alchemy again next March.