Monday, October 10, 2011

Steampunk Ramblings

Another confession: I'm the sort of girl who wears bustle skirts and corsets in her everyday life- and judging from the internet, I'm not alone. Whether your interest is in neo-Victorian attire, old-fashioned pulp magazines, or retro-futuristic architecture, looking back to the past has become a popular "nerd" source of inspiration. Think of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and put the stress on the last word; most young nerds/hipsters/goths/whatever you want to call us are often less interested in faithful recreation than in taking bygone aesthetics and incorporating them into modern contexts. Perhaps the most famous form of this is the "steampunk" genre- a style of dress, literature, music and film that imagines a world somewhere between yesteryear and the distant future.

To be less cryptic, "steampunk" is a subset of science fiction that imagines a Victorian era with futuristic technology (or sometimes a futuristic era with Victorian aesthetics and social conventions.) It was an offshoot of cyberpunk, a genre familiar to those who have read Snow Crash or watched The Matrix, but replaced the emphasis on computer power with an emphasis on steam power- a sky full of airships, coal-powered death rays, and brass goggles everywhere. The "punk" part of the name is somewhat misleading; it's a holdover from cyberpunk, rather than an indication that steampunk is about rebellion or grittiness (though it certainly can be.)

There are pitfalls of the genre, just as there are things about it I love. One of the most parodied aspects is a tendency to smother everything in gears, and it's never good when the story (or music, or gaming experience) takes second place to marveling at how cool the setting is. It has cliches and stereotypes, and outfits can be a real hassle to assemble, especially if you're no good at sewing.

Despite these problems, the steampunk genre holds a special place in my heart. I'm more glad than I can say that I live in an era of modern medicine and women's suffrage, but as an admitted romanticist, I can't help being drawn to a world of elegance and adventure, even one that never truly was. Looking to the past during visions of the future is more than understandable- it can be beautiful, creative, and lots of fun.

Interested? Try these...

Comics: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Honestly, I never liked this as much as I wanted to- I just couldn't stand what I felt it did to some of my favorite Victorian characters. But if you're more flexible regarding literature than I am, check out this much-loved spy thriller/dark adventure series, where secret agents from classic novels do battle to protect London from mad scientists, aliens, and more.

Novels: The Difference Engine pretty much started it all off, and The Diamond Age is a fun blurring of the boundaries between steampunk and cyberpunk. You can also go for romance novels with Soulless, and the other books in the Parasol Protectorate series.

Television: You can't talk about steampunk without mentioning Wild Wild West, where gentleman spies keep America safe with clever gadgets and dashing heroics. The campy film version bears almost no resemblance to the original, but is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Films: Disney's Treasure Planet goes the "future world with Victorian fashions" route, in an update of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. You can also check out Back to the Future Part III- where else will you find a flying, time traveling train that runs on steam power?

Music: Rasputina, one of my favorite bands, uses electric cellos to make nearly unclassifiable rock songs with Victorian overtones. For a list of similar music, check out the Sepiachord website.

Roleplaying Games: If you liked Wild Wild West, give Deadlands a try- the dead are rising and sleeping monsters are awakening in the old west, and you're just a bunch of cowboys and scientists armed with gatling guns powered by the souls of the damned. If you prefer a European flavor to your steam, try Castle Falkenstein or Baron Munchausen; the former casts you as a Burroughs-esq pulp hero, and the latter...well, who the hell knows what the latter will cast you as.

Fashion: Gentlemen's Emporium is one of the best places on the web to get frock coats and frilly dresses, should you so choose. Clockwork Couture is a little inconsistent with their stock, but when they have good stuff, it's always beautiful.

Got any more recommendation? Feel I've completely misrepresented the genre? Let me know in the comments!


  1. I've been to I don't know how many punk and metal shows but the only show I've ever been assaulted at was a Rasputina concert. A drunk/high hippie chick grabbed me repeatedly and tried to force me to "move to the music." True story.

    At any rate, nice overview! Castle Falkenstein was my first exposure to steampunk (and remains one of my all-time favorite RPGs). When steampunk started making a comeback in the late 2000s, I was like, "Steampunk? That's so Nineties!"

    GURPS Steampunk is an excellent overview of the genre and, as always, includes a fantastic bibliography. Space 1889 was probably the first steampunk RPG. And of course H. G. Wells is the original steampunk author, as far as I'm concerned. Comics-wise, there were a couple Victorian Batman titles that definitely qualify as steampunk: Gotham by Gaslight and Master of the Future. For movies, I'd definitely include Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky and Howl's Moving Castle. In fact, anime seems to have cornered the market on steampunk: Steam Boy, Full Metal Alchemist, etc., etc.

  2. I love steampunk.You might want to check out the Leviathan series.Its a really easy read,but well worth it.