If I wanted to make this article more “steampunk”, could I just stick a few cogs on it and call it a day?
No, don’t be ridiculous.
But such a comment does highlight a certain misconception about steampunk, in that it is all about aesthetics. Which is a rather unfair assumption, based mostly on the external façade of steampunk, which is … er … lavish aesthetics. Hmm.
My point is that the steampunk movement is not just about how things look. There are some really thought-provoking ideas running through the movement, and unconscious reactions to the state of the world today.
Steampunk has been around since the late 80’s, Wikipedia gives the date 1987, but with things like sub-culture movements exact dates are kind of fuzzy. For clarity’s sake, when I say ‘sub-culture’, it is not a reference to a secret or somehow less significant aspect of culture, it is simply a term to describe parts that make the whole. Football support is a sub-culture, just a very big one, because not everyone follows or cares about football (shouts of heresy in the comments section please).
Steampunk’s been going strong for over twenty years, which is an impressive achievement for an artistic movement, garnering new support and adherents every year. What is so alluring about a setting of speculative fiction with anachronistic technology in what was – historically – a pretty crappy time to be anything but a wealthy, white, middle-aged man?
I asked five people (names changed to preserve the innocent and guilty alike) who had never knowingly encountered anything to do with steampunk before and asked them what they made of it. Both the Feminist and the Activist brought up the issue of historical accuracy, the Activist going so far as to call it ‘a betrayal’ and having quite a lot to say about white-washing the past, an expression I took to mean making the past prettier rather than its actual meaning. The Victorian era, in which the lion’s share of steampunk is set, was a generally rubbish time if you were any or all of the following: a woman, gay, disabled, mentally ill, poor, of colour, a criminal, not English. The Activist was quite offended by the idea that things could be set in such a time and ignore these injustices.
A lot of steampunk doesn’t exactly ignore these facts, but social commentary is generally not what the artists, writers and film-makers really got into steampunk for. They got into it for other reasons, either the beautiful visual elements or the speculative technology or just because it felt right to them. And a lot of artists subvert the Victorian social stigmas in as anachronistic way as the technology, because here’s the thing, there were people of colour all over the UK at that time and before. There were gay people, and there were women, all doing important, significant things. However, the study of history will give you another impression, a false one. What we call ‘History’ is just what was recorded or deemed worth recording at the time, and since most academics and government were white men, that’s what they focused on.
Doesn’t mean nobody else was doing things of worth. And it doesn’t mean that artists, writers and film-makers are constrained by the prejudices of our forebears. What a creator decides to do with a setting is their own business, it’s not a burden of ‘truth’ to the past, because truth is subjective.
The Artist, the Gamer and the Hairdresser quite liked the setting, the Hairdresser in particular was very taken with the cosplay elements of the steampunk movement, loving the opulence and detail of the designs.
After the pop art movement in the 50’s, up to today, a lot of art we see daily centres around bold, primary colours. If you’re thinking you don’t see art daily, I’ll just remind you that every advert and product design is in fact art. It’s an art of promotion, but it’s still art. Someone had to conceptualise it, design it and finally publish it. Iconic art like product design has to be quite simple to stick in your head, where it does the most good. So day after day, our eyes pick up bold colour contrasts and deceptively simple designs.
As a reaction to that, when you encounter an art movement that celebrates detail as much as steampunk, it’s a refreshing break and total eye-candy. This is one of my thoughts about why steampunk continues to grow in strength, it starts with books and literature, but it’s the art that really grabs people and pulls them in. In a world so saturated with pop art, we’re just ready for the earthier tones of steampunk art.
My other thought about steampunk was that it’s wish-fulfilment.
Not in the sense of ‘oh god, I really wish I had a dirigible and went on adventures with H.G. Wells’ (though I’d read that), but in the sense of the Victorian era being obsessed with the future. They strived for better technology, for better exploration and celebrated scientific breakthroughs even when they shattered their world view. In science, furious debate is a celebration, because you should all be thinking and challenging each other’s hypothesis to make sure it stands up to scrutiny.
We’ve lost that, as a mainstream culture.
We seem, by comparison to our enterprising forebears, lazy in thought and deed. We are so consumed with ennui we cannot stir ourselves to even vote on profoundly important changes to the way our society works. We don’t reach for the stars, we don’t even reach for the remote a lot of the time, we ask someone to pass it over. Our society is obsessed with instant gratification (oh check out those amazing tee-shirts on Topaco), our ‘me time’ and getting to the weekend so we can down six pints and then go home via the kebab shop. Discovery takes time, change takes time. That doesn’t suit our temperaments any more. What do we want? Alternative fuel sources! When do we want them? NOW!
When now doesn’t happen, we get disillusioned and tired. When we don’t get the government we wanted, instead of realising that politics is all about negotiation and collaboration, we throw a hissy fit and swear to move to France, or Canada, or never vote again because nothing ever changes. It does change. Change just takes time.
I think that is the most powerful attraction of steampunk. It’s not about wishing for the ‘good old days’, because there never were any good old days (just selective human memory). It’s actually about wishing for that passion and excitement in these days. Because that is something that runs through steampunk fiction, delight in discovery.