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Full Throttle Ahead – The Steampunks are Coming!

Granted, steampunk is no longer really that new – it began at some point during the 1980s – but this Victorian steam & brass alternative world is finally beginning to catch on. And take root on the Continent. We’d like to present an overview of the genre and its facets: steampunk, retro-futurism and gaslight.

Steampunk Jane (c) mind on fire @ flickrTo outsiders, the steampunk genre could seem a bit confusing at first glance. On the surface, steampunks look like ladies and gentlemen who indulge themselves by wearing the elegant garb of the late 19th century. So far, so good. Reenactors who focus on Victorian Mannerism have been around for a long time. But if you look closely, the picture is not historically accurate. Life between 1850 and 1920 didn’t really look like that. Steampunks bring an illusion – how the future looked to the Victorians – to life. More or less, it means taking the manners and sartorial elements of the time period (bowler hats, walking sticks, knickerbockers, vests, corsets, etc.) and adding a touch of Gothic adventure. Then take a look at the state of technology back then (oversized steam machines, gaslights, experiments in electricity and magnetism, etc.) and transport these elements into an alternative future in which nothing seems impossible. That is a general idea of what steampunk is all about. But we’ll come back to the curious forms it can take later…

Steampunk – the forerunners

Title page - Jules Verne - Robur the ConquerorEvery genre has its roots and sources, and steampunk’s can be found in fictional literature. The most obvious forerunners are the works of Jules Verne (“Journey to the Center of the Earth“, “20,000 Leagues under the Sea“, and “Around the World in 80 Days“) and H.G. Wells (“The Time Machine“, “War of the Worlds“, and “The Island of Dr. Moreau“), but Mark Twain (“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court“), Arthur Conan Doyle (“Sherlock Holmes“, “The Lost World“), H.P. Lovecraft (“Call of Cthulhu“) and Mary Shelley (“Frankenstein“, “The Last Man“) also play significant roles. These books reflect the arrogant, characteristically late 19th century beliefs that most scientific questions had already been answered, and that anything – from the conquest of nature to the colonization of the Moon – was now possible thanks to the Industrial Revolution. The idea of establishing an alternative reality based on the last century but with very different technological givens was first tested out in the 1960s, when “The Wild Wild West” had its successful TV run. In the 1980s, science fiction author K.W. Jeter was looking for a term to describe some books – his own “Morlock Night” and ones written by Tim Powers – and was the first one to come up with “steampunk.” By then, the genre was already a fixed component of the tabletop and pen & paper game scenes – or at least it was one of the countless genre crossovers that shifted the time line a little more to the right or the left or modified the mixture of fictional and fantasy elements. Role players preferred the term “gaslight” until a few years ago.

Steampunk variants and their equivalents in the movies, literature and media

Steampunks at the A-KON 2009 (c) steevithak @ flickrSteampunk has no fixed borders or rule books. If you want to create an alternative universe, do it as you see fit – it just has to make sense within itself. That is why similar or contiguous genres like “dieselpunk” (celebrating the aesthetic of the 1920s – 1950s), “Victorientalism” (the Near East and India from a Victorian viewpoint) and “steamfantasy” (steampunk on other planets or in fantasy worlds) have established their niches. Zombies, ghosts, dinosaurs, Martians and vampires also cross the paths of steam pioneers on occasion.

The resonance in the movies, literature, comics and video games has been just as multi-faceted and varied. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes “Sherlock Holmes” is the most recent example, but “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is often mentioned in conjunction with the genre. Movies like “Delicatessen,” “The City of Lost Children,” “Rocketeer,” “Wild Wild West,” “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow,” “Mutant Chronicles,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Van Helsing,” and “The Prestige” all contain steampunk elements. “Midgard 1880” and “Space:1889” are two of the better known role playing games, and “Bioshock” is the most popular computer game. The genre is the subject of many animés (e.g. “Steamboy“), but literature seems to be the natural medium for steampunk self-expression. In addition to authors Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s “The Difference Engine” and the three volumes of “Nomad of the Time Stream” by Michael Moorcock belong on every steampunk’s bookshelves. The newest endeavors in this context are the recently released rewrites of classic novels such as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (2009) or “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” (2010) by Seth Grahame-Smith.

The wonderful world of steam machines

Maker Faire 2009 (c) Pip R. Lagenta @ flickrIt would probably be a bit of a stretch to claim that steampunk has already become established on the Continent. That’s not true. Not yet – because steampunks are overrunning the niche that the gaslight role players have occupied for the past 30-odd years. The most steampunks can still be found in Great Britain and the USA, however. The Asylum is a huge steampunk event in in England and on the other side of the Atlantic, the Burning Man hippie festival has become a magnet for brass goggle wearers. Large cons like Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in California attract steampunks from all over the world. They show off clever costumes and abstruse inventions there – and there are a lot of them, because the scene is known for its absolutely incredible inventiveness.

Some steampunks have specialized in restoring steam-driven monsters, others find satisfaction in collecting crude tools and implements, and still others are tinkerers who masterfully use brass, copper, capacitors and coils to turn everyday objects such as computers, mobile telephones, guitars and arcade games into fantastic retro-techno hybrids. Some steampunks even decorate their whole houses a la steampunk, and even Star Wars fans can’t leave well enough alone and weld steampunk versions of stormtroopers or R2D2. And the gears of creativity will also be turning as fast as they can in the near future…

With pith helmets, charm, and death rays

Idiosyncratic worlds require their own inhabitants and iconography, and of course the clothing makes the man (or woman) when it comes to steampunk. If you are really lucky, you can take your great great grandfather’s steam trunk down from the attic, dust it off and extract hidden treasures from it to give your gear an authentic touch. But the rest of us will have to be satisfied with costumes and clothes made today – which you can of course decorate and alter to your heart’s content. You’ll need a starting point for your steam age chic, and you’ll find it right here! We have countless dresses and suits from the era of the Industrial Revolution: from Victorian evening wear to a vest, shirt or coat for daywear. From accessories such as glasses and walking sticks, bowlers and top hats, pocket pistols and cigarette holders to complete costumes, our product range is already broad and we’ll be expanding it to the bursting point in the next few months. Pilot helmets, Prussian spiked helmets, pith helmets? No problem! We can also offer you a Boudoir Underwear Set, a Coachman Coat and a Women’s Coat and a large selection of period facial hair.

105275 - Phileas Fogg costume106347 - Lady costume103754 - Financier costume105276 - English Lady costume

For more info:

Steampunk in general

- Steampunk in Wikipedia
- Wired reported on it in 2007
- Books, films, comics and videos in the genre

Steampunk blogs and magazines

- Steampunkopedia – a compendium of the latest media activity in the 19th century of the future
- Brass Goggles – one of the older blogs on the subject
- Steampunk Magazine – the name says it all
- Aether Emporium – link list in wiki format
- Datamancer – subtitled: “Prestigidial Datamancery & Paraphrenalic Technofetishism”
- Steampunk Culture – Website with extensive link list

Events and exhibitions

- Burning Man – gigantic steampunk festival in the USA
- Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition – huge steampunk convention in California
- Steampunk Events – worldwide steampunk calendar
- Steampunk Art – Oxford University exhibition on steampunk
- The Asylum – steampunk festival in Great Britain

Do-it-yourself, products, miscellaneous

- The Steampunk Workshop – blog by Jake von Slatt, steampunk and DIY icon
- Steampunk Home – at home with steampunks
- Weta Industries – New Zealand designers who make curious weapons for collectors
- Steampunk Lab – steaming hot inventions
- Steampunk Fashion – how steampunks dress
- Clockwork Couture – “A Fine Steampunk Clothier”
- Steampunk Wallpaper – for your copper desktop
- Arcadia Snips & The Diary of a Murder – steampunk publications with online installments
- Kinetic Steam Works – artist’s collective that operates a steam machine and the steampunk treehouse
- Steampunk Empire – a steampunk social network

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