There are a couple of things you wrote that I want to get a bit further into, but to start with:

while I don't find much appeal in steampunk culture past its colour palette and the occasional whimsical machine that actually functions, I have no issue with historical reimaginings

I think I'm with you there. I don't see steampunk as cohesive other than as sort of a fantasy-enhanced Victoriana. It seems to be centered around dressing up for conventions or other pop/alt cultural events. There's a whole topic of conversation in itself - the way that costumed clans have grown into whole social scenes within the Comics/SF&F Convention world. It has a kinship to the Goth scene, but is less club-going and more about conventions. The style is more costume than clothing. I guess I think of Goth as a fashion/mindset and Steampunk as a pose, or a kind of play.

There is also a connection to the contemporary maker scene, with custom clothing and jewelry making as major focuses of activity. Search "Steampunk" on Etsy and you'll have plenty to look at. There are the occasional clever devices that actually function in some way, as you mention, but mostly it's just cobbled together brass, wood and gears to give a mechanical feel. In some ways I find it depressing; a large amount of effort is put into assembling broken junk into non-functional meta-junk.

Steampunk is people like the League of Steam who mainly build imaginary ghost-hunting devices and maintain a kind of ongoing performance art existence as characters from an imaginary past. But then look at the the people at the Science Museum in London who built an actual, functioning Babbage Engine*. Most of us wouldn't call them "steampunk" as they don't play in the aesthetic, but what they've built is an honest, functioning steam era mechanical computer. They essentially made an alternate-history science fictional device that actually works.

I guess I shouldn't discount the value of the aesthetic as play. Science Fiction as a literary genre itself is a codified form of make-believe. But I think there is a continuum of play here, with ideas at one pole and aesthetics at the other. Today steampunk has drifted pretty far toward the latter, and I'd like it better, I think, if it were closer to the former.

- Bill

*Allana has a post that deals with the Babbage Engine coming up, so I kind of stole some thunder here... sorry! I just needed it to draw a proper contrast. I will try not to do that again!


  1. The best thing about aesthetics is when you start digging into synaesthesia. It seems simple to us now, to associate a gritty and loud punk sound in music to a dishevelled and tough punk look in fashion, for example. Writing styles are both part of this and above it, to me. While we're both familiar with Gibson and Sterling's respective writing styles, I'm anxious to find out just what tone and flow they used and how it relates to what steampunk looks and sounds like now.

    "The style is more costume than clothing. I guess I think of Goth as a fashion/mindset and Steampunk as a pose, or a kind of play."

    You're definitely right here. Goth and punk are more lifestyle choices - there's a way to exist in the real world using these themes. You can't, however, walk down the street in Renaissance Faire clothes or LARPing gear. Steampunk used to be part of the latter, but I think it's making a transition to the former, at least in touches and hints. I can wear layered skirts with a corset and natty dapper leather boots, and you can put on a suitvest with a pocketwatch and maybe even a white scarf with an aviator hat. Goggles are probably still too far, though.

    This is contingent on age, though. Goths and punks get to look that way because they're between the ages of 15 and 30; after that, you're expected to transition to a more adult personal style. Ren-Fair and LARP types span a much wider age range, and to be honest, it does look silly to see a 40-year-old man in striped pants and kneepads (though the salt-and-pepper beards are essential).

    I've never spoken to these types (maybe we should look into interview subjects, hey?) but I'm not sure how it would go. I'd probably be too interrogative and not give them the benefit of the doubt. The video you posted makes me depressed, too; congratulations, some gears are whirring, but that doesn't make it a cool invention.

  2. I don't want to come down too hard on the League of Steam! They're purpose appears to be the extension of LARPing into the realm of performance art, but a more pop-aligned, accessible performance art than is usually the case. They're fantasical Victorian Ghostbusters. They are entertainment without a real attempt at psychological depth - just some silly fun - and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

    I'm more distressed at how impressed other people seem to be by something that is essentially just intentionally silly.

    Granted, I'm north of the acceptable age bracket you've defined, and can't really acceptable indulge in the whole costume play of it, but I've never really been comfortable with that anyway. I was an actor for a long time, and I enjoyed that very much, but it was an entirely different context. The play of dressing up and manipulating nonfunctional props was action in service of a bigger meaning. There was a story, some deeper human truth that was being illustrated.

    I have a friend from that time who went into sketch comedy, and i did some of that with him at times but I always found that unfulfilling for the same reason - it amounted to play for the sake of just being funny. I don't think there's anything wrong with being funny, but my temperament is to want there to be a point to it. To be funny in the service of something more profound.

    I guess I'm turned off by the superficiality of the silliness. They do have an admirable commitment to their aesthetic.

  3. Oh! I want to talk more about steampunk synaesthesia, but I need to assemble my thoughts...

  4. I didn't know you were an actor! I guess I need to be more careful where I cast my derision. Not that I was trying to be derisive, but it's almost impossible to try and describe/explain any sort of behaviour without a bit of connotation.

    I'm not an actor. I might be a good liar - I've never gotten confirmation on this. But I'm horrible at roleplay or putting on airs or even jokes that run longer than a minute. I'm horrible at serious dramatic portrayal, and even worse at accents. It's mostly that I have uncontrollable urges to giggle. I can never tell in others whether their seriousness stems from a vastly superior self-control or a vastly inferior sense of irony. I don't think either is particularly desirable, though.

    I think I'd be powerfully moved by an earnest "lifestyle" steampunk type with mad-scientist hair and a basement filled with dissected machinery and half-built robot friends. I'm strongly biased towards people who want things to be real, rather than people who simply ignore the fact that they aren't. A "commitment to an aesthetic," I think, amounts only to this. I want people to commit to the possibility of a real alternative, not just the portrayal of a fantasy (whether for laughs, or money, or the challenge, or a way to waste time). And so I think our sentiments are pretty close.

  5. And I'm anxious to talk about "steampunk synaesthesia" more, too, but maybe we should move that to its own post, and maybe after we get our hot little hands on our copies of the book.