Steampunk as social movement?

Today, “Steampunk Facebook” published an article titled “Why Steampunk (still) Matters,” discussing the aesthetic aspect of steampunk versus its spirit of social reform.

There’s a spirit of social reform within steampunk? Well, sure. After all, the style is based upon a time period in which there were massive social, political and scientific changes. Unions, women’s rights, industrialization, child labor laws, safe water and sewer systems, germ theory, Jell-o… just to name a few. A lot of steampunk fiction embraces the “pirate as hero” and “fight the upper class” themes. That’s the “punk” part.

Though I have to say, I haven’t much enjoyed steampunk fiction. I do, however, enjoy the writers from the era upon which steampunk is, more or less, based: Dickens, Wilde, Gaskell, Thackeray, Twain, etc. These writers were the original “punks” — they wrote to change the world, just not via sci-fi (unless you count Twain’s time traveling “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”?). They wrote about religion, oppression, women’s rights. They satirized society and class divisions. In Wilde’s case, he personally lived through a trial and served time in prison for homosexuality. As for Dickens… I’d love to see a modern remake of “A Christmas Carol” with Scrooge as a corporate CEO. It would be lambasted from some quarters for being anti-American and “socialist,” I’m sure.

But isn’t “steampunk” pretty much about dressing up in cool costumes and modding a computer to look like an old contraption — not occupying Wall Street? Yes… and no. That’s part of it. But it’s also got elements of invention, independence and rebellion.

Malcolm McDowell in the 1979 movie "Time After Time." I had the biggest crush on him.

I began making neo-Victorian and relic* jewelry several years ago, and only discovered the word “steampunk” in 2007. My work was not (and is not) inspired by the steampunk community or its definitions, but by my interest in Art Nouveau, Victorian history and, yes, my love of movies such as “Time Machine,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Time After Time,” and much of my youth spent on Disneyland’s Main Street. But I was (and am) also greatly inspired by the pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetic Movement, and the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s with its anti-industrial natural motifs and advocacy of economic and social reform.

* “Relic” is my fancy word for “recycled” or “upcycled.” I use a lot of found objects, watch parts, ephemera, etc.

Those elements of DIY and defying convention are a big part of steampunk. I’ve heard over and over again from people who do the airship-captain-dress-up thing, that they turned to steampunk because they were tired of the “costume nazis” and strict rules involved in other cosplay and reenactment groups. That’s a bit of rebellion right there.

As much as I love making clockwork jewelry, I often feel unable to relate to the steampunk community. Not because “steampunk at Hot Topic” is ruining it for me (Steampunk Invader Zim is just cool). It’s all the tea duels and extreme steampunk house makeovers, and talk about it being a “lifestyle.” That’s just too far removed from reality, for me. I’m not interested in pretending to be someone else. If steampunk is all goggles, funny names, competitive biscuit dunking, and bad derivative fiction, then I don’t want to be steampunk.

You might have noticed, if you’re a previous reader of this blog, that I have a SF novel coming out in January. One that — in spite of making steampunk jewelry for the past several years, being featured in two steampunk art books, and loving the Wild West and Victorian Era — I did NOT write in the steampunk genre.

I wrote near-future SF — the novel is being marketed as cyberpunk by my publisher — because I wanted to be forward-looking. I wanted to guess where we are going, rather than dwelling in the past or escaping to an alternate reality. “Stellarnet Rebel” was inspired, in a significant way, by Alex Steffen’s article “Science Fiction, Futurism and the Failure of the Will to Imagine.” I wanted to depict a world that might be, and soon. I didn’t feel I could do that within steampunk, without reeeeeealllllly stretching the bounds of believability. (“Yes, fifty years in the future, everyone wears corsets — even men — and slavery is back in vogue… now let’s hop on an air balloon…” Bullshit.) Or turning it into pure allegory.

So, yes, to get back to the insightful (and possibly inciting) article I mentioned in the first graph, I think a defining element of steampunk is rebellion, drawing from the same historic well as its visual design sense. As the writers note, “aesthetics have power.” To the Aesthetes, beauty was a form of rebellion. And it’s rebellion that makes steampunk relevant. To me, anyway. Real, tangible rebellion. Styles come and go, but ideas, meanings and messages, persist and pervade.

— J. L. Hilton

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