April 23, 2014

S Is for Steampunk

Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy literature in which Victorian aesthetics combine with futuristic technology to create a world full of brass, mechanical gears, goggles, clocks, and steam-powered machinery.


It all began with the books
Though there exist Victorian fantasy novels written by the greats — H. G. Wells and Jules Verne — the actual term Steampunk is relatively recent. Coined by writer K. W. Jeter (full disclosure  he is my husband) in a light-hearted 1987 comment to Locus magazine, the letter read:

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for [Timothy] Powers, [James P.] Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.

Media
Whether you realize it or not, if you watch television or go to the movies, you have seen Steampunk's influence in themes, set design, and costumes. Television shows like Sanctuary and Warehouse 13, and the wildly popular Dr. Who, lean heavily on the Victorian “look.” Also, films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Scorsese’s Hugo are Victorian in design and period.

Poster from the
Scorsese film
Hugo
Historically, science fiction and fantasy fandom has created communities within the various areas of interest. And these communities love conferences, conventions, and faires of various sorts. Like most other genre conventions, the various Steampunk events are a combination of panels, music, art, crafts, demonstrations (including fencing and period-relevant martial arts), and Victorian-themed teas and absinthe tastings. And tons of performance groups. Whether fans of cabaret, solo songstresses, military bands, wandering cellists, burlesque troupes, or old-school punk, attendees certainly don’t lack for choice.

Deck the bods
For many, though, the costumes are the main attraction. 

After attending two of the most prominent Steampunk conventions — Steamcon in Seattle, held each fall, and the Steampunk World’s Fair, held in New Jersey in late spring — all I can say about the costuming is, “Wow!” Either wearer-made or handmade by other enthusiastic craftspeople, the variety is astounding. Seeing the beautiful hats, scientific instrument and faux weapon accessories, and fantastic jewelry and leatherwork — totally worth the price of admission.

Professor Verdigris Wetware takes tea.
(Notice the clock detailing on the hat.)
The women all look lovely, whether in beautiful gowns, various forms of exterior corsetry, or lady explorer garb. But this is one time that the gents stand out, especially the big guys. Some costumes (Star Trek, for one example) only look good on the extremely fit. Victorian garb, however, makes all men look elegant and distinguished.  

What’s also fun about the Steampunk culture is that it is open to everyone. The ethnically diverse attendees are young, old, children, parents, grandparents — all are welcome, and all are having a blast!

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