Steampunk: you may not be familiar with the term, but you’ve probably encountered its meaning. If you like Wild, Wild, West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the latest Sherlock Holmes movies, or the new TV show called Penny Dreadful; if you like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, or Jules Vernes, then you may already be a steampunk fan whether you know it or not. Considering that Merriam-Webster just added it to the dictionary, it’s time you got to know it better.
Steampunk is a genre of entertainment based on Victorian style and technology. It often reimagines the modern age driven by steam-powered machines and mechanical devices instead of electronic ones. It’s been defined as “Victorian science fiction” and “Victorian alternate history.” Because of its focus on highly styled and highly observable machinery, it could also be described as technological romanticism. While its origins may be attributed to late-19th-century styles and inventions, steampunk has developed throughout various fiction works of the 20th century. The term itself was coined in the late 1980s by K.W. Jeter to explain the themes that he and other authors were exploring in their stories. Since being named, steampunk has evolved into a style that is influencing today’s literature, film, art, music, and fashion. Incredibly, its growing fan base has made all things Victorian almost mainstream.
Victorians are Vogue?
All things old are new again—at least, if they come from 19th-century England or America. How is it possible that American society (and some places abroad) would want to revisit a time period that we spent so many decades trying to put behind us? Aside from its great literature and gadgets, the Victorian Era has been greatly criticized for its social (and fashion!) constraints which narrowly defined acceptability and encouraged image over genuineness. Yet a closer look reveals intriguing comparisons between then and now.
Like then, we increasingly are becoming socially restrictive. Political correctness and centralized governance are efforts to stabilize a society that is drifting apart morally and politically. In the vacuum left by moral relativism and individualism, our younger generations place high value on group membership and “group think.” They intuitively understand that freedom must be tempered by control, and they are looking for ways to balance it. For example, to our coming-of-age citizens there is a little appeal in the Victorian answer to the gender question. Men could know they are men, and women could be confident they are women, even if it takes a constraining corset—although we still want the freedom to mix it up. That’s where steampunk fashion gets creative.
Compare also our technology. The Victorian Era saw the maturation of the Industrial Revolution, a time when mechanical inventions and processes dramatically changed the way we lived. Not only did new gadgets improve our house chores, but they created an entirely new segment of the work force: factory workers and office professionals. The average Victorian probably wondered at the quickening pace of living and the technology that was reaching into every part of life. The world was becoming strange to them.
Sound familiar? Today we are caught up in another technology wave: digitization. Our gadgets have gone electronic, made of invisible parts, and are doing our thinking for us at lightning speed. They tell us when to get up, what to eat, what to buy, what our stats are, and who we should marry. They turn all our relationships into digital code. They’ve changed how we live, how we work, and even how we talk. We are realizing we are addicted, and it’s a little scary.
Alternate & Aesthetic Appeal
So we see ourselves in the past, but what makes us embrace steampunk in particular? There’s more than one reason why our attention is turned to “Victorian alternate history.” Deep down, our collective conscious wants to know if we’ve missed a better path. Could we have gotten here a different way? We also want to foresee the outcome of our present, parallel era. If we’ve been here before, then what can we expect next? Steampunk lets us imagine: what if steam remained the dominant source of power in our society? What if electricity were merely a supportive source? What if digitization were never discovered? Would we be better or worse for it?
The central attractiveness of steampunk is its highly styled machinery. It beckons us to piece together our own complex machines with tangible parts, usually aesthetically fashioned. We can build from the ground up, and we can see how each piece works in harmony with the rest in order to accomplish a greater function. Again, these machines are a microcosm of a well-ordered society. Their observable parts reassure us of control and creative achievement. How we miss these elements now!
There’s no denying that steampunk is a fun fad with a bonus benefit of exercising our imaginations. As it lingers, and as it gets ever closer to mainstream acceptance, it’s irresistible to analyze its cultural meaning. So, in the spirit of steampunk, I will imagine a little story of the future. Time will tell if it becomes an alternate history or not.
If our society, with its characteristics defined herein, continues in the direction acknowledged herein, we may see a new Victorian Era ahead. Outwardly, it will look very different from the original, but it will have embraced Victorianism. Social order and behavior will be well defined. Interactions will carry more formality as we relearn how to have relationships in the aftermath of our social media disillusionment. Appearances will remain important to us at this stage. We will be compelled to keep conventions. Social repression will finally birth a burst of creativity and invention. Technology will continue to advance and may even pave the way for colonial expansion into outer space. That expansion will make us question again who we are, and we will turn once more to individualism in order to find out.
Should this prove true, then time is clockwork after all. But what an elaborate machine it is!
Strauss-Howe generational theory