Steampunk inspiration and resources

Scholarship, Editorials and Opinions

Hat’s Off to Bowlers

A big part of the nonfiction Steampunk book I am writing is going to be a series of timelines to help place people, places, events and cultural movements in relation to one another. I am really looking forward to doing this coming up in the Fall, and the first I am working on is about fashion. So as I delve into my research I will be writing a new monthly series that is going to focus on different types of hats. This month will pay homage to the steampunkiest of hats, the Bowler.

found on The Graphics Fairy website

found on The Graphics Fairy website

As with any mention of a Stetson, Bowler should always be capitalized because it is named after a person, or in this case, persons. The brothers Thomas and William Bowlers first created the hat in 1849. Their task was to create a hat that would protect the head of Edward Coke, the brother of the second Earl of Leicester, and other men who pursued horseback riding and other outdoor gaming in their leisure time. According to the story, when Coke showed up to pick up the hat he stamped on it to test its strength. In later years the Bowler became associated with city gentlemen, and beat out other men’s headgear as the most popular in both the UK and America in the 19th century. By the 21st century, we don’t have many examples of Americans still wearing them, but they are still required garb for many men in England. During the annual military parade, for instance, they are part of the military costume.

In Steampunk circles, it not uncommon to see women sporting a Bowler hat as well, or to see tricked out Bowlers that include goggles or other steamy adornments. I compiled a fun gallery of just a few of the many Bowler hat adaptations out there on the interwebs. Enjoy!


Why Steampunk? Why Now?

Even without the label “steampunk,” the genre has been growing ever since the 1960s. But, “experts” are pointing to the next couple years as the apex; a time when Steampunk will be part of the mainstream rather than a sub- or counter-culture. Which begs the questions, “Why Steampunk?” and “Why now?” IBM has analyzed data from blogs, websites and the like and created the informative graphic at below charting the rise in online chatter.

IBM Steampunk Timeline

 But that is only part of the story. The timeline shows that Steampunk is on the rise, but not why it would appeal to people more now than ever before. This lead me to ask myself what I liked Steampunk and why it resonates with me and so many others, and I think in many ways  it is for the same reason that the early science fiction authors that inspired Steampunk wrote what they did.

Turn the clock back to the turn of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and complex technology was becoming an ever-present force in peoples’ lives for the first time. Ready-made clothing, furnishings and parts were becoming ubiquitous. European nations were jockeying for power in underdeveloped places because of the natural resources like oil that they offered for manufacturing and powering the new tech; war seemed imminent.

Jump ahead a hundred years or so. Spurred by the Information Revolution (aka the internet age), smart phones and computers have replaced conversations and storytelling. People consume media and technology like popcorn, and yet they have lost the ability to make anything for themselves. Clothing is mass-produced, cheap and of low quality, and society has been promoting homogeneity above all else since the 1950s. The US and other developed nations are still fighting over the oil in the Middle East, but now they have nuclear weapons to wave at each other.

Notice any similarities? I think Steampunk is a reaction to technology and its effects on culture now the way that “scientific romances” were attempting to open a dialog with the culture these authors feared (rightly) came hand in hand with industry. This is not to say every author that penned an airship adventure was thinking about deep thoughts or considering politics, but I think this is why the time period resonates with people, especially those of us who were young when the internet became ubiquitous.

What do you think? Leave a comment!

Another Project in the Works…

Greetings Gear-heads! I am very excited to tell you about a new project. I am beginning work on The Steampunk Handbook, a nonfiction reference book for Steampunk writers, makers and fans chock full of tasty historical tidbits and practical advice like “How to buy a corset”. The Steampunk Bible is a great book that is about the Steampunk subculture itself, but my aim is to craft a book about the underpinnings of the genre rather than the genre itself. I am going to write biographies of famous figures (both real and fictional), explore pastimes during the “steam era” and expand the articles on cultural movements and “How to Punk Your Steam” that have appeared on this site.

I had the idea for this book at the beginning of the month. A quick Googling showed me that for a nonfiction book you don’t need a finished manuscript like you do for a novel or other fictional work. A few days of obsessively working and getting feedback from others, I had a query letter and a book proposal ready to go and found some agents to send queries. I was incredibly fortunate to hear back from an agent only 45 minutes after I sent a query, and now I have representation through a big firm in NYC! After everything I was reading on the web I figured it would be weeks if not months before I heard from anyone, so you can imagine my surprise and joy when the response was to fast and so positive. I feel like this is more proof that people don’t necessarily get “what they deserve” they get “what they ask for.”

I know this is a bit of a Cinderella story when it comes to the publishing world, and there is still a long road to go before my idea actually would become a book, but I wanted to take the opportunity to offer some encouragement and advice to others. Here are a few things that I have learned so far in this process.

  • Working hard is all well and good, but don’t forget to work smart as well. It’s not enough to have a great idea, you also have to put in the time to examine the market, and say why your idea is not only good, but unique and marketable.
  • Finding an agent is a big hurtle, so give yourself the best chance. I did a lot of research about potential agents, and I especially focused on new agents who would be the most likely to be looking for new clients. The Writers Digest offers tons of great resources for writers to learn more about the publishing industry, and they regularly do profiles on new agents.
  • There is also a great site that publishes the Twitter feed of #MSWL (manuscript wishlist). This is a way that agents advertise the types of books they are looking to represent, and makes it easy to connect with them through their websites and blogs.
  • Follow the instructions! Each agency is different and ask for you to submit your materials in different ways. Most of them begin by asking for a query letter, and then they will contact you for a proposal (nonfiction) or manuscript (fiction) only after they are intrigued by your first contact, which is only a few sentences long. Polish your “elevator pitch” and run it by other people to get feedback even though it is short.

Best of luck to you on your own journey to publishing!

Do you have a story you of the good, the bad, or the ugly in publishing that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!

“What is Steampunk?” Video Collection

There almost as many definitions of Steampunk as there are Steampunk enthusiasts, so here just a few of the short videos floating around youtube that try to answer the question, “What is Steampunk?”

Three New Pages of Steampunky Goodness

Hello friends

Over the last two weeks I have added three new pages to this site to help give easier access to related articles that have been published several days or weeks apart. Many of you probably saw these articles when they were first posted, but as the number of Gear Heads (as I refer to my followers) increases, some folks may not have gotten in on all the fun. Here are links and descriptions of each new page.

Steampunk Sourcebooks– So far I have published 11 of these long articles about a single subject such as Sherlock Holmes, H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper, with fun facts and information about what has come before and ideas for further punking.

Tips for Makers– Articles about working with metal, plastic, foam and paper.

How to Punk Your Steam– I am publishing one article per month over the next year about different ways to mess with the Victorian era. There is advice for how to do things yourself, as well as links to the work of others to serve as examples. So far there are only two, but the page also lists the upcoming titles for the rest of 2015.

Also, if you weren’t along for the whole ride during my escapades in London, you can get the whole feed by visiting the Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London page.

“Heterosexual” is Yet Another Thing Invented in the Victorian Era

I recently ran across and article by Thomas Rogers in Salon magazine from 2012 that was an interview with Hanne Blank, the author of Straight: A Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. I knew that “homosexual” was a relatively new word in our vocabulary, but I had never really thought about its counterpart, “heterosexual.” The article is all about the history of this word and the baggage that got attached to it by psychiatrists and evolutionary scientists in the early days of their crafts, aka the time period that much of Steampunk occupies. I haven’t had a chance to read Blank’s book, but I wanted to pass on a summary of the article.

From the Cover of Straight: A Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality

From the Cover of Straight: A Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality

The terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” appear at the same time. According to Blank’s research, both were the invention of an Austro-Hungarian journalist writing about a piece of Prussian legislation that made certain acts between same-sex people illegal. He was trying to create two categories that were on equal footing as a way to address the hypocrisy of making some acts legal for some people, which the same acts were criminalized for others.

This was sometime in the mid-19th century, but the terminology didn’t really take off until closer to the end of the century. Thanks to the work of Sigmund Schlomo Freud (who is and will always be “Ziggy F” to me) and his acolytes during the 1880’s and 1890’s, people were suddenly being diagnosed with all kinds of crazy stuff. In regards to the term “heterosexual” Blank said it perfectly in the interview:

Psychiatry is responsible for creating the heterosexual in largely the same way that it is responsible for creating the various categories of sexual deviance that we are familiar with and recognize and define ourselves in opposition to. The period lasting from the late Victorian era to the first 20 or 30 years of the 20th century was a time of tremendous socioeconomic change, and people desperately wanted to give themselves a valid identity in this new world order. One of the ways people did that was establish themselves as sexually normative.

Ziggy F’s theories are largely a source of giggles nowadays, but when they were shiny and new they carried a lot of weight in society. The Zigster was more or less a narcissist and viewed himself to be the apex of human psychological development. Basically, if you followed his formula for ‘health’ what you arrived at was a heterosexual (and probably white) male. (Women were already hopeless cases according the F-man. He believed we were all born longing for a penis and it just went downhill from there.)

So now let’s bring romance into the equation. Keep in mind that for much of human history, “love” and “marriage” had very little to do with one another. Marriage was more often than not an alliance between families, more akin to a business arrangement than anything based on desire, and procreation was considered part of the bargain. You didn’t have sex with your partner because you WANTED to, you did it as part of your marital duties. Of course, if you desired your partner in addition to meeting the requirements of your contract then bully for you, but being attracted to your partner was not necessary to pass on the family name.

As I am sure you are aware, society at large was undergoing many changes during the Victorian period, and this is probably a big reason you find Steampunk compelling (I know this is true for me!). Cities were drawing people out of the countryside and crushing them together in close quarters. Women and people of color started to demand the right to vote. Workers began to demand better conditions and wages. And anarchists challenged the very fabric of society with their views. And when times get tough, people fall back on the simplest of relationships, the binary. Breaking a complex world into sets of two categories is much easier than investigating the gray area that lies between black and white. As Blank put it, they started to find an identity that proved their validity in a rapidly changing world.

Also, as people started to demand to be allowed to determine their own futures, they had to stop and think for the first time what it was they WANTED from life. So the question of desire and the shift to seeking out a partner because of your feelings of attraction and love came to the forefront of the discussion for the first time.

Blank’s book goes into far more detail and continues to unpack the term “heterosexual” and its relationship to gay, trans and other terminology and notions into to the present day, but I will leave off here. If you would like more information you can read the full interview, or buy the book.

The Albert Memorial

People spend a lot of their time focusing on Queen Victoria, but the Prince Consort Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel (but just Prince Albert for short) was also an incredibly influential figure in shaping the city of London. Among other things, he was instrumental in organizing the Great Exhibition (1851), reforming education in Britain, and championed the cause of the universal abolition of slavery. Though their marriage was to some extent arranged, the Prince Consort and the Queen clearly had a loving relationship, and when he died at the age of only 42 in 1861 his passing deeply affected Victoria. She wore mourning garb for the rest of her reign– her black clothing and understated appearance have become closely associated with her iconography and are seen in many depictions and monuments.

Albert MemorialThere are many memorials and buildings that carry Albert’s name, and my favorite was the Albert Memorial in the Kensington Gardens. The huge, Gothic Revival-styled architectural part of the sculpture was “opened” in 1872, but it wasn’t formally dedicated by the Queen until the seated figure of Albert was placed into it in 1875. The polished bronze of the sculpture and the gilded angels on the canopy glint in the sunshine and catch the eye even from a great distance.

The figure of the Prince Consort is not the only sculptural element of the memorial. There are also eight allegorical stone sculptures that are divided into two groups. One set expresses the Victorian sciences and arts of agriculture, engineering, commerce, and manufacturing, while the second set reflects the continents of Asia, Africa, The Americas, and Europe. The entire memorial is surrounded by a gorgeous iron fence painted burgundy and gold. There are also several mosaics in the canopy as well as a frieze, but the fence keeps you from getting close enough to see these elements well. I was really glad for the zoom feature on my camera, which allowed me to see some details, or you might consider bringing binoculars.

Spiritualism: a Haunting Pastime

Whenever I explain Steampunk to the uninitiated I always find that I have to say, “oh yeah, and also…” at least 4 times to try to encompass everything the genre/aesthetic can cover. I can always get them on board when I go from Jules Verne to punking technology, but then I have to back up and include all of the supernatural creatures that also make regular appearances in Steampunk literature and I often get raised eyebrows in response. But if you know the time period, ghosts, ghouls and other things that go bump in the night fit in directly with the trends of the era.

640px-Spirit_rappings_coverpage_to_sheet_music_1853Ghost stories appear in the folklore of countries all over the world, but ghosts as we think of them today in America and the UK where the majority of Steampunk stories occur have their roots in Spiritualism. Some people treated Spiritualism like a religion, and others viewed it more as a science but either way it is based on the belief that spirits are hanging around waiting to have conversations with the living, and they do so by knocking on tables, moving around objects, and occasionally even taking mediums clothes off. They speak through people who claim a supernatural ability or through the use of hypnotized volunteers (and very rarely say “wooooOOOOoooo”). I learned most of what I know about the Spiritualist movement from a wonderful and funny book by my favorite non-fiction writer and former Wired magazine columnist, Mary Roach. She has written several books worth reading, but for the skinny on communicating (or pretending to communicate) with the dead, you must read Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

Many notable historical Brits like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Vicky herself were taken in by the “evidence” of spirits among us. But, most folks point to a happening in New York in 1848 where two sisters supposedly contacted a ghost as the beginning. Four years later, mediums started popping up in England and conducting seances. By the late Victorian period many people claimed to have communicated with the dead, and women dominated the medium business. In a time when class division and a clearly patriarchal society predominated, Spiritualism was movement that crossed these boundaries and brought people from all walks of life into its fold. There were even pamphlets, newspapers and public spectacles for the spiritually-inclined during the 1860s.

One popular thing to do during private parlor sessions was to contact famous people, and Charles Dickens (who died in 1870) was one of the most popular spirits to contact. In addition to speaking through the mouths of mediums, ghosts would sometimes also use a typewriter or the like to pen a message from the beyond. Dickens died before he finished his last novel, and in 1873 an American author claimed to have been contacted by his spirit who dictated the ending of the novel. I wonder if this is the origin of the term “ghost writer?”

Ever heard of ectoplasm? Think of the goo left behind by Slimer from the Ghostbusters. Some folks believed that ghosts could leave a trail of the stuff, or that mediums would extrude it as evidence of spirit possession. Ewwwwww.

For more fun facts about this “spirited” movement, check out the articles on Victoria Web.