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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.
Ghost 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.
The Statue of Liberty, or Liberty Enlightening the World as it is really titled, is among the most iconic landmarks our little blue and green sphere has to offer. My favorite day of my NYC vacation was the one we spent on boats going around the bay and to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. I thought I knew the whole story of this copper colossus, but I learned some great stuff during my visit.
So where did that big green lady come from?
It all started in France. Ostensibly, the statue was a way to mark the friendship between the US and France, and to acknowledge the love of liberty they shared. In reality, it was a resounding raspberry directed at the leadership in France, Napolean the Third. Nap III, as I like to call him, was actually elected to the presidency through a popular vote, but when he was told he could not run for a second term he led a coup and got himself kingafied like his dear old uncle before him. So this huge investment in time and resources was a metaphorical middle finger to Nap III and his total bulldozing of liberty as much or more than a nice gesture to the US. She is facing France directly, her unwavering gaze falling on the very people who, in the eyes of the project directors, were violating liberty the most.
The projected completion date was 1876 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of American independence, but it hit a few hiccups along the way and it was not actually erected until 10 years after the original goal date. As you can imagine, creating a statue that not only measures over 300 feet tall take a lot of engineering imagination, but this statue also had to be able to travel across the ocean and be reassembled on the other side. As an added challenge, the US was in charge of making the pedestal, so the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi couldn’t know exactly what to expect when he reached Liberty Island. The torch-bearing forearm of Lady Liberty made an appearance at the 1876 in Philadelpia, and was then displayed in Madison Square Garden until 1882, and the head was a part of the Paris World’s fair in 1878.
In addition to Bartholdi, whose Bartholdi Fountain can still be seen in the US Botanical Garden, such notables as Joseph Pulitzer and Gustave Eiffel also were involved in the construction. Pulitzer was integral to the fundraising effort to complete the base and got the funds by advertising the chance to get your name in the newspaper for any size contribution to the cause. At that time, newspapers were a fairly new commodity, and hundreds of thousands of people sent in their pennies to see their names in print. Eiffel was brought in to assist Bartholdi with the huge feet of engineering the skeleton for the statue, and he created a structure that not only could support the weight of the copper sheets that made up her skin, but would also allow it to expand and contract with the change in seasonal temperatures as well as sway slightly in the high winds of New York’s harbor.
There are many more statues on Liberty Island than just the lady herself. Phillip Ratner created a series of Rodin-like bronzes commemorating those men and women who contributed the most to the completion of the monument.
When the statue was finally ready for its inauguration only men were allowed to attend the ceremony. Angry ladies commissioned boats and led a protest at sea during the event. This is especially ironic given that the famous poem, The New Colossus, was written by a female poet, Emma Lazarus. It was written and donated as part of the fundraising campaign for the pedestal, and now graces the pedestal itself. But Emma herself was barred from attending.
Here is the poem:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I have run across one reference in Steampunk literature so far to the statue of liberty as seen by dirigible in The Girl in the Clockwork Collar (Steampunk Chronicles 2). Have you run across any in your Steampunk wanderings? Let me know so I can add them to this post.
Enjoy this gallery of the statue as it was being built, as it appears today and with some fun variations by different artists. If I am missing a credit and you know who did a particular piece, please let me know!
As part of my preparation for Steam Tour I picked up a great little reference volume by historian/geek Krista A. Ball. Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes: A Steampunk and Regency Fieldguide tells the story of the untold, the people who populate your Steampunk imaginings but are rarely the focal point. She brings you the inside scoop on the maids, footmen and even your friendly neighborhood knocker-upper (think alarm clock with a stick) to offer readers and writers a window into how the 99% really lived during the Regency and Victorian eras.
Ball’s first reference book, What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, also sounds like a lot of fun, but so far I have only read Hustlers. Both books include recipes that you will want to make at home (and some like tooth paste made from cuttlefish that you’d never EVER want to try) in addition to some great background information and delicious tidbits to add depth and interest to your own Steampunk projects.
Let me know if you have any ideas for other reference books I should read before Steam Tour starts in August! I finally got a reliable internet connect here in Greece so I hope to go back to posting more often and letting you know all the amazing Steampunkery that is to come.
New York City was the beating heart of trade in the United States when the Western world transitioned from the Golden Age of Sailing to the height of steam power. Not long after steamboats started taking passengers (1807) they were scuttling alongside tallships in the New York Bay. There are still a few sailing ships around the bay and the Hudson River today, but they mostly share the waterways with gas-powered yachts and ferries nowadays.
I took a few ferries during my vacation, and anyone who visits the Big Apple should make sure to do the same. It was my favorite part of the whole trip and it afforded some amazing views of the skyline that you can’t get any other way.
There’s no way to think about transitions in the harbor without considering the huge number of people who passed through it in order to begin a new life in the United States. Starting in 1820, the city of New York opened an immigration station at a converted fort. Around 11 million people passed through Castle Garden between 1820-1892, but it closed that year because the first federal immigration checkpoint had just been completed. I am referring of course to the US’s most famous point of entry, Ellis Island. This little island is technically in New Jersey and was doubled in size before the checkpoint was built, mostly by using the dirt displaced by the construction of the New York subway system. The original wooden structures on Ellis Island burned down in a mysterious fire about 5 years after opening, but the beautiful brick structure you still see today was completed around 1900.
I was really looking forward to my visit there and a chance to get some pics of antiques in the recreated tenements, but unfortunately hurricane Sandy ruined the climate control system so most of the museum-type objects had been moved off-site to protect them. As a Museum Studies person I can totally respect the decision, but as a tourist I was really annoyed. The whole first floor contains the Immigration Museum (est 1900), which is cool for adults who are willing to read a lot and look at timelines, but there is not much in terms of interactive or hands-on things for kids (or ADD adults).
One of the biggest influences on the shipping of humans and goods across the Atlantic was the institution of scheduled trips. I know, that sounds silly, but before the war of 1812, ships tended to leave port whenever they had gotten enough cargo or passengers to make it worth their while. This meant that capricious captains could delay people and goods for weeks at time, which was hardly the cause of consumer confidence. But, post-war some captains starting using a set schedule, which made traveling by sea easier and more reliable than ever before.
When the cargo arrived in New York City, it certainly didn’t stop there. The first reliable steam-powered land locomotive was invented by George Stephenson in 1814. Railways had been used for decades before that, but the carts were always pulled by animals. After his invention of the “Iron Horse”, mass transit by rail became possible on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Even locally the trains made a huge difference, linking the five burrows of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island, which facilitated their incorporation into a single city in 1898. And at the center of it all is Grand Central Station.
“Railroads brought people, profits…and pollution. Residents complained. So in 1854 the city banned soot-belching steam engines below 42nd Street, keeping them far from New York’s populated heart. Trains arriving from the north unhitched their engines at 42nd and towed passenger cars the last few miles downtown by horse.
Despite these restrictions, the Hudson, New Haven, and Harlem Railroads were eager to expand. To coordinate their services (and save money) they agreed to share a new transit hub. With 42nd Street the southern limit for steam engines, it was the logical station location.
Grand Central Depot opened in 1871. Three towers represented the three participating railroads. Thirty years later, a new Annex doubled the Depot’s size. But double wasn’t enough. Rail traffic had quadrupled.”
Read more at the online exhibit by the New York Transit Museum called Grand by Design.
But where is the Statue of Liberty in this post?! No worries, she gets one all to herself next time!
This is an amazing article that explores women in Steampunk as objects, authors and more.
Here is just a tidbit, but definitely check out the real article, it is a good read.
Like so much current pop culture revolving around the Victorian and Edwardian periods, steampunk culture does tap into this potentially-retrograde nostalgia. It also participates in a broader obsession with The Fancy Clothes of the Past, a loving and often DIY aesthetic that involves fraught class dynamics as well as gender ones. As many commentators—including Stock—mention, women in the community often struggle against objectification, too often regarded as just a pleasing set of breasts heaving over corsets rather than as actual fans and creators.
Two major features of steampunk push hard against the movement’s gender-retrograde currents. First, steampunk mixes and matches. Men in the community wear corsets, too. Lisa Hager, that delightfully geeky English professor, likes to cosplay steampunk Dorian Grey. Women in big dresses and elaborate Victorian-inspired undergarments also tote stylized brass weaponry, gears and cogs, and goggles (for flying in dirigibles, of course). In Gail Carriger’s bestselling Parasol Protectorate series, readers find a flamboyant vampire who dresses himself and his home absolutely to the nines, a scientist and inventor who wears impeccably-tailored men’s clothes and stashes anti-supernatural weapons all over her person, and (as protagonist) a badass soulless woman who likes tea, adventure, reading scientific papers, and being dominated sexually by her werewolf husband.
I have read a few different articles by people who believe that Steampunk as a genre is driven by violence. For instance, Harry Markov insists in his article for the multicultural Steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana that Steampunk is completely driven by war. The American Civil War and the impending first world war are certainly used as backdrops for Steampunk literature, and there are plenty of stories about fictitious places and made up wars, but I think saying that war is at the heart of the entire genre is broad overstatement.
Perhaps people have gained this misconception because gadgets, vehicles and creative technology are definitely key to Steampunk and war offers a great opportunity for mad scientists to flex their skills. The American Civil War and the over-hanging cloud of World War I are popular backdrops for Steampunk stories, as well as other conflicts like the Second French Revolution (Dark Portals: Chronicles of Vidoqc). And it is definitely true that many of the greatest technological advances in human history have been the result of weapons research. But, our quest to travel in space also drove an era of inventions that we still use widely today (click here for some examples). War may act as a catalyst for technology, but so does curiosity, and there is no reason to think that inventors are stymied without it.
And as central as old/new-fangled technology is to Steampunk, it is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. Steampunk is a means of exploring so many other concepts than war-driven tech that it is a discredit to distill an entire genre to one thing just because it is the most obvious. I would say that challenging gender roles and Victorian society is just as central if not more so than the technological aspect. Women who transcend their corsets and the men who come to appreciate them as equals pop up all over the genre.
And of course, references to and re-imaginings of classic science fiction and 20th century historical figures is where it all began. I would argue that if you had to choose only one thing about Steampunk to highlight this is the most unique and quintessential piece to the puzzle.
What do you think? Have you found war to be more central to Steampunk than I am giving it credit for? Or do you agree that violence does not need to be the key ingredient in a Steampunk story?
I don’t know if you all caught the Coke commercial during the Superbowl that is that causing such a ridiculous fuss, but the controversy stems from a rendition of America The Beautiful in multiple languages from the mouths of people who were various shades of brown. Apparently there has been a “twit-storm” as I like to say, as people have texted in to Coke to let them know that American songs should be sung in English, because apparently that is our national language or something (it is not). If you would like to alternately point and laugh, then feel enraged, you can read a sampling of the ascerbic word from the interwebs here (most of which have terrible spelling and grammar because they are written by lazy native English speakers).
So in the spirit of inclusiveness to counteract the mindless drones I have created a gallery below of Steampunk images that reflect influences from different cultures and often feature non-traditional models. Though some Steampunk purists may feel that something cannot in fact be considered Steampunk without Victorian England as it background, there is a growing movement to include people and settings from around the world. I have a lot more information on this topic as well in my post “How to Punk Your Steam: Make it Multicultural.”
Click on any thumbnail for larger images.
Rjurik Davidson is an author who tackled this topic in 2012 an Australian magazine called Overland. I ended up reading this one because it was listed on Cate Russel-Cole‘s Steampunk Inspiration and How-To for Writers as “a controversial article by people who just don’t get the concept of fantasy” and I absolutely agree with that as an assessment of the literary critics quoted by Davidson, but not of Davidson himself. (Though I don’t agree with Davidson that Steampunk has reached its zenith and is in decline.)
I’ve included the first few paragraphs and a link to the main article below. I’d love to hear what people think of the article, so please come and report back by commenting on this post.
“The subgenre of Steampunk – that subgenre of speculative fiction set in a fantastical Victorian era filled with airships, mad scientists and mechanical replicas of people or animals – may well have reached its zenith. With the new Sherlock Holmes movies, The Golden Compass or Scorsese’s Hugo, it seems possible that the initial burst of zest and inspiration will now settle into a more subtle ticking over of novels and films as the subgenre colonises the cultural spaces still open to it (Heart of Darkness steampunk? Opium-war Steampunk?).
For some time a debate has been raging about the politics of the subgenre.
For some, Steampunk is a reactionary nostalgia for past that never happened. In a review last year, author and critic Adam Roberts claimed that Steampunk is a perfect example of Jameson’s claim that the culture of postmodernism means a loss of any sense of historicity. For Roberts, Steampunk is ‘a studied dismantling of the consecutiveness of history in the service of a particular set of styles and fashions.’ He continues:
the appeal of the genre is in the way it finesses the past into the present. This is an aesthetic strategy it shares with Heroic Fantasy (or much of it) as a mode: a disinclination to encounter the past as past. Most twenty-first century representations of a notional “past” are based on the idea that people in the nineteenth century (or, in post-Tolkienian Fantasy, the middle ages) were basically people exactly like us, and therefore people with whom it requires no effort from the reader to identify.
According to Roberts, Steampunk jettisons a sense of the logic of history. Fundamentally, the subgenre is an irrationalism.
Others have mounted similar arguments. A couple of years ago, science fiction author Charles Stross claimed on his blog that most steampunk refused to face up to the Nineteenth Century as it really was. In that world, Stross claimed:
Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It’s the world that bequeathed us the adjective “Dickensian”, that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It’s the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).”
Read the whole article here.
Steampunk, Technological Time & Beyond Victoriana: Advocacy and the Archive | Journal of Victorian Culture Online
I have been curious about what “serious” scholars have to say about the Steampunk ouevre, and I ran across this article in the online Journal of Victorian Culture. The full article contains no small amount of history/social studies jargon so the vocabulary is not for the faint of heart.
“Steampunk studies is an outlier in Victorian scholarship. In fact, steampunk subculture can arguably be called “neo-Victorian” or even “non-Victorian” in the way that it defies strict adherence to a certain periodization or topic relevance. Steampunk is an aesthetic movement inspired by nineteenth-century science fiction and fantasy. Over the years, however, that umbrella phrase has expanded to include speculation outside of an established time-frame (such as post-apocalyptic or futuristic), outside of the established geography of the Western world, and even outside of history (as with alternate history and secondary fantasy worlds). How can we, then, describe the relationship between steampunk academic work and Victorian studies?”