The Punk in Modern Steampunk

Steampunk DelightIt is quite easy to find people who will tell you exactly what steampunk is and what it is not. Pretty much as easy as it is to find people setting rules in almost every area of life. Sometimes those rules are founded in tradition, sometimes in exclusion, and sometimes just to reduce the confusion that abounds where no rules exist. Even well-meaning rule-makers, though, can cause harm when the rules are applied as absolutes.

I wrote the heart of this essay in response to a rant about modern steampunk and how it isn’t what steampunk was meant to be (linked at the end). While I agreed with much of what it says in this rant, I cannot agree with the overall premise, which is that modern steampunk doesn’t have any punk. It may seem very different from the roots of the genre, named by cyperpunk authors, but genre definitions are fluid creatures–you have only to compare A Thousand and One Nights to any work of urban fantasy to see that–and it’s easy to get wrapped up in what we want to see so that we can’t see what is really there.

I was reading the proto-steampunk novels, albeit in abridged classics for children, around the time the genre got an official name. (Yes, that’s right. I was reading steampunk before it existed.) If you look at Jules Verne, though, you’ll see much in common with the aesthetic focus of modern steampunk, as much as you’ll see the mechanical aspects emphasized in the early “official” works.

I’m a reader and a writer primarily, so you’ll find I often focus on the written word. I enjoy a good story told well, and read broadly, so don’t hold a book to a specific genre when it stretches those realms. That said, I have read books marketed as steampunk because they included elements of the genre as a clear afterthought for marketing purposes. I get up on my very own high horse and condemn those as marketing games, though I won’t reject a good story just because of that poor decision.

Where I agreed with the rant came in the punk aspects, which I’ve often found lacking or incidental in many modern steampunk novels. The Victorian Era forms the heart of the genre, though it’s jumped in time all the way to the far future and imaginary lands. Victorian times are fascinating and ripe for the steampunk interpretation because of the social upheaval brought about largely by the Industrial Revolution. You see the beginnings of the women’s movement, centuries of peasant abuse being rejected even by those with social standing, and the effects (they actually began much earlier) of the decoupling of wealth and land, among other aspects.

This dismantling of old rules and crafting of new ones makes it ripe for a punk interpretation. For me, “punk” means questioning and exposing the cracks in society. Though I was a flower child folkie when the punk music scene began, it incorporates the same kind of conscientious rebellion against social norms and definitions. My own stories have more than a touch of Dickens in the choices, exploring the conditions of those at both ends of society and the dangers of wealth determining right that are equal to the “might equals right” philosophy combatted in the Arthurian tales.

I find much of the modern steampunk literature, costuming, and design expresses an idyllic view of an era where the smog lay thick in London full of chemicals from burning coal. The Industrial Revolution introduced new pollutants in a city where it was already common to use vinegar to combat the stench of a non-existent sewer system and horse-based city transport. In all the focus on dresses, shiny metals, and the like, there’s no mention of how white sheep turned black once introduced to the London air in a matter of days. The goggles so characteristic of steampunk were used because so much smoke came from early engines that train engineers would be blinded otherwise.

However, a focus on enforcing the historical roots misses a very important element: that of rebellion. Some people complain steampunk has been diluted or destroyed by the concept of “sticking some gears on it” especially in the aesthetic community. What comes to my mind, though, is the small artisans and do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality that has sprung up around steampunk. You might contend some of the work lacks polish, though I’ve seen some incredible designs coming from self-proclaimed amateur hobbyist, but at the heart, the steampunk aesthetic is an unrepentant display of none other than punk.

Think for a moment on the rules and expectations of modern society. While those proclaimed as true artists are revered, a person who makes their own clothes is often teased or bullied. Value is set in the ability to buy objects, even if they’re so poorly made (or designed to do so) that they fall apart in a season or less. If you cannot afford new clothing or other products, you are lesser, while if you’re not one of the accepted artists, you have no business trying to design and create art. It’s a privilege given to only a few and the rest of you should go out and get a “real job” so you can buy what you need.

These are the lessons modern steampunk works against. There are workshops to help newcomers learn to make their own steampunk gear. Sites abound where people put up attempts and receive advice for improvement rather than condemnation and scorn. Whole conventions exist to glory in these creations whether from small artisans or hobbyists. Sure, like in the novels, there are attempts to capitalize on the popularity of steampunk, but overall, whether you create your own gear or purchase it from small artisans, you are part of an underground artistic community that rejects the rules of modern society. And that’s not even touching on the reuse/repurpose aspects in a society that proclaims disposability as the appropriate approach from clothing to coffee pods.

In the best examples of the steampunk community, you’ll find creators who incorporate working mechanical parts, use gears as simple decorations, or some combination of both. You’ll see Nerf guns modified, painted, and with gears glued in unlikely places sitting alongside hand-crafted, functioning rifles with gear-based action and reclaimed piping. This community supports the mad inventor, but also those who, yes, stick gears on things at random to make them fit the aesthetic, often on clothing where gears serve no other purpose.

But here’s the important part. This is an art form. It is a rejection of convention as much as ripped jeans and colored, spiked hair once were. The creativity and beauty produced is something to admire and compliment for its punk because it steps outside of convention and the rules of society. It’s easy to dismiss these folks because their designs aren’t mechanically sound, because they are not accurate for the Victorian period, or half a dozen other reasons, but the thing to remember is that the very act of creating anything yourself is punk. This desire is systematically being destroyed by cheap products that are easier to replace than to repair and by the sense that you can “listen to music,” “buy clothing,” etc. but don’t dare you attempt to make any because you’ll never be good enough so don’t try.

The punk is in the rejection of our disposable society, our acceptance of professionals and experts as having some ability the common person lacks even while we forget many of those started out as garage bands, designing their own clothing, or painting for the love of it. Yes, the steampunk movement has developed a huge following, but it’s not size that determines punk. It’s rebellion against the conventions of modern society, and that I see in droves whether among weekenders admiring work that will never be seen in a gallery or those who devote their lives to creating a steampunk world within ours.

Is that punk enough for you? What are some ways the punk of steampunk appears I haven’t mentioned?

The rant that inspired my essay:

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