Why do I feel like I have already posted this entry? Perhaps it is because I have been announcing the sentiment in the tagline for the past decade.
The etymology of “steampunk”:
I first heard the word steampunk when my friend Matt Johnson, after editing my book True and Selfish Prophets commented how much he enjoyed the steampunk imagery. Though I had never heard the term, I immediately knew what he meant; my book is filled with “Gnostic technology”, “dream gadgetry”, “systems of gears and crankshafts”, antikythera mechanisms, and a wraith-like blue-skinned creature named Archkali who skitters along the ceiling of the protagonist’s dreamworld hovel on a system of wires and pulleys.
My interest in these things stemmed from my lifelong study of Alchemy, the Templars, secret societies, Darwin, the Kabballah, The Dark Crystal and Time Bandits, technology and my strangely inherent Luddite tendencies.
I began researching this astute term for my suddenly obvious obsession and was inevitably directed to Steve Jackson and his GURPS role playing system. “Steve Jackson came to it happenstance by drawing on his prolific genre bending to corroborate the pieces into what he coined “steampunk” but probably was an evolution from Cyberpunk. Indeed, the two share similar anti-social traits and usually embody those who are on the bleeding edge but living in the margins.”
It is a logical progression. As Steve Jackson games are necessarily creating rich environments for their subscribers to play around in, as Cyberpunk was a rich palette in the early 90’s to draw from, the seemingly natural migration of its system to other time periods like a hundred years prior to turn-of the century Mary Shelley/Emily Bronte/Conan Doyle/Jules Verne with all of its explosion of new tech is practically guaranteed.
I was amazed that there was never a dedicated section to the Steampunk genre in any video or bookstore and so I explored creating a tome that discussed its origins, significance, meaning and impact on our culture. I logged extensive notes on the topic and promised myself I would release at the very least a handsome coffee table book (because it is so deliciously visual) but feared that somewhere there was already someone beating me to the punch.
When I created my musician profile at garageband.com almost five years ago, I bypassed their stock music genres from the drop down list, selected other and input “Steampunk” as that which best described my music.
When I submitted my 40 page grant proposal to FACTOR in Canada last year, the section designated for marketing and style was replete with images of airships, copper gadgetry and citizens dressed in handsome teched-out Victorian attire. Despite the excellent proposal, I was denied funding – the evaluation gave me excellent marks in all categories but flunked me on this area.
Steampunk as a musical genre (what it might be):
What does Steampunk as a music genre sound like? Well I have seen the emergence of bands that claim they are steampunk because they Cosplay the genre while playing whatever kind of music they might, but rather than shoot them down for it, I would venture to be even more inclusive – for me Steampunk as a musical genre embodies that which merges an organic sincerity with an admission of a deliberate influence or interference of technology. By this definition, My Bloody Valentine (lumped under the Wombadelia umbrella in the Gen-X 90’s) is Steampunk for its organic somnolent breathy vocals and miasmic textures, while deliberately forcing the listener to be self-conscious of the very medium to which is was recorded by wobbling the whole 2 inch tape itself while playing back – breaking down the fourth wall. I submit that Steampunk may also be the more classic camera obscura organ-driven musical accompaniment to a Lumiere brothers screening, or perhaps Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, made of blown dynamic mics recording giant tin artifices clanged and beaten with sticks in a backyard shed. I hope that the genre does not ferment and harden into some self-parodizing gimmick that can be quickly discarded when the fad goes passé.
A few weeks ago I even promised my friend that within not five years but one year, kids on the street would be sporting monocles as the latest fashion trend. He looked at me as though I was crazy, but alas, even in this projection I was overly conservative. Just type Steampunk into the searchline at ebay and you will see how true this is.
I did the same with robots in the early 90’s when I created the ironic annual holiday Robot Pride Day. Then pirates (when we formed the league of Sky Pirates in 1994). Now, in retrospect anyone even remotely jacked into the system would retort “big deal, that’s obvious.” It wasn’t before Bruckheimer and Netscape and Pixar and licensing PKD happened.
But really I am not here to trumpet my prescience, but instead to contribute my two cents before this all blows up in the mainstream and saturation steamrolls the finer points into mass-marketed pulp. Because Steampunk is indeed now locked on with its Tipping Point.
So here are some lists and excerpts from my notes with some additional commentary. The lists are hardly exhaustive, they are just here to substantiate the prevalence of Steampunk in our culture:
Brotherhood of the Wolf
The Brothers Quay films
City of Lost Children
Jan Svankmeier films
All Hayao Miyazaki films:
Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle In the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
The Great Mouse Detective
The Dark Crystal
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Golden Compass
Wild Wild West
A Very Long Engagement
Tin Man (television)
American McGee’s Alice
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
Final Fantasy series
World of Warcraft
Panzer Dragoon Orta
There are too many books to even open the category. Just visit Amazon and you will get more than you could ever want. But beyond the obvious Mary Shelley, Conan Doyle, and Jules Vernes, I do want to give special mention to the perhaps less obvious Bruce Sterling, Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, Erik Davis, Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem, Lewis Carroll, Mervyn Peake and Piers Anthony as participants in the genre.
I kindly request that those of you who are geeking hard on this genre do not flame me for including or omitting items, as I am posting my own research pro bono here – forfeiting the opportunity to participate in the coming landslide of money to be made from exposing this movement. I do invite your constructive comments, however.
A steampunk infomercial for WETA workshops custom Steampunk pistols:
Why is Steampunk relevant?
I had a band in the late 1990’s called Ribcage. The band’s motto was “air for flight, blood for rage.” The name stemmed from my epiphany that the ribcage protects our breathing mechanism, our inspiration, our soul, and it houses our heart, our passion, our blood pump. It is the technology that serves as a vanguard to all that embodies our most sacred and important inner machine.
When I attended the Toronto film festival in, I think it was 2002 or 3, I had the opportunity to see Terry Gilliam do a very exclusive master talk for select members of the media. It was centered around the new film he was working on “Tideland.” I had prior knowledge of this project because I was sent the script and asked to audition several months prior. I realized something as I approached the material about Gilliam and his subject matter, and the way he did things, and I wanted to ask him directly if I was near the mark. Here are my notes, in their original form from that evening:
Terry Gilliam says it’s mostly a budget thing, but even so with all the glories of CG he feels ultimately cheated; despite the visuals being there, there is a lack of credible tangibility…he likes the idea of found objects that you can touch and tinker with. And that’s really what this is all about isn’t it. Keeping the magic in our own hands in a way that we can grasp. As though we are the frustrated inhabitants of Flatland, we need the techgnosis to exist in a dimension beneath ours so that we can still feel as though it is under our control.
Gilliam says that the ubiquitous pipes coming out of everything for him represent a form of opulence as he grew up on a farm with an outhouse and the radio was a medium that forced the listener to use their minds eye to create the imagery. In London the pipes were due to retrofitted bathrooms growing up and around antique elaborations of architecture and so it also represented a form of urban sprawl slowly choking the landscape of tradition.
I asked Gilliam what the term Steampunk meant to him. He looked at me the same way I must have looked at Matt Johnson that day I heard the term for the first time, and yet knew exactly what it meant. Having earned his attention, I hypothesized that considering his obvious reticence about the positive influence of technology and bureaucracy (Time Bandits is about greed and power that comes from controlling technology, Brazil is about the terrors of bureaucracy and overindulgence in technological systems) that perhaps the lean towards the last industrial revolution – that which was powered by steam and coal – permitted an exploration of our irrevocable cyborgian reliance upon the machine, but sustained in a world of things and organica; that at the very least the age of steam resembled our human makeup in some way – where coal and fire is our heart and the steam is the air exhausting from our lungs. He considered it, visibly filing it away in some mental lower drawer, and then responded he didn’t disagree.
And this, I think is the essence of Steampunk’s true allure for us today; we are surrounded and often outpaced by the technology to which we are unsustainably married, and yet the interface is virtual and alien – not tactile and visceral, but representative. We call ourselves meat suits and wetware, but we are profoundly ensconced in the circumstances that arise from our interactions therein.
In his seminal book “Finite and Infinite Games” James P. Carse writes “in order to operate a machine, one must operate like a machine.” We must change our very nature in order to commune with the object that empowers us. It renders us differently than we are and enslaves us to it. But steampunk attempts to reclaim some of that control – its origins are in a time of imagination, wonder and discovery as we plug things into wrong sockets to see what lights up, we tinker, modify, experiment, bend the laws of nature and influence the elements to serve our fantasy. It is self-empowering rather than overwhelming. It is a tweaker/hacker’s heaven. It is populated by modders, do-it-yourselfers, independent researchers, alchemists, mad scientists and independents. Of course its time has come – nothing could better reflect the double-aught zeitgeist. It is the story of us fighting for our lives.
In his book Carse also writes that a machine operates from an energy that is introduced from outside of it, a garden thrives from energy that comes from within, from its own chaotic and variable nature. This inspired the name of my mid 1990’s ambient music project “Automated Gardens” whose motto was “There will never be a future” – meaning, there is only a now. Our imagination is the seed of our tomorrow (I am now paraphrasing Kahlil Gibran).
Steampunk is the externalized manifestation of this inner urge to remain a part of the magnificent and mysterious world of which we are still a part.
This article is ongoing, and may be updated without notice. Your comments and contributions are invited.