A Rather Picture-Heavy Post on What Steampunk Is To Me

I get asked this question a lot when I tell people I’m working on a Young Adult steampunk novel. Steampunk fiction, along with other aspects of steampunk, is getting pretty popular these days (just look up Justin Bieber’s steampunk Christmas video, ugh). More often than not, people will at least have heard the word Steampunk, but not know exactly what it entails – or how devoted true steampunks are.

My short answer to the question, What is steampunk? is: Victorian or Wild West sci-fi, in a time when steam technology ruled. A slightly more informative answer is that it’s a sub-genre with roots in literature from writers such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but the term steampunk didn’t start popping up until the late 80’s. Steampunks have widely varied opinions on what exactly their passion entails, from those who wear gear-encrusted goggles as an item of fashion, to those who believe every gear, light, and lens should be functional or at least hypothetically functional. (You mean to tell me your hydraulic laser gun arm extension with the time-travelling wristwatch doesn’t actually work?! You’re not a true steampunk!)

I’m kind of in the middle. A piece of jewelry with artistically placed, glued on gears will make me drool, but I don’t incorporate goggles into my outfits. (Lia has a vintage pair of WWI soldier’s goggles though, that I put on my cat for my profile picture. He is totally a steampunk kitty.)

Totally drool-worthy!
Even more drool-worthy
Lia’s steampunk-ish pendant made from watch innards;
a gift to her from my mom. Coolest grandma ever? I think so!

I’m not going to expound in detail what I think steampunk should be (articles like that already abound on the interwebs), but I’d like to tell you a little bit of what it means to me and how I discovered it, while bombarding your eyeballs with lots of cool pictures (some pictures are embedded with even more informative links).

Yep, Victorian sci-fi: It doesn’t get much cooler than the Neverwas Haul, a gorgeous Victorian house on wheels. Most likely runs on gas, but in a real steampunk world it would, of course, be steam powered.

And you can hardly have a steampunk story without an airship in it.

Fashion is a huge deal for most steampunks. This picture freaked me out because of the super-cool gear-encrusted goggle the model is wearing like a pirate eyepatch. (Didn’t I mention one of those before?) What I really love about this is that my character Kate in Cobalt has an injury to her left eye that renders it sensitive to light, and she has a goggle like the one in this picture, with little gears and levers that shade her eye from the light and enhance her vision. I swear I’ve been writing the story for months, but I only stumbled across the picture tonight! Awesome!

A steampunk gentleman might look like this dapper fellow. Your outfit can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be.

Many of you will have seen the steampunk episode of Castle. In this picture he’s wearing a very expensive variation of the kind of gadget some steampunks add to their personas.

In the mid 90’s I started playing a PC puzzle adventure game called Myst. I was drawn into the beauty of the scenes, and the contraptions and clues you had to solve that were steam powered. The storyline of this game series is so rich that it all stuck with me, and when I discovered steampunk not too much longer after that, I was immediately reminded of Myst.

In the game Myst, the main character Atrus sends you on a journey to solve
puzzles from steam powered contraptions and machines he’s built himself.

A really fun aspect of steampunk is the music. Since music is so important to me, it’s what formally got me into the genre. Although there are many steampunk bands that I love, I’ll just share my two favorites, Abney Park and Vernian Process, since I’m trying to encompass a wide variety of steampunk aspects in this post.

Vernian Process’ sound varies from industrial and 80’s-inspired, to theatrical cabaret-style, to orchestral – with soaring, dark instrumentals, chimes, and bells. (Click here for an amazing example.)

About the genre as a whole, Vernian Process’ Josh Pfeiffer told me: “As an artist, I couldn’t be happier that Steampunk is getting more recognition, and attention. As a fan of the aesthetic, I am mixed on this recent surge of interest. It makes me kind of miss the days when I would stumble upon some cool Steampunk piece of media, and get all excited, like I just discovered a lost treasure.”

Click on the picture for their circusey song inspired by
Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Abney Park’s sound is inspired by widely varying ethnic music and soul-wrenching ballads. Basically, you could listen to one song that’s a simple pirate shanty, and the next is a wild gypsy tune that dares you not to dance to it.

If you click on the picture, then on the greenish icon labeled “Coming 2012,”
it’ll play one of their new songs from their upcoming album!

And finally, the part about steampunk that most fans will agree is pretty awesome, are the inventions. Some amazingly creative and talented people have gone beyond gluing gears to pendants, to add vintage beauty and a sci-fi spin on modern day gadgets.

I hear it’s not as expensive as you’d think to convert an ordinary Nerf gun into something that looks like it could shoot lasers. Something like this, or the phone above, is on my to-do list – if I ever suddenly develop a skill for leather and metalworking, that is. 😉

For some truly amazing and functional steampunk artwork, Datamancer turns PCs, laptops, keyboards, and other devices into beautiful, unique treasures. If you only check out one link in this post, make sure that’s the one. Because yes, something that looks like it could be functional is cool enough, but when it actually is functional, like Datamancer’s work, that’s the true spirit of steampunk.

In response to Josh’s comments, I think discovering steampunk really is, for the mainstream, like finding treasure in the mundane, mass-marketed, easily broken merchandise of the present. But, like a lot of treasure that’s not exactly new, but is tarnished from time, and still generally viewed as “weird” by the mainstream, interest will eventually move on to newer fads – and the true fans will still be here. And maybe we will have added to our ranks of talented, wacky, and creative steampunks. 🙂

And lastly, on a more personal level: Take a painfully introverted mother of six, who’s never quite fit in with any group all her life, can’t even do mainstream right, and is getting into middle age and not liking it one bit. She’s had post-partum depression for years and feels like she’s lost her identity, but above all, has never let go of her dream to write. She already has one novel under her belt and is well into the second one, and has always loved the weird, the magical, and the less-beaten path. She finally finds something fun to wake her up again, and for the first time in longer than she can remember, the depression lifts. Best of all, her kids think their weird mom is the coolest thing ever, not an embarrassment. And when she takes them to a few shows and is embraced by the steampunk community and makes some awesome new friends, she knows she finally belongs somewhere.

This is what steampunk really is to me.



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18 thoughts on “A Rather Picture-Heavy Post on What Steampunk Is To Me

  1. You're so amazing. I was in the mall yesterday and saw this totally awesome corset and couldn't help but think of you! Man – it was awesome. I should have snapped a pic. Love the pics you used in this. SO COOL!

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  2. I'd recommend the books at the top of the post, and definitely Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (steampunk and zombies, you can't go wrong with that!), Infernal Instruments like Donna suggested, and there was another series that looked good but I can't remember the name of it. I'll have to get back to you when I go to Barnes & Noble next. And, of course, Cobalt when I'm finished with it! 😉

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  3. Wow – great post! I love the photos and had no idea steampunk as an art form was so prolific. I should've known tho – there's a ton of it at ComicCon, I think so much that they're actually thinking of branching out into their own 'con'. If they do, I have a feeling you'll be there! 🙂

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  4. Oh, they have lots of steampunk cons! I have some friends who go to ComicCon every year and they've told me there are more and more steampunks there every year. There's a steampunk con coming up in the Bay Area that I really hope I can attend, because I'll know some people there–it all depends on whether the hubby has found a good job by then or not. *crossing fingers*

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  5. I came upon this amusing video explaining Steampunk aesthetic and thought you and your followers would enjoy it: http://youtu.be/TFCuE5rHbPA

    Also, if you guys are interested in Steampunk and would like to become fans and supporters of a Steampunk web series, I suggest visiting http://www.TinkerWebSeries.com and http://www.facebook.com/Tinker.official .

    They were exhibiting at Anime Expo 2012 in LA and seemed to have a good draw. They recently announced that they were going to be exhibiting at Stan Lee's Comikaze in September of this year, which I really look forward to seeing as the convention is supposed to appeal to a broader number of people. ^_^

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