“Steampunk!? That’s so last year!”
It’s so last century and a half, actually, but who’s counting? Apparently, a few people are counting, as someone always chimes in with this sentiment whenever we post anything to the MAKE blog from the alternative-Victorian subculture known as steampunk. But while some are sounding the death knell of steampunk (we hope it’s a brass bell they’re clanging), we suspect many readers may not even know what it is yet.
Steampunk traces its literary roots to the dime novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and the invention-adventure tales of the late 1800s eventually dubbed Edisonades. In the 1980s, sci-fi and fantasy writers like K.W. Jeter, James P. Blaylock, and Tim Powers began placing their “gonzo-historical”
fantasies in an alternative 19th century, where high tech mixed with gaslight, brass, and steam.
Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s 1990 novel, The Difference Engine, fully crystallized the genre, positing a central question: what would have happened to the future if Charles Babbage’s design for his “difference engine,” a proposed Victorian-era mechanical computer, had actually been built and the digital revolution had begun a century earlier? From this fertile question, a thousand speculative fictions bloomed.
Then something interesting happened a few years ago. Unlike other designer subgenres of sci-fi, steampunk’s consumers didn’t just want to read it anymore, they wanted to build physical expressions of it. They wanted to be steampunk: to dress the part, make the fantastic gadgets, and blog about it
on brass-and-wood-modded computers. Think of it as Steampunk 2.0, a participatory genre that’s leaked off the page and into the real world, smudging
the margins between fantasy and reality, the last two centuries, and technologies of the past, present, and future.
While there’s plenty of debate as to why steampunk fans insist on taking it so far, its actual practitioners tend not to overthink it. We like our cover spokesgentleman Jake von Slatt’s approach. In episode 3 of Make: television (makezine.tv), he says: “What makes steampunk important is the community it’s created — an incredibly diverse community of people: 65-year-old steam hobbyists in the U.K., fans of goth-industrial music in Seattle, people interested in making steampunk clothes, fashion, jewelry, and so on. My greatest hope for steampunk is that it will continue to attract people into this really wonderful community.”
Von Slatt calls himself a “maker who happens to work in a steampunk style.” He sees steampunk as a kind of carrier wave for holding people’s interest in the art of making things. At Maker Faire, you’ll find many other enclaves of people riding on different maker carrier waves: art car builders, mutant bicycle makers, robot combatants, fire artists, circuit benders, and many more. They’re all makers; they’re just working in whatever aesthetic appeals most to them.
For those who love the intersection of romance and technology, and fancy reviving the cooler aspects of the Victorian era, steampunk has obvious appeal. If it’s not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other maker communities that’ll gladly welcome you into their garages, too.
We’re calling the theme for this issue Lost Knowledge, because we want to cast our net wider than steampunk — to explore any type of forgotten technology, from ancient Greek computers to analog copying machines to apocalyptic zine printing of the 18th century — and because we’re suckers for a little techno-romance ourselves. But obviously, it’s not lost or it wouldn’t be in these pages.
In fact, technology may be difficult to lose. In a recent interview, technology scholar and Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly observed that, unlike biological species, technologies are actually hard to drive into extinction. For example, there are now more people flint-knapping (making stone arrowheads) than during its prehistoric heyday. Why? Because people enjoy keeping old skills alive. And it’s fun!
It’s also proof that, along with steampunk, there are countless technological carrier waves from the past. So find one that appeals to you, climb aboard, and start making! Dressing the part is up to you.