The inventor of steampunk?

My blog was featured yesterday on the excellent German steampunk site www.clockwerker.de.  I would like to offer thanks and greetings to the German steampunk community.

There were a number of comments concerning the topic of “uber-punks” and the final one was this:

Meine Damen und Herren – einzig die Person, welche glaubhaft nachweislich den Steampunk erfunden hat, ist rein juristisch in der Position, ihn auch definieren zu dürfen und eventuelle Testate, Zeugnisse oder Bescheinigungen auszustellen. Bestimmte Anmerkungen zu diesem Thema weiter oben sind damit wohl obsolet.

Now it is many years since I lived in Germany and I am very rusty but I translated it as:

Ladies and gentlemen – only the person who is credibly proven to have invented steampunk is in a clear  legal position  to define it and  make possible attestations.. Specific earlier comments on this topic are thus probably obsolete.

I apologise if I have misunderstood and advice from native German speakers would be very welcome.

Now where am I going with this?   My posts on this blog thus far have been about control of steampunk.  Some people seek to define what it should be in order to be able to either promote their own agenda (e.g. all steampunks are imperialists), to bolster their own egos or to exercise control.   I deplore these attitudes and strongly advocate that steampunk be an open and accessible scene where people inject their own creativity and imagination.  Whether other people like and enjoy the offering is purely up to them.  We could call it “freemarket steampunk”.

Now that begs the question does steampunk have an inventor?   I know all about Jeter coining the term (see my post on “Origins”) but all he did in my opinion is invent a label or signpost.  (Even that label is a derivation of his original term – he suggested that he, Blaylock and Powers were steampunks and the world has accepted that Victorian Fantasies be called steampunk.)    Whilst Verne,  Wells, Shelley, Stoker etc were writing fantasies from the 19th and early 20th centuries they were of course not labeled as steampunk, the world had not adopted the label, but they were writing works which have contributed to the building blocks of steampunk.  Visual interpretations by filmmakers, especially Disney, added far more to components to this mix etc.   By the 1980s there was a rich vein of inspiration to be mined and incorporated into new works.  Victorian fantasies and “gaslamp fantasies” were growing in popularity with spin offs into role play gaming etc.

As the 20th Century drew to a close new phenomena began to emerge.  Inspired no doubt by books and film and TV people began making objects and clothing with a victorian fantasy flavour that were swiftly dubbed steampunk.  The derivative label was being applied and as it entered common parlance then the people who used the term were making their own definitions.  Steampunk as a genre and scene was growing organically.  Unstructured, uncontrolled but with a grounding in what had gone before it could be equated to a tree growing in the forest.  The trunk was there from before Jeter.  His label now led to branches moving away from the trunk and diverging from the origins.  Some of these branches have grown strong and smaller branches have grown from them. Others have struggled and dwindled.

Some people have tried to train and prune the tree.  If it had been possible to confine it to an ornamental garden with only one or two people controlling it then it could have been shaped as they wished.  Of course the big wide world is a wild place.  Dissemination of ideas through the internet mean it is impossible to control ideas as closely as some might like.  The steampunk tree has flourished and prospered and now it is far too big for pruning.

My conclusion?  There is no inventor of steampunk.  There is no way that any has the right to claim control over it.  It is a living and vibrant genre, scene, community and sub culture and where it chooses to go should make for an interesting ride even if we do not all like every single avenue it takes.

On the “authenty-nazi” and subcultures.

What is an “authenty-nazi” (sometimes also known as a “stitch-nazi”.)   These are people who inhabit the historical and re-enactment worlds and seem to delight in telling you that you are wrong.   I am not talking about authenticity officers etc who have a job to do – to make sure that a presentation is as accurate as required for the benefit of the audience.  The authenty-nazi (shall we short that to A-N*?) actually delights in pointing out failings.

What generates this pleasure?  Principally ego and power.

A-N’s love to feel superior.  They need to feel they know more than anyone else and moreover have to demonstrate that fact so that YOU are aware they know more than anyone else.

A-N’s love to show off.  This is particularly the case in periods where original items are still available (e.g late 19th-20th centuries.)  They delight in showing that their collection of original items or “museum quality replicas” is far superior to anyone else’s.  They will pick fault with other people’s kit to bolster their ego through their own.

A-N’s love to feel powerful.  They enjoy the opportunity to tell people that they cannot wear or use something or see their deflation as they “inform” them of how worthless their possession really is.

The need to bolster one’s ego at the expense of others is understandable (due to the underlying competitive nature of the human mind) but that does not make it right or acceptable.

The sharing of knowledge is laudable but it can be done as a gentle guide, a teacher or a leader by example rather than someone who lectures at, is dismissive and demanding of approbation.  A-N’s know they are right and will tell you they are right and not brook any dissent or questioning.  A guide will lead you to understand the knowledge in question.  You come to the conclusions they are offering and you do not simply acquiesce to their superiority.

Whilst I have said the A-N inhabits the historical and re-enactment world there are counterparts in other worlds.  The “Gothier-than-thous” or “Uber-goths” for example.  Regrettably the A-N equivalents are also making  forays into the steampunk world too  although in this context perhaps they  should actually be known as “punk-nazis” or better still “uber-punks”.

The uber-punk will delight in telling you that your sidecap is a Russian one from 1956 so has no place in a steampunk ensemble but would properly be part of a dieselpunk outfit.  They may suggest that your outfit is of rather poor quality and that they know where you could buy a much better one like theirs (or indeed they could make you one for a price.)   They will delight in telling you “you can’t wear that, it isn’t steampunk..!”  (Shock, horror.)  They will take pleasure in phrases such as “you are not a real steampunk because…you don’t have any goggles/you are wearing jeans/have got a modern camera” etc.  You even get member of the muggle/normal/public saying “I bet they didn’t have those in Victorian times…”

Well the bottom line ladies and gentlemen is this is a fantasy world.  Of course you can wear what you damn well like. (Within legal and decency limits of course). You may have a very limited budget or may be making things and your skills are improving.  Uber-punkss do not have a right to be unpleasant and abusive and should be challenged when they are.  The simple admonishment of a confident steampunk walking up to them and saying  “that’s not a very splendid thing to say, steampunks don’t do that…” should suffice.

Bolster your ego by having friends who value your company and who complement you on your creativity or skills not by demanding people listen to your superior knowledge.  If you have to show off then do it with humility and by people looking at you and yours not by you denigrating what they have in comparison.  The way to exercise power is as a leader and a guide, letting people follow your thoughts and ideas because they value them and wish to, not because they are compelled to.

We don’t need “uber-punks”.  They do however need us because they need an audience.  Don’t just reject them however show them how to enjoy our vibrant subculture.

Be Splendid.

* The use of the suffix “nazi” (note the small n)  is commonplace and suggests overt, unpleasant control and wielding of power.  I think it is appropriate but also has unpleasant overtones.  We can use alternative words hence the abbreviation.

Is Steampunk just about novels? I don’t think so.

Is it all about novels?

Some commentators would have you think that Steampunk is purely about science fiction novels. Personally I think such protests say more about the commentator, their drives and motives than it does about Steampunk.   I am happy to say that such commentators are in a small (if vociferous) minority.

Steampunk is a growing and maturing scene and even within the field of the written world works are pushing boundaries and inspiring creativity.

Whilst in the US earlier this year I had the great fortune to make two new friends. Emilie Porman Bush and William Kevin Petty.  Emilie is a driven writer who works hard at crafting words, taking care to ensure they say what she wants them to.  Kevin is a superb illustrator with his own very distinctive style.   Together they have created a book aimed at children which has very recently gone on sale in the UK. 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Her-Majestys-Explorer-Steampunk-Bedtime/dp/0984902805/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340742082&sr=8-1

Image

The book is written for younger children and is described as a bedtime story.  The sort of book you might sit and read to your child as they look at the illustrations.  It is the perfect way for the child of a steampunk who wants to learn more and get more involved in the genre to be introduced to the written word.

I am perhaps a little disappointed that steampunk as a subculture has developed so rapidly as our children have moved out into the wide world.  I have missed the chance to share this book with them.  Still grandchildren are now on the horizon so my opportunity to sit and read the tale of Her Majesty’s Explorer is approaching. 

 Steampunk as a scene is maturing and works such as this demonstrate the fact.  This is work by Steampunk creatives whose mediums of choice are the written word and drawn image.  Theirs is not a cash in project seeking the brass dollar.  They get it and it comes across in this delightful little book. I often encourage steampunks to create and to be splendid in their creations.  This book is just that, splendid.

As for the commentators I mentioned at the start of this post?  Well, the aggressive genre controllers would have us think that there is no place for things such as this in steampunk.  Perhaps they are missing the fact that each time something is created that draws people to steampunk then the potential for success for their novels is increased?  I fear that their arrogance may be clouding their vision a little since they may believe that their word is the truth and people who do not agree are beneath them.  Such a shame that they seem to be missing out on the pleasure and fun of this vibrant sub culture and all its creativity.

Like all children’s tales this story (that is my blog, not Her Majesty’s Explorer as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you) has a moral:

Engage with people showing them the respect of listening rather than telling and you will find the world a more rewarding place.

On the term “Steampunk” and its origin.

The Origin of Steampunk

In the April 1987 issue of Locus Magazine KW Jeter wrote the following letter:

“Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…

—K.W. Jeter”

He is thereforely widely credited as being the originator of steampunk.  I have no problem with this at all but some observers and commentators would have that in doing so we have to establish boundaries for “true steampunk”.  it’s a bit like a religion really with true believers, heretics and the inquisition.  They might say “well steampunk can only be applied to novels” or “steampunk cannot exist before 1987.”

Apart from the fact that is quite obviously ludicrous, as an academic exercise I would like to analyse the above letter and see whee conclusions should actually be drawn.

You see he doesn’t call the books he is writing “steampunk“.  He calls them “gonzo-historical” and refers to the genre as  Victorian fantasies. Indeed the labels “Victorian Fantasies” and “Gaslamp Fantasies” were commonly used back then.

He describes the so called “triumverate” of Powers, Blaylock and himself as “Steampunks”.

If the “heretic hunters” were correct therefore they would argue that the only steampunk fiction would be that created by the three named writers, the Steampunks,  and everything else would be just “Victorian fantasies”.

We therefore need to make a judgement:

1) The only people who can create steampunk are Jeter, Powers and Blaylock or

2) That everything created by Steampunks is steampunk?

3) Steampunk is another name by association for Victorian Fantasies.

I favour the latter two, primarily because they allows other people to take inspiration and add their own creativity.  Mind you I am that sort of inclusive thinker.  I like people to join in and enjoy.

Are the ones who want to build barriers people who prefer to exclude or exercise power in some way? 

That is perhaps another question to ask.

Steampunk fashions – and the stereotypes some would claim they represent.

On steampunk stereotypes based on fashion choices.

Steampunk?  Let’s be clear for a moment.  I am not talking about a sub genre of science fiction stories here.  My experiences and perceptions are based upon steampunk as a subculture and community. Principally here in the UK but also in parts of Canada and in the US and from my interactions both face to face and online with people from further afield.  These comments therefore relate to the steampunk sub culture and how it is perceived by people who are not active members of it.

Outsiders often look at steampunk fashions and can make assumptions:

They see pith helmets and scarlet coats and automatically assume we are all neo colonialists trying to resurrect the glories of Empire.   They miss out several key aspects: First and foremost; it looks bloody good.  One reason these uniforms were adopted was because they looked so good.  Secondly the imagery and characters of the fiction, films and artwork of the genre and sub culture suggest these styles.  It is possible to adopt a fashion without adopting political views too just the same way as it is possible to wear training shoes (sneakers) because you like them rather than because you intend to run 10 miles.

(Edit – as pointed out to me by a steampunk friend.  One could hardly accuse The Beatles of being conservative colonialists just because of their fashion choices when they made Sgt Pepper’s…)

They see top hats and frock coats and assume we are all ultra conservative and monarchists.  Let’s look at the inspirational material again.  Do a websearch for Victorian man and you will see formal dress on a plethora of images.  Formality was the order of the day.  All classes wore hats and dressed as well as they could on holydays and holidays.   Once again this is also part of the visual literacy of the genre and subculture. To assume political views based upon garments is stereotyping and bigotry and nothing less.

Mind you they also see lots of corsetry etc. Do they make the assumption that every steampunk wearing a corset is a harlot or of easy virtue?  No, of course not. Things have moved on haven’t they?  People can wear “underwear as outerwear” as a fashion statement and not because they are advertising for kerb crawling customers. Heck you even see men wearing corsets.  Well if this is the case then why MUST military inspired outfits or formal dress mean we are all Imperialistic Monarchists who want to turn back the clock to times of oppression and repression? (Don’t worry it’s a rhetorical question.)

Steampunks are modern people with modern views and outlooks.  They are a very mixed group (this is because they are a very welcoming and inclusive group)  so inevitably you will find people with all types of political views.  It is not possible to generalise and stereotype them by their politics however just based on their fashion choices.  The people who do so are usually those with their own agenda that they wish to promote and use assumption to the verge of bigotry.

Well what is steampunk?

Well where does one start with a new blog? Difficult isn’t it? I suppose people tend to begin with an introduction or similar. Mind you, if people are going to read this blog I suspect they already have at least an inkling of who I am so is that really necessary?

I don’t think I will be updating the blog too often. Work will of course get in the way. (This is both professional work in TV and the written word and voluntary work within the steampunk and historical worlds.) Even so I intend to make posts on an irregular basis and shall endeavour to be entertaining or thought provoking.

I am working on a brief article about the origins of steampunk. In the meantime I would like to post a slightly updated version of an old article from 2009…

What is steampunk?

I first wrote an article trying to explain what Steampunk is some three years ago, (redrafting it last year). It proved to be very popular indeed and has been quoted in several subsequent works, articles etc. Both steampunk and my understanding of steampunk have moved on since then so this is a redraft and expansion of previous articles.

Well to begin with let’s clear up the name. “Steampunk” started as a joke. There was a movement in science fiction to write in a genre known as “Cyberpunk”. When various writers began exploring similar concepts and ideas but setting them in a pseudo Victorian world one of those writers, K.W. Jeter jokingly coined the term “steampunks”.  As a tongue in cheek descriptor it stuck.

The name DOES NOT define the genre. Nor is 1987 the genesis of the scene. Steampunk has been a feature of Western Culture since the Victorian age itself. Jules Verne, HG Wells, even Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker have contributed to the wealth of imagery and ideas which steampunks enjoy so much. Of course since then there have been an absolute multitude of other influences from movies such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Wild Wild West to comic books, novels, music bands and tinkerers. What Steampunks should thank Jeter for is coming up with a name which serves as a signpost to help them to find people with similar interests and tastes.

Steampunk has now developed into an extended network which encompasses a wide variety of input from a highly creative and artistic community. It includes writers, musicians, dancers, sculptors, model makers, costume makers and a host of other disciplines and skills. It has been summed up as “Well can you imagine what things would be like if the Great Exhibition had never finished?” Steampunks try to take some of the very best parts of the past and make them part of a bright future. Steampunks value good manners and polite conduct and try to encourage this by setting an example for others. They think things should be made to a high quality and to last thus helping the environment. They value and encourage creativity and indeed have been asked to collaborate in educational and arts projects across the globe.

Whilst things are set in a pseudo historical world which harks back to our Victorian heritage steampunks do not promote any of the inequalities of that past. Indeed theirs is deliberately an all inclusive community. You will find steampunks of all ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds and abilities. They also come from all walks of life from students to academics and from comedians to solicitors.

Can you still call it steam-PUNK? Well you don’t see everyone with bright Mohican haircuts and clothing fastened together with safety pins if that is what you mean. However Punk in the seventies was a rebellion against contemporary society. It is plain that steampunks are rebelling but theirs is more a stand against throwaway society, poor manners and antisocial behaviour, homogenisation and commercialism. It is not a youth culture as punk was – it appeals to all ages.  Is it punk? You have to make your own judgement.

Steampunks are generally polite, friendly, care about the environment , the past and the future and creativity and individuality.

Steampunk started as a label for a science fiction genre but it is now a label or signpost to a community.  This is a community which  has its own fashions, music and tastes. It is a community that enjoys socialising, often dressing in distinctive steampunk fashions. You may see steampunks visiting historical sites as well as enjoying music gigs and performances. Steampunks often make or modify everyday objects to fit the neo victorian aesthetic. This could be making a wood and brass cabinet for your PC or a mock raygun suitable for an adventure with Jules Verne.

The DIY ethic is very strong in steampunk (as it was in ‘70s punk). With creativity being the main common denominator this is hardly surprising. It also fits in with the philosophies on sustainability, durability and craftsmanship. It is after all more environmentally friendly to take an object and repurpose it giving it a whole new lease of life than it is to recycle it.

In a recent exercise to “explain steampunk in a sentence” a group from across the world came up with:

“Steampunk is a creative social movement that draws inspiration from Victorian and pre-war history in an anachronistic mix of science fiction, modern values and a sense of fun.”

Whilst this doesn’t explain it all it is a fine place to start and gives a good idea of what it is about. To get a handle on the flavour of the scene the same exercise also produced:

“Steampunk is nostalgia for what never was!”

It should be very swiftly pointed out that neither of these statements, nor indeed this article, acts to define steampunk. This has proven to be an impossible task. Steampunk is a very personal thing and everyone’s idea of what it should be is individual to them. The sign of a steampunk who is confident in the community is that they are prepared to acknowledge that there is no definition and no boundaries to steampunk other than the imagination of the individual.

There is however one rule.

BE NICE TO ONE ANOTHER.

This should suffice.