“My parents became cyberpunks and all they left me was this dark future.”
– R. Talsorian Games’ “Cyberpunk”
Culture is a technology; it’s a massive, crowdsourced technology. All culture is that way; but Steampunk is a unique tool, and we have the opportunity to use it in unique ways.
Regardless of its scale, culture is a thing whose emergence and evolution are part of a feedback loop of human behaviors – culture influences how we act, how we act influences how we codify our responses to each other, and our responses to each other influence what becomes a part of our culture.
Steampunk is a silly culture based on a ridiculous patently untrue presence – however you define Steampunk, it is a part of a consciously imaginary 19th century. We know Steampunk takes place in the past but didn’t actually happen. We know it isn’t, in that sense, “real”. (And sure, I know I just wrote that Steampunk is real, and why that’s important. And that’s actually part of what brought to mind how important it is that Steampunk isn’t real.)
Here’s the thing: most human cultures are larger than we can control. Most smaller cultural movements that seek to create better worlds try to do that by changing the larger culture through politics and influence, and that has a tremendous weight of responsibility behind it. Be it the French Revolution or the Hippie movement, trying to say, “Everything is wrong, and we’ll make it right” is a big, dangerous, difficult thing to do.
Steampunk doesn’t do that. Steampunk says, “Let go and be ridiculous”. But it’s not a one-off. You’re not laughing at a comedy and going back to being serious, or getting drunk and messing about and then getting sober, or throwing a party and then going back to the regular world. Steampunk gives you a reason to let go and be ridiculous at lots of different times, in lots of different places.
And the thing about Steampunk is that it’s not passive, it’s active. We’re creating Steampunk. We’re creating it every day – whether we’re making Steampunk art, or listening to some music and appreciating it, or reading this article and (hopefully) taking a few minutes out of your regular world to mull over this alternative, nonexistent-yet-fascinating, deeply more whimsical world.
Steampunk gives us a platform for building unique interactions with other human beings in social contexts, both in person and from afar. And it’s a tool that lets us do so in a way which can’t be too serious – because Steampunk, even dark, serious Steampunk, is never too far from its close relative, patently absurd Steampunk.
Steampunk is a cultural tool that lets the world be a slightly more ludicrous place. And sometimes, that is a very deeply needful thing.
Jeff Mach runs Jeff Mach Events, which in turn runs the world’s largest Steampunk event, The Steampunk World’s Fair; the peculiar Faerie festival Glimmerdark, and co-runs Dark Side Of The Con (with VampireFreaks). He’s on Twitter @steamworldsfair.