What is Steampunk?
I’ve always loved the definition by our friend and frequent guest, the talented author Gail Carriger: ”
“Steampunk is…the love child of Hot Topic and a BBC costume drama”
That’s just silly enough not to tie you down to one place, and yet accurate enough to give you a definition you could actually use. I really enjoy it.
But in a world where people seem to find it critical to figure out exactly what Steampunk is, I’d like to take a different approach. I’d like to talk about the question of what Steampunk is not. Or, more specifically, I’d like to talk about why that is one of the least helpful questions one can ask.
Steampunk is nothing if not eclectic, nothing if not eccentric, nothing if not world-spanningly strange. And I mean that in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Metaphorically, the worlds of Steampunk are unbelievably diverse unbelievably mutable. They’re unbelievably able to not only take on a myriad of forms and shapes, but to also interact with other Steampunk worlds which are quite different…and do it on terms that are not only friendly, but downright joyous.
And so, when we get to questions of what Steampunk is and is not, I think it’s important to think about some of the things that we really ought not worry about asking. Or at least, questions which we should use sparingly, because they’re often not the best things to ask or say.
Questions we don’t often need to ask:
“Is this Steampunk enough?” It’s not that we never, ever need to ask that. But the fact is that there are few forces out there who are trying to rip off Steampunk by saying something is when it is not. And that’s because, in general, Steampunk’s arbiters are everyone in Steampunk
Steampunk is made up of the entire multitude, the vast and essentially democratic universe of every expert, every maker, every esteemed figure… AND every complete newbie, everyone who is curious, everyone who simply wants to see what’s going on. The question of whether or not something is Steampunk becomes somewhat irrelevant, because it’s a question which matters most if people are trying to exploit Steampunk for some reason…and we simply aren’t inclined to let that happen. If something is of interest to majority of Steampunks, we’ll likely to support it. If something isn’t of interest to that group, we’ll likely forget it. If you make something of interest to a lot of Steampunks, then you’ve created something which is sufficiently Steampunk. You’re not taking advantage of anything. There’s no reason to do it, and no way to do it.
“Am I Steampunk enough?” This is a totally understandable question. But it’s a question you need not really worry about. Sure, you can be concerned on on a direct level, in terms of whether or not you’re likely to enjoy a given Steampunk thing. But in such cases, follow your heart and your interests. It’s just like anything else. If you think you might like it, and it’s worth the expenditure of your time and energy to give it a try, give it a try. If you’re not sure, and where the risks, and decide. That’s true for everything, from movies, to baseball games, to library books, to buying a new car, to attempting to learn how to levitate to the moon. (Note: please not attempt levitate to the moon. We are busy building a gigantic replica of Atlantis up there, and we want it to be a surprise.)
And here’s a final question that falls into the category of its own that category is:
“Will I be welcome at this Steampunk place or thing?” The answer is going to differ based on which social group in which Steampunk thing you’re talking about, true; tthere is no scene or social world which is entirely without its hierarchies, its pecking orders, and its pettiness. There are always going to be some people who just won’t make folks feel welcome, and while I believe those people are probably unhappy no general lives, they do exist, and Steampunk is not 100% free of them.
However, for a number of reasons, which I talk about in my other writings, Steampunks are some of the warmest and most accepting people on the planet. We have to be; after all, the ridiculous is our forte and our home. It is pretty damn weird to judge somebody if you yourself take great pride in the nonfunctional goggles on the impractical top hat which shows off the lovely but peculiar corset you’re wearing over your sneakers and Slytherin socks. There are people managed who can be judgmental under those conditions, sure. But they are in the minority, and while they’re not silly in a good way, they are still silly as heck; other Steampunks don’t take those people seriously. Judge not, lest people look at you and say, “Oh, come ON now, quit it!”
So in short, the simplest questions of Steampunk may be the best one: “Hey can I have fun with this? Can I do something with this? Can I make this something that enriches my life, and maybe even the lives of others?” And if you don’t want to get that deep, let it be as simple as “Does this top hat fit?” Because personally, I think you would look great with a pair of impossible goggles.
Jeff Mach’s newest rock opera Kickstarter has only a few days left! Check it out at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jeffmach/what-sharp-teeth-jeff-machs-third-peculiar-rock-op/. He runs Jeff Mach Events, which put on the world’s largest Steampunk event, The Steampunk World’s Fair; the Halloween vacation Halloween in the Catskills; America’s only Goth/Dark Alternative convention, Dark Side Of The Con (with VampireFreaks); and Glimmerdark, the Misfit Faerie Festival.