Jim Beckerman and Jeff Mach on Steampunk
(This is from an article in NorthJersey.com)
Do you like sci-fi but also gears, nuts, bolts and goggles? You’ll love Steampunk
“Back to the future.” That, in a word, is Steampunk.
OK, several words.
Steampunk, basically, is retro-futurism. It’s a mix of space-age science and steam-age technology. “I usually define steampunk as a 19th-century flavor or aesthetic, used to color how we might view the present and the future,” Jeff Mach of Hackensack, who founded the eight-year-old Steampunk World’s Fair, told NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey in 2017.
“Steampunk,” the term, was born in April 1987, when the fantasy writer K.W. Jeter (“Morlock Night”) wrote an open letter in the April issue of the sci-fi magazine Locus. “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing,” Jeter wrote. Writers of the genre, he said, ought to have a name.
“Just as a joke, I came up with the term ‘Steampunk,’” Jeter recalled 30 years later. (He spoke to NorthJersey.com by email.) “That has pretty much become the de facto term.”
He was playing on the term “cyberpunk” — coined in 1980 to describe sci-fi writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Philip K. Dick, whose brand of high-tech fantasy has made some inroads into Hollywood (“Blade Runner,” the “Matrix” movies).
Steampunk, a kind of low-tech fantasy, has been even more influential. If you haven’t heard the term — and many people still haven’t — you’ve likely seen the thing itself.
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Where? In movies like “Wild Wild West,” “Brazil,” “The Golden Compass,” “Hugo,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” “City of Ember” and “Crimson Peak.” In TV shows like “Warehouse 13,” “Firefly” and “Dr. Who.” On Broadway in the magic show “The illusionists.” The recent Sherlock Holmes movie series with Robert Downey Jr. contains steampunk elements, as does the film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
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Steampunk has made its influence felt on music, fashion, music videos, video games, the fine arts and even the martial arts. Bartitsu, a form of Victorian self-defense, resurfaced in the Robert Downey “Sherlock Holmes” movies; today it’s taught at steampunk conventions.
“Everybody that’s alive today has been exposed to steampunk aesthetics, whether consciously or unconsciously,” said “Professor Adam Smasher,” a Middlesex County steampunk musician, whose band the Eternal Frontier covers songs like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
“There are several Beatles songs that have an inherent Steampunk aesthetic,” he said.
Steampunk is the past as imagined by the future. Or is it the future as imagined by the past? In any case, it’s a very post-modern genre — one in which time and historical period are as fluid as some people today insist gender should be. Anachronism is not merely encouraged; it’s the whole point.
Steampunk is also an umbrella term for a fan base and a lifestyle. When they’re not reading classic steampunk books about Victorian computers (“The Difference Engine” by erstwhile cyberpunks Gibson and Sterling), clockwork humans (“Infernal Devices” by Jeter) and 19th-century dirigibles piloted by space aliens (“Homunculus” by James P. Blaylock), enthusiasts listen to steampunk bands like the Aeronauts, Lady Laudanum and Steam Powered Giraffe and gather at steampunk conventions.
Like their Renaissance Faire brethren, they love to dress up. Only, their chosen mode is 19th- and early-20th-century retro — Victorian whimsy with a space-age twist. Their tropes include top hats, corsets, fans, Victorian pith helmets, mechanical arms, outlandish retro weaponry, and any kind of outfit that can be made to contain gears, cams, cogs, nuts, bolts and rivets. And goggles. Especially goggles.
“Goggles are a clear specifically defining visible characteristic that anyone can wear,” Mach said. “The connotation is flying, or working on an airship, or doing science. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to show you’re doing something Steampunk.”
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @jimbeckerman1