My Steampunk Interview With The Record

Jeff Mach
7 min readNov 28, 2020

Game Changers: Steampunk turns 30

Jim Beckerman

Staff Writer@jimbeckerman1

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Happy birthday, Steampunk: April 1987

How old are you now? 30

“Time present and time past,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “are both perhaps present in time future.”

Just what did the Nobel-prize-winning poet mean by that crack? Not, most likely, that pop culture would increasingly blur the lines between past and present — to the point that sci-fi writers and filmmakers would feel free to imagine 19th century characters using steam-powered computers and clockwork robots, or that 21st century “steampunk” fans would flock to conventions wearing Victorian top hats and jewelry made of old-fashioned gears and rivets.

But there’s no need to guess what Eliot meant. Just get your local steampunk to strap on his goggles, fire up his coal-powered time machine, and transport you back to 1941. You can ask him yourself.

Steampunk, essentially, is retro-futurism, 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,” says Jeff Mach of Hackensack, who founded the eight-year-old Steampunk World’s Fair, the largest event of its type, coming to Piscataway May 5 to 7.

“Steampunk,” the term, was born in April 1987–30 years ago this month — 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 recalls 30 years later. (He spoke to The Record 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.

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 recent film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

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,” says “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 says.

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 says. “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.”

“Upcycling,” is a big word in steampunk circles. It means reusing old bits of flotsam and jetsam — particularly antique hardware — in creative ways. If you see bracelets made of hex nuts and watch springs, chairs made of rusting treadles and velocipede seats, or wall hangings made from hundred-year-old rods, cranks, valves, levers and flywheels, you’re looking at steampunk.

“The people who are into it are very creative, so everybody is making their costumes, their props,” says Rita Flores, a digital artist from Bogota who got into steampunk about four years ago. “People upcycle a lot of stuff. They take something that already exists and change it, and make it old but new at the same time.”

Though the term “steampunk” dates to 1987, the idea itself probably goes back much further — to at least the 1950s. That decade, which saw the beginnings of the space race and the computer age, is the time when the future as we now think of it began to shape itself. It was a future that was, even then, starting to diverge quite a bit from the one envisioned by the first generation of 19th century sci-fi writers, like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

That gap between what the future was once imagined to be, and the way the future actually turned out, is where steampunk lives.

“To me, it’s a modernized expression of the Victorian era,” says Alex Taylor of Clifton, who has been into steampunk for more than two years. “People have their own idea of what they want to look like, and what they want to be perceived as.”

A key moment was in 1954, when Walt Disney filmed Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The studio made a fateful decision: rather than try to update the 1869 novel, they would do the whole thing in period. Captain Nemo’s prototypical submarine, the Nautilus, contains plush Victorian red carpet, mahogany, brass fittings,19th-century upholstery and a full-size pipe-organ. The effect was enchanting, and other films followed suit: “From the Earth to the Moon” (1958) “The Time Machine” (1960) and “First Men in the Moon” (1964) featured time travelers in Edwardian frock coats and astronauts with snuff boxes. It was all very whimsical.

Twenty years later, when Michael Radford filmed George Orwell’s 1949 novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” he depicted the year 1984 as imagined in 1949 — an “alternate” future in which TVs still had old-fashioned picture tubes and movies were still in black and white. That was quickly followed by “Brazil” (1985), which took the retro-future look even further. By the time Jeter coined actual term, in 1987, steampunk as a concept had been well established.

“I like to say that it was 1987 when steampunk became aware of itself,” Adam Smasher, the steampunk musician, says.

Steampunk isn’t all whimsy. “The genre has become a vehicle for a kind of crazy, alternate-reality, historical and cultural critique,” Jeter said. “Ignorant people try to slam steampunk as just some kind of white-guy extolling of the British Empire, but in fact there are a lot of non-white steampunk writers who take off from their own particular ethnic and cultural backgrounds to come up with their stuff, and those can be pretty interesting viewpoints.”

Other fans are just enchanted by the look, by the droll and playful mixing of styles and periods. For some, there is an element of nostalgia for a time they never knew: a pre-digital world where machines were hands-on, technology was comprehensible, and any backyard tinkerer could cobble together a moon rocket with a few spare nuts and bolts and a little elbow grease.

“The 19th century was a time when it was believed it was still possible to know everything,” Mach says. “This was before the uncertainty principle. We didn’t know the scope of our ignorance.”

Some steampunk fans say they miss the optimism, the spirit of adventure, in that turn-of-the-20th century world when the future looked bright and machines seemed to be the answer to everything. And some say they just miss Victorian good manners. Steampunk is a notably friendly, polite subculture.

“There is something to live up to, from the old school world of good manners,” Adam Smasher says. “The first words on my card are, ‘Gentleman, and musician.’”



Jeff Mach

Jeff Mach’s an author, event creator, and Villain. His new show’s, and his Dark Lord book is at