Why Steampunk (still) Matters

“There is nothing better than imagining other worlds . . . to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.” Umberto Eco, Baudolino

Singer Building Under Construction
Figure 1. The Singer Building Under Construction. The Singer, funded by revenues from the sale of sewing machines, is the tallest building ever peaceably demolished. This beautiful Beaux Arts gem was torn down to build an anonymous office tower that is most notable for housing the offices of NASDAQ and Goldman Sachs. Is this progress?

We help administer one of the largest (virtual) communities of self-identified steampunks, Steampunk Facebook. There isn’t a reliable way to assess the opinions of our one hundred thousand members, but from our entirely subjective assessment of the community we have become increasingly convinced that as a movement of social revolution Steampunk has failed. To be fair, there were those who argued, sometimes quite vehemently, that no such revolutionary program had ever begun – but we were some of the few who wanted to believe. We were never convinced that people were only attracted to Steampunk because it looked cool and made a great setting for adventure novels and RPGs. Instead we believed that Steampunk’s appeal was its inherent rejection of disposable consumerist culture and the dominance of our contemporary society by modern day robber barons. We felt that, even if most people couldn’t enunciate it, they were embracing Steampunk as a way to deal with the pervasive unease experienced by nearly everyone raised in the West on a steady diet of ideas like “planned obsolescence” and “for-profit health care” – on ideas spawned by a nineteenth century capitalist ethos run amok with twenty-first century technology. Frankly, we still believe that. Unfortunately, we can’t deny the reality that this hasn’t created a community of Steampunks who seriously adhere to a revolutionary, or even a particularly progressive, philosophy. There are certainly still steampunks out there fighting the good fight and there are significant overlaps between Steampunk and the aesthetic tastes of many social experimenters and counter-culture artists – but that’s not the same thing as saying that Steampunks as an ‘interest group’ seriously endorse any progressive real world agenda. 

It’s not even clear what the current significance is of the anti-authoritarian literature (Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, etc.) which drew many of the old guard of steampunks to the movement with its irreverence for aristocrats, industrialists, militarism, imperialism, and crass commercialism. To the extent that Steampunk remains a literary culture at all, most of the books in question have the feel of romances and pulp adventures (Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books, Geoff Falksen’s Hellfire Chronicles, Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, etc.) – entertaining, but far more ambiguous in their social commentary. And, to be frank, it seems like just as many or more of the youngbloods are here for the costumes (which are as likely to be aristocrats, industrialists, military policemen, and imperialists, as revolutionaries and pirates) as for books of any stripe. This trend is only accentuated by the relentless efforts of retailers both independent and multinational to cash in on the appeal of Steampunk. In short, when Justin Beiber’s handlers are dressing him in a Steampunk costume we can be confident that if Steampunk ever had claws with which to scare the Establishment, they have since been removed.

Figure 2. Justin Bieber and unnamed model in a still from a Steampunk-themed holiday music video.
Figure 2. Justin Bieber and unnamed model in a still from a Steampunk-themed holiday music video. While the vitriol expressed by many steampunks over this perceived appropriation was substantial, it was hardly novel. The far-better-received Castle episode in which Nathan Fillion’s character discovers a Steampunk sub-culture in New York City populated by role-playing investment bankers who spend their millions creating an escapist (and exclusive) Romantic Steampunk world is certainly just as fictive and pandering. We could continue, but if you’re interested enough in Steampunk to be reading this article, you’ve certainly already seem examples of various corporate elements using the Steampunk aesthetic to market media or material product.

These realizations have forced us to do a lot of soul-searching. Our own aesthetic tastes are probably closer to Steampunk than to any other style tribe, but is that enough to justify the hours we spend every day producing and narrating content for Steampunk as a community? Does any of this matter? Is anything that we do making the world a better place, or would we be better off campaigning for local political candidates or, for that matter, just reading and playing video games? We came up with some unexpected answers to those questions that we’re going to share in the next few pages – but the précis is: yes, Steampunk still matters because it allows us to imagine change, and that is the most important step in ultimately making such change a reality.

By serendipity, we encountered, in rapid succession, a similar idea twice from sources at very different places on the political spectrum. First, Mark Stevenson in his An Optimist’s Tour of the Future suggested that our contemporary society has been crushed by cynical dystopian views of the future. He argued, quite eloquently, that if every vision we have of the future is dismal we’re guaranteed to live in such a future. We might not have flying cars even if we imagine a future with them, but if we can’t imagine such a future, we’re certain not to realize it. He is a wry man, but he appears to make his living giving motivational speeches to executives and generally arguing that the whole system of oppressive corporatist rule will work out its kinks. At the other end of the spectrum is David Graeber who was released from Yale for union organizing and who was instrumental in making the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement happen.  Graeber argues that the most important victory of global capitalism in the last few decades hasn’t been material, but psychological in that it has robbed us of the ability to imagine a world in which the corporate plutocrats aren’t our overlords. Likewise, he argues, to cast off their rule the first thing we have to do is imagine a world, or many different worlds, where we do things differently. These authors are both drawing on older, more elegantly simple arguments from philosophers of history and science like Michel Foucault, who demonstrated that the history of western science (of which science fiction, be it tales of man-eating manticores or airships, has always been a part) is not a unilinear narrative of ever-increasing rightness, but rather a series of violent shifts in what is imagined to be possible. The message for a socially motivated imagination is the same, if we’re unhappy with the way things are, or with the place we think society is heading, we have to visualize some alternate destination.

Cherokee Alphabet
Figure 3.  The Cherokee Syllabary. The Cherokee alphabet was created by illiterate Native Americans after observing the effectiveness of the written word when used by Europeans. Rather than “reverse engineering” per se, it represented an invention inspired by knowing that something was possible.

This isn’t all the business of rarified theory, the real world is redolent with instances of imagination shaping existence. From a technological perspective, we only create what we believe to be possible. Morse created an effective telegraph system and the Wright brothers took flight at Kitty Hawk not as isolated mad inventors, but amongst of a sea of competitors all of whom had succumbed to a zeitgeist that believed such inventions could happen. Sometimes that knowledge is even more concrete as in one of our favorite examples: the alphabet created by the Cherokee people. These innovators could not read European languages, but they had come in contact with Europeans using writing and so they knew that such technology was possible. Inspired, they invented their own. Time machines, FTL travel, and machine consciousness may be as beyond us today as telephones, submarines, and aeroplanes were beyond da Vinci; but if we don’t consider the possibility of such technologies were are certain not to create them.

Social and political history are rife with comparable examples. It was once certain that women/non-whites would never be able to hold political office/practice medicine/be soldiers/etc. and then someone suggested that maybe they could. Then a lot of people considered the possibility. Then it went from being a possibility to an experiment. Then it became real. In the weeks before OWS the dominant political buzzwords were debt and deficit, in the weeks after they were jobs and unemployment. It remains to be seen whether that change in dialogue, in the imagined possible, will result in concrete change in policy. However, if we as a society aren’t even talking about job creation and the corporate corruption of government, we certainly aren’t going to address those issues. We believe that OWS has been so popular primarily because it has allowed a generation that had known a decade of despair and hopelessness to see that we COULD have different agendas and COULD have a world with a different distribution of power.

Figure 4. Cartoon demonstrating a heroic female nurse risking herself to treat a wounded soldier during the First World War.
Figure 4. Cartoon demonstrating a heroic female nurse risking herself to treat a wounded soldier during the First World War. Beyond obvious propagandist goals, such images serve a subtle end by simply positing a scenario that, through repetition, goes from being shocking and outlandish to palatable and ultimately even desirable.

Sadly, such imagination to change can work in negative directions as well. If you’d asked the best minds of the early nineteenth century where they saw their civilization headed they’d have talked about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, brotherhood based on common interests, anti-clericalism, and the triumph of reason. By the end of the nineteenth century, for a bevy of complex reasons, a completely different set of ideologies had become dominant. Brilliant people imagined the world as carved up into zones of control based on ethnic empires. The conviction that the most important distinction between people was their national/racial origins was so strong that when World War One arrived even the European socialists, men and women who had preached an international fraternity of labor, voted (with a few exceptions) for war. One could argue that their failure to resist the drive to war was a failure of vision – a failure to see the world in terms other than a life-and-death struggle between largely manufactured and mythological nationalist identities, and their co-constructed ‘enemies.’

In most of the cases outlined above the transition from imagination to reality has been amorphous and indirect. But there is also a long tradition of more explicit programmatic arguments dating back well before Thomas More’s Utopia and encompassing movements as diverse as the various real and imagined communes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Coleridge’s Pantisocracy, Hawthorn’s Brook Farm, etc.), the hippie movement of the mid twentieth, internal revolutions (the Russian being the most notable) and those against colonial rule (American, Indian, etc.). Such utopian programs need not be successful in realizing their aims: the imagined world of Marx that fueled the October Revolution and began in such hope, for example, ended with the bureaucratic totalitarian tyranny of the Soviet Union. But they are not always failures, either. It is difficult to imagine the overthrow of aristocratic rule in late eighteenth century France without the preceding generation of Enlightenment philosophers who had posited the vision of a republic with universal human rights.

Figure 5. Liberty Leading the People
Figure 5.  Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. Within the contemporary theatre-state, under the regime's advertising campaigns and media ‘blitzes,’ we are so saturated with propaganda that we have become blind to the subtleties (though sometimes they are not so subtle) of its language. Contemporary revolutionaries are portrayed as treacherous, dirty, and elitist while the uniformed defenders of the established order are squared-jawed and heroic. Not so long ago the most powerful images painted just the opposite picture as evidenced by this iconic representation of a personified Liberty at the barricades.

Science fiction has long had a role in shaping the popular imagination of the possible, including both desirable paths and those we would reject.  Jules Verne, the proto-Steampunk saint, is decidedly in the former camp and is frequently credited with inspiring most of the great technological inventions of the twentieth century. But he was just the most prominent of a large body of nineteenth century futurists who speculated on the machines lurking just over the temporal horizon (see, for example, Ashley’s Steampunk Prime and Clarke’s The Tale of the Next Great War as well as Jess Nevins’ excellent series of “Victorian Hugos). In most cases it’s probably not possible to establish a causal link between any of these writings and the research done to make something like their visions viable; but it’s easy to imagine them contributing to a general belief that a particular invention would be possible. In contrast, while Verne seemed most concerned with the technology itself, H.G. Wells, polymath that he was, was more interested in the interface of that technology with civilization, and in using fantasy as a tool for writing fables about today. The same can be said of E.M. Forster (who described himself as “a liberal . . . who found liberalism crumbling beneath him”), whose short story, “The Machine Stopped,” belongs on everyone’s Steampunk reading list. Their dystopian visions functioned more as warnings and as contemporary social commentary than as roadmaps, and along those lines we’re reminded of George Orwell, who wrote in 1984, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” There has perhaps never been a more effective conjuration of a possible world, nor a more strident call for us to ensure it never comes to be, than Orwell’s haunting vision. Writers are products of their times, so it’s no surprise that the twentieth century gave birth to as many science fiction dystopias as utopias; unfortunately, one can only go so far by listing all the worlds we don’t want to create. While enthusiasm for a Singularity event seems to have revived the utopian genre, this concept is usually so divorced from recognizable contemporary human existence (and human agency) that, as much as we might love to live in the Culture of Iain Banks with its benevolent god-like computers for example, we can’t really embrace it as a viable target for social change. Nonetheless, science fiction remains a successor to a long literary tradition of crafting utopias for tutelary purposes.

Early Twentieth Century Zeppelin
Figure 6. Early Twentieth Century Zeppelin. While Steampunks almost universally revere airships, they tend to be somewhat tongue-tied when asked to explain this affection. We have long suspected, without evidence, that it relates to the profound ungainliness of airships compared to modern aircraft – and to the fact that airship development stopped largely because of historical contingency and the resulting changes in cultural mood. Just like the trolley tracks we tore out of our cities to favor the blossoming automobile culture, airships were abandoned by choice out of proportion to their inherent limitations. Steampunks love them, we suspect, as a means of saying that we could live in a different world, perhaps one less efficient but more awe-inspiring, if only we would choose to.

While on first inspection Steampunk is obsessed with its gadgets and its fashion, at its heart it is a genre about people and society – and people and society recognizably related to our own. It is not (primarily, at least) a genre of intergalactic empires, fairy-witch-princesses, or near-omnipotent-alien- or artificial-intelligences; but rather one usually focused on people coping with technological revolutions and social realignments within worlds possessed of significant wealth and power asymmetries. While pirates, analogous to their hacker Cyberpunk precursors, are much loved anti-establishment protagonists, the action more frequently centers around comparatively unremarkable laborers (see Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker); and when society’s elites like scientists (The Difference Engine) and aristocrats (Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack) are the focus, they are frequently depicted as wrong-footed in worlds made unstable by strange technology. While there may be airships and rayguns, even magic and monsters, the worlds and their inhabitants are familiar enough that we could imagine their world as our own or – perhaps more importantly – imagine us remaking our world to be theirs. This is why it is so powerful when authors push the boundaries of the socially “possible,” as they do in two of our favorite Steampunk novels.

Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age is set in a near future world in which nanotechnological advances both motivate and enable a tiny elite group of steampunks to create their vision of a neo-Victorian world, complete with a new Queen Victoria and exploitative colonial relationships both with their Asian neighbors and the client communities that produce the handmade luxury goods they value. At first glance the novel appears to be an ode to these “Vickys” and their innovative lifestyle; and there is no question that if “we” could ensure that our future involved “us” being the Vickys and not their subjects it would be a wonderful world to emulate. However, we would argue that the more compelling parts of the novel take place in the peripheries produced by the Vicky consumer empire. In particular, in the social turmoil of a resurgent China where an effort is underway to appropriate the means of production away from elite chokepoints and to transfer it, potentially with disastrous results for the current social order, to everyone; and in the effort of one of the iconoclastic founders of the Vicky world to create an educational system that would train the next generation to be both responsible to the community and revolutionary. It is in those descriptions that we see an alternate model for a new world of “Makers” and innovators.

Scrap Iron Man
Figure 7.  Scrap Iron Man. Echoing many of the anti-authoritarian tones present in his more explicitly Steampunk Bas-Lag books, Mieville’s Scrap Iron Man was an abortive effort to introduce a comic super hero created by Makers to fight that symbol of arrogant militaristic corporate dominance, Tony Stark. It was, not surprisingly, not picked up by Marvel. But it illustrates the way in which even media as apparently innocuous as comics reinforce the legitimacy of the current social order – and the ways in which all media could be used to help us imagine something different.

China Mieville in his Bas-Lag trilogy, particularly in the second (The Scar) and third (Iron Council) books, shows us entirely alternate societies.  In The Scar it is a loose republic of pirates who have built an amalgamated society with a sociopolitical culture that mirrors the artificial island of diverse ships on which they live. In Iron Council it is a revolutionary commune created by striking railroad workers, the sex workers previously used to keep them docile, and the slaves intended as scabs, all of whom together build a mobile society that lives off an appropriated train. (If neither one of these captures your interest he also throws in a staggeringly diverse assortment of matriarchies, kleptocracies, hive-minds, and more conventional tyrannies.) Mieville is more self-consciously prescriptive in his writing than Stephenson, and you can almost feel him testing out each of his model societies for its potential as a roadmap to real world social transformation. As you read about each one you find yourself doing the same thing – most you initially reject out of hand, but if you let yourself, you’ll return to them and end up asking whether it might not just be possible. Could it happen here? Could there be a world in which all the power didn’t belong to a few corrupt elites?

These two novels have in common the fact that they aren’t alternate histories. Using Falksen’s popular but ultimately procrustean definition that “Steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction” one certainly can conjure alternate worlds (Moorcock, Gibson, and Sterling did just that when they gave birth to modern Steampunk and Cherie Priest, Scott Westerfeld and a host of others have done it with varying degrees of success subsequently), but to some extent those worlds will be hidebound in the social contradictions of the past. This makes them very good for problematizing our Victorian history (and thus our present), as some of these authors did with novels that attacked social injustice and imperialism; but they have a much harder time offering up alternatives that could serve as desirable models unless they rewrite history so extensively that they are really no different from novels set in some altogether alternate, if bustle-loving, universe. Similarly, the revision of history with the inclusion of popular modern subjectivities like the “cantankerously-emancipated woman” trope and modern or post-modern representations of class, race, nationality, or gender leads to narratives that may critique our history and present using a contemporary morality, but which also struggle to avoid reinforcing current constructions of society and self. This, of course, is a spectrum as alternate history bleeds into the fantastical, and it's conceivable that someone could write a historical novel that questioned not just historical but present constructions of identity in the same way that Ursula K LeGuin’s classic science fiction work, The Left Hand of Darkness, questioned fundamental assumptions about the very nature of gender in society. Our salient point is that while the application of the Steampunk aesthetic to history is an inspiring means to understand and critique our present, we believe applying that dissatisfied, innovative aesthetic to Brave New Worlds is a better way to visualize and thus achieve alternate futures.

Lady Mechanika Fan Art by Jamie Tyndall
Figure 8.  Lady Mechanika Fan Art. The eponymous comic book of the anatomically improbable Steampunk superheroine Lady Mechanika is not going to dazzle any professors of literature or political philosophy. But it doesn’t have to. If it generates interest in the long nineteenth century, one libidinous adolescent at a time, and causes them to consider that obscenely wealthy capitalists (complete with cartoon monocles) might be parasitic villains instead of heroic “job creators” then it must be counted a success. The very best idea doesn’t matter if no one knows about it.

We have mentioned some of the very best that Steampunk fiction has to offer – in terms of quality they are the exception. While Charlie Stross has gotten the most attention for his critique of Steampunk as bad genre fiction, he is not the only person to feel frustration at the proliferation of titles with gears on their covers and unreadable prose within. In the past year we’ve had to put down almost as many Steampunk novels as we’ve finished since much of the stuff being pushed out is bad, sometimes downright terrible. We believe, however, that this misses the point that bad genre fiction is, more importantly, also just bad fiction. We can’t expect Steampunk novels (or movies, or art, music, etc.) to be better than Vampire Romance or Space Opera or any other broad category that has excited people (and publishers) and which thus is generating a lot of content. People are enthusiastic about the genre so there is more of it being written – and the fact that much of it is derivative and forgettable doesn’t make it any different than most of the rest of the stuff at the bookstore. We’re still reading Jane Austen and Emile Zola while most of their contemporaries (and they had many contemporaries) are forgotten – it’s unfair to expect anything different from the popular literature of today. But rather than despair we believe that all that crap Steampunk fiction can do useful work, particularly if its authors look to the right places for inspiration. In the age of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, one can’t make a point simply by saying something smart and important. One has to get other people repeating it, making it more accessible to other audiences, repackaging it, diluting it, passing it back and forth, causing people to hear it from multiple sources at once. This kind of media echo chamber can be incredibly toxic when bad ideas (like the fear of childhood vaccination) proliferate and are given unwarranted legitimacy simply by virtue of repetition. However, it can also work to the good, and the very “derivative” nature of much of the current Steampunk genre has the potential to help make the imagined worlds described therein seem more plausible – less like fantasy and more like something that everyone agrees could be. Furthermore, bad writing is subjective and from the perspective of social change, accessibility is almost as important as content. A Steampunk comic book rich in ample bosoms and simple sentences may not rise to the level of literature, but if it popularizes the ideas presented in books by "better" authors, then it still must be counted a success.

At this point it would be fair to point at that this isn’t new ground. There isn’t much that we’ve said about Steampunk that couldn’t just as easily be applied to its nearest ancestor, Cyberpunk. But as William Gibson discussed in a recent interview, there is a sense that Cyberpunk was too easily appropriated by the very power structures it sought to undermine and that quickly it was transformed from something that urged us to “hack the system” into an aesthetic used to sell us more unfair mobile phone contracts on hardware manufactured under horrific conditions in third world factories. To be fair, we think that the story isn’t out on the world that Cyberpunk promised us and that the apparent dominance of information megacorporations like Facebook, Apple, and Google may yet be thwarted by the vision of DIY hardware, open-source code, and insurgent hackers. However, even if Cyberpunk truly is dead, we nonetheless have reason to hope that Steampunk won’t share the same fate – and for reasons that force us to admit our own misjudgment. 

The authors dressed as "V" and "The Lady of Rook," photo by Lex Machina
Figure 9.  The authors dressed as "V" and "The Lady of Rook," photo by Lex Machina. We’ve long objected to Steampunk cosplay as inherently escapist and insisted that steampunks are making themselves irrelevant by preferentially existed in fantasy worlds. We were wrong, at least in part. While the fantasy worlds of steampunks do hinder real world action, their deeply personal nature makes it much harder for them to be corrupted by profiteers and marketers.

We’ve been in the camp that sneered at the people who dressed up in Steampunk costumes and assumed artificial personas in the style of a role-playing game. We’ve wanted the “costumes” of Steampunk to be fashion and for people to interact with reality as Jane Smith rather than Airship Captain Euphemia Mountebank. We still want that, and we still believe that Steampunk will eventually wither if its practitioners consistently favor game-spaces created within convention hotels and populated with characters over messy social geographies populated by people. We got this wrong; and are increasingly convinced that some measure of apparently escapist fantastical role-playing is actually protective against the malign influences of mass commercialism.  We suspect that the apparent dissonance between the literary and role-play-heavy social cultures of Steampunk is actually a strength rather than a weakness. Steampunks can be sold all sorts of little bits of crap, all kinds of movies and music, and they’ll click “like” on pictures of kittens in goggles with reckless abandon. They don’t, however, seem particularly interested in buying someone else’s vision of what their fantasy personas ought to be. Efforts to sell particular identities (e.g., like those marketed at Steampunk Emporium and Clockwork Couture) may have sold many individual items but we’ve yet to meet a steampunk who’s taken one of those identities wholesale. Similarly, while steampunks are happy to play genre-specific RPGs like Unhallowed Metropolis and Space:1889, they tend to keep their characters in these games separate from the personas they inhabit as “steampunks” per se. It seems to be a critical aspect of steampunks’ characters that they inhabit their own unique world or a world created with just a few other members of, for example, an “airship crew.” These worlds remain the inventions of their participants and even if Jane Smith bought her outfit at Hot Topic, there are no corporate sponsors of the world she’s invented to inhabit as Airship Captain Euphemia Mountebank – and in that protected space there is at least the potential that she can imagine a world without shopping malls and a dominant automobile-petrochemical complex. More importantly, there is a better than average chance that she’ll carry some of that dream back into her real life.

A related issue is the fact that many self-described steampunks are not just disinterested in Steampunk as a vehicle for social reform, but are actively opposed to it. Any topic even tangentially related to real-world social or political issues (even historical ones) is guaranteed to provoke loud objections that “Steampunk shouldn’t be political!” In the defense of this escapist argument is the reality that the heterogeneity and size of the population interested in Steampunk ensures there will be two (or more) intensely opposed points of view over even the most innocuous political positions (e.g., that Abraham Lincoln addressed a hideous moral stain in America or that women’s manumission was a positive development) and that maintaining something like a functioning collegial community is challenging in the face of such dissent. Civility is easier to maintain when the most intense argument (carried out ad nauseum but apparently without ever boring many steampunks) is over whether a particular object/song/movie/book/commercial/etc. meets an entirely arbitrary definition of Steampunk. Unfortunately, while the adherents to the willful escapist position do suggest a less contentious community structure, they also undermine the beliefs and actions of those who do want to use Steampunk as a platform for social change. We’ll admit that we don’t have a great solution to this problem – ultimately we can only hope that the community is tolerant and self-policing enough to endure despite some people wanting to talk “Steampunk politics” and some people not. However, in one sense, the escapists are completely irrelevant – namely, with respect to Steampunk as a visionary movement. If an escapist wishes to shout down Steampunk as apolitical but is willing to participate in a fantasy space in which European explorers interact on equal terms with women and indigenous peoples and in which pirates are ethically justified in robbing from exploitative industrialists – well, he can continue to believe that he isn’t endorsing a political movement, but for all the reasons we’ve discussed above, he’s still helping.


Figure 10. Illustration in Puck showing the march of "Civilization." Simply imagining a world isn’t enough, we must imagine a better world by coming to terms with the failures of the past and the present. We have seen, and see all around us, the evils of the nineteenth century and if the fantasy worlds steampunks opt to inhabit cling too tightly to imagined “good old days” then we are destined to create not a better world, but a worse one.

The preceding paragraphs seem to indicate that we’re off the hook no matter what we do. Most Steampunk writing can be terrible, the Steampunk aesthetic can be applied to market endless quantities of cheap plastic crap, and steampunks themselves can be aggressively apolitical and despite all that we’ll still help to shape a better tomorrow by imagining it.  This is clearly false and the elephant in the room is the nature of the vision that steampunks embrace. The power of imagination does not absolve us of responsibility to be mindful of the past and to consider the nature of the future that we want to construct – it does just the opposite, and we’ll admit that this causes us to temper our optimism.  If the fantasy worlds of steampunks embrace toxic social constructions then those visions are guaranteed not to create a different better world but to replicate (or even worsen) our own. There are vocal elements within Steampunk who genuinely look back to an imagined nineteenth century of militarism, imperialism, racism, and corrupt gilded age Capitalism with misplaced fondness. We don't know whether this is a function of ignorance or sociopathy, but the fact remains that many steampunks are not particularly suspicious of their nostalgia and do long for the “good old days,” albeit ones enhanced by shinier “stuff.”

Ultimately it’s up to all of us to determine the nature of the worlds envisioned by steampunks. It’s within that landscape of imagination where the battle for Steampunk’s soul will be waged – is being waged; and where our question will ultimately be answered as to whether Steampunk matters. However, we are confident that it at least could matter, because even when appropriated by corporations, Steampunk has the unique potential to allow us to visualize worlds different from our own, but similar enough that we could make them a reality. Even if we believe the people who argue that Steampunk is only an aesthetic, a style, a literary motif – we have to remember that aesthetics have power. There is a reason that tyrants and totalitarian regimes murder or subvert artists and writers. A novel can change the world, because it can reconstruct the spaces inside our heads. Steampunk allows us to imagine change and to build invisible cities that might be. What better place to start building a better tomorrow than in the landscapes of imagination? Where can real world change begin other than in the mind?

 

James Schafer & Kate Franklin of Parliament & Wake

P.S. Our goal with this essay is not to have the last word on Steampunk's relevance to the "real" world - just the opposite. We hope to stimulate our readers to think about this question of whether and how Steampunk might "matter." We'd love to hear from you, with both agreement and dissent, because we think this is a central question for Steampunk and one whose answer will determine whether Steampunk persists or becomes a cultural footnote. To that end, we encourage you to put your own thoughts on the topic to (virtual) paper. Write a response on your blog (or youtube, the side of a dirigible, whatever) and in the coming weeks, regardless of its sympathy to our argument, we'll post a link to it here and feature the best on Steampunk Facebook and Parliament & Wake on Facebook where they will be seen by thousands of other steampunks. So start thinking and writing (or recording an interpretive dance), and then drop us an email with a link.

 

Responses:

These are offered without commentary in the order in which they were received.

The Sound of Sleat

J. L. Hilton

The Gatehouse

Dylan Fox

Hawksmoor's Bazaar

The Airship Vigilant

Decimononic