Steampunk wraps itself in pinstripes, brass, airships, goggles, and patched brocade as much as it wears the marks of history. But while this subgenre utilizes appearances, it is steadfastly passionate about interiority, the inner cogs and workings of not only devices but of people also. It’s for this reason that I believe steampunk is more than an aesthetic or window dressing for art, music, or literature. It is a worldview and a lifestyle.
Evidence of this can be found everywhere. You’ll find steampunks crafting beautiful and useful things, asking all the important questions, and creating thoughtful works. The hands-on, DIY attitude of steampunk, if you let it, permeates every area of life, and because of this, it’s no wonder people have tried to draw up lists of what it means to be a part of this culture, this self-inventing civilization of worlds that never were. However, like a definition for this subgenre, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes a steampunk.
As I chart my own journey on this strange safari, I’ve sketched a few landmarks along the way, a few things that I look to as the tenets of steampunk. This is not a checklist, a diagnostic, or truth table to figure out if something is or is not “steampunk.” It is collection of principles that I believe are important for anyone in this genre. Like any adventurer, I have made a map that probably looks different from others you might have seen, but if you’re looking for a place to begin, a safe oasis with clean water, or a great view of the valleys, here is a look at my scribblings.
The first tenet is Be Mindful.
This one is especially important to me as it was the first thing I discovered as I began journeying into steampunk. As I wandered out into the vast plains and fields of research, I found that there was so much already built, so much already said. I wanted to acknowledge the work others were doing, study the headway they had made, and create something new if I could. If you are to make progress, you should know not only where you are going but where you came from.
To paraphrase an adage, we don’t have to reinvent the cog.
With the avid method of an archaeologist facing a Tyrannosaurus dig with a paintbrush, I investigated my new surroundings. This meant reading as much material as I could get my hands on, learning history, watching films, visiting special exhibits, joining online forums, and reading piles and piles of books.
I wanted to know who had been here before me and who else was currently hiking through the jungle. Where did they come from? What did they bring with them? What are they talking about? What is important to them?
Mindfulness, as you might already see, is not just for writers wanting to join other authors. It can apply to everyone you meet, everywhere you go. This means asking questions, listening for answers, and being open to new points of view.
For me, mindfulness has a scholarly approach. I have been a student for a long time, and much of how I do things is informed by that training. Like most students, I understand that wherever I go, there has been a conversation going for quite some time before I got there, and if I want to say anything relevant, I should learn as much as I can. Who just left the room? Which voices are loudest and which ones, though quieter, are worth listening to? What should we talk about and how do we talk to each other?
I believe steampunks—used to reimagining history, taking given materials and transforming them into something unexpected and new—are in a unique position to be able to talk about some of these questions. By looking at what was, we can talk about what might have been, how it might have been better or different, and how to change it for the future. Steampunks should be mindful, not only of the past, but of what is around them right now and how they can keep building.
What do you want to make? Who has charted these waters before?
I have found mindfulness in this genre, and that is why it’s marked on my map. One of the best parts of steampunk is the community it fosters—we are good at sharing maps, telling stories, teaching knot tying, and sundry other things that help our fellow travelers.
Looking for a definition of steampunk? See here: Steampunk (A Mini Manifesto)
Part II: Steampunk to Me: Be Courteous
Part III: Steampunk to Me: Be Creative
Part IV: Steampunk to Me: Be Splendid