Imagine moving your kitchen table, carrying off the chairs, and clearing the floor to lay out history like a scrapbook, centuries of design like sketchbooks, biographies like storyboards. Standing in the midst of it all, you can make anything. It’s a mosaic of potential.
Fusing these various parts into a coherent whole takes a massive amount of creativity. If this character, this world, this outfit, or this gadget you’re making is going to work, you’ll have to get your mind in gear.
And it’s here I see the third tenet of steampunk: Be Creative.
This directive comes naturally to the genre. The DIY community thrives in steampunk and values unique, handcrafted things. There are so many neat applications of this, ranging from hand-tailored clothes to overhauls of modern computers into technology that would be at home on the Nautilus. Old-fashioned methods and skills from past eras are learned and preserved here.
However, tinkering is only a symptom of a truly creative person.
If you look at the heroes of steampunk, you will find many of them are intensely creative people— inventors, pioneers, creators, and a host of other kinds of problem-solvers. Even more of these heroes are combinations of the above, resulting in detective poets and gentleman explorers. Look further and you will find that this, too, is from steampunk’s heritage: the Victorian time period.
While we are often given the breakfast and tea tables of England as pictures of what life was like in Victorian times, these images are not truly representative of the exciting discoveries being made, the revolutions of thought taking place, and the intellectual pursuits taking off all over the globe. People often were these seemingly incongruous combinations, melding their various passions to make science and history both. They weren’t necessarily schooled or taught to do the things they did. They let themselves be creative.
My own steampunk novel is inspired by the life of Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist who was sent to China in the mid-1800s to discover new plants and uncover the secret of tea. Mr. Fortune was a skilled botanist and a keen observer. His interests often took him into dangerous territory, and as he made notes on the variegations of yellow azaleas, he battled pirates, survived typhoons, fought illness, and navigated the intrigues of international diplomacy. His boldness led to great discoveries. He was one of the first Westerners to establish that all tea, regardless of classification, is essentially Camellia sinensis, and he is credited with the discovery of many species of flowers and shrubs. If you find a plant that has fortunei in its scientific name, it was probably brought to the West by Robert Fortune.
He wrote extensively about his time spent abroad, and the full titles of his books can give you an idea of his interests:
- Three Years’ Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China, A Visit to the Tea, Silk, and Cotton Countries, with an account of the Agriculture and Horticulture of the Chinese, New Plants, etc.
- A Journey To The Tea Countries Of China; Including Sung-Lo And The Bohea Hills; With A Short Notice Of The East India Company’s Tea Plantations In The Himalaya Mountains.
- A Residence Among the Chinese; Inland, On the Coast and at Sea; being a Narrative of Scenes and Adventures During a Third Visit to China from 1853 to 1856, including Notices of Many Natural Productions and Works of Art, the Culture of Silk, etc.
- Yedo and Peking; A Narrative of a Journey to the Capitals of Japan and China, with Notices of the Natural Productions, Agriculture, Horticulture and Trade of Those Countries and Other Things Met with By the Way
Mr. Fortune’s curiosity about so many things led him to insightful observations. His notes on the Chinese people, their customs and culture, border on anthropology; his attention to climate, rainfall, and temperature is meteorological.
But he was not the only one doing this. In Mr. Fortune’s travels, he met doctors who charted weather patterns for specific regions over several years, other doctors who discovered tea in the hills of India, and military men with aspirations for botany. There were hundreds of others all over the world, pursuing knowledge wherever it led them, regardless of qualification or training. They did things because they were interested in them.
So what does this mean for steampunks today?
Once again, we should take a lesson from the past.
We should be creative. We should pursue whatever fascinates us in as many directions as we can. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t qualified or talented enough. If there is something you are interested in, do it! Try new things, and go new places. Be an expert in the fields you choose. Create the tools you need, and when you do, you’ll catch a glimpse of the kind of person you are.
Pick up as many pieces as you like. Each passion is part of you.
What do you all think? Do you agree with these steampunk tenets? What would you add?
Looking for a definition of steampunk? Please see Steampunk (A Mini Manifesto)
This is the third part of a series I’m writing on what I believe are essential aspects of the steampunk genre. Please see the links for the other parts.
Part I: Steampunk to Me: Be Mindful.
Part II: Steampunk to Me: Be Courteous
Part IV: Steampunk to Me: Be Splendid