What isn't Steampunk?
There is a good reason to ask this question this way. While there is a look to Steampunk there is no real guidebook. In any movement (except maybe Anarchism) there is the question of who makes the rules. In Steampunk the rules are evolving and since no one has appointed themselves arbiters, what the Steampunk Community accepts is acceptable. This is a very loosely constrained genre and that is part of its energy and its momentum.
The Maker movement, the heady mix of personal fabrication and experimentation made possible by astounding technology filtering down to the personal level has grown alongside Steampunk and has often recognized the kindred spirit at the heart of both philosophies. Maker-spaces are springing up in towns large and small, places where laser cutters and engravers, plastics printers, plasma cutters and CNC routers are now accessible to people without hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend tooling up. Skills that took ages to learn during the Victorian era--or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof-- are now within reach of patient computer users.
After the first flush of rich wood, polished brass and nostalgia wears off, the question many ask is "What do I want Steampunk to be to me?"
Therein lies the beauty. Because the literary genesis of Steampunk was in speculative fiction, there is license given to bend history to the service of art. Part of this is the science fiction principle of the multiverse--the idea of an infinite number of divergent alternate universes co-existing with our own. This gives creators the freedom to rewrite history and technology to their own ends.
The universe that my Steampunk world lives in is populated with events both real and imagined. The Western Zombie Wars and the Age of Zero Zombie Tolerance may not show up in other histories but they are key events in mine. While historical revisionism may be frowned upon in some circles, Steampunk revels in it. Real historical figures often filter in and out of the fiction, their characters reflecting artists' personal views. Edison, Tesla and other scientific luminaries can be heroic, evil, or both. Literary greats may be servants of dictatorships or freedom fighters or Vampires, their known personalities bent to serve the storyline or abandoned altogether.
My fictional enterprise, Bludgeon's Best, represents both good and bad aspects of technology. While some have argued that corporations are people, others have countered that corporate psychological profiles are those of psychopaths. Bludgeon's is a sociopath that hasn't quite gotten to the point of mass murder, but isn't taking anything off the table. The company's casual disregard for people often undermines their occasional good intent. Building steam powered human organs is a noble goal made less so by the tendency of the machines to explode without warning destroying everything within a substantial radius.
Yet corporate advertising proudly proclaims that the new Steam Heart is "30 percent less likely to explode!" and "Guaranteed for the life of the original owner" which is, on reflection, a rather dubious guarantee for a vital organ.
Some may say an emphasis on social justice leeches the fun right out of it but Steampunk is a big tent and if you just want to come and play, no one will make you put on your serious suit.
The point of all this is that it's my belief that it's good to approach Steampunk with Real Intent. In other words, know what you want from it and what you can give back. I hope to be able to share some guidance and inspiration in this community that many of us now call home.
Next time in Brass Hacking 101--Gearing Up, Wherein we discuss seeking raw and not-so-raw material without incurring debt.
Brass Hacking 101-Steaming up(cont.)
©Copyright 2013 Jonathan Combs