The User's Guide to Steampunk

By Bruce Sterling
July 11, 2008

People like steampunk for two good reasons. First, it's a great opportunity to dress up in a cool, weird way that baffles the straights. Second, steampunk set design looks great. The Industrial Revolution has grown old. So machines that Romantics considered satanic now look romantic.

If you like to play dress-up, good for you. You're probably young, and, being young, you have some identity issues. So while pretending to be a fireman, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever your parents want you to be, you should be sure to try on a few identities that are totally impossible. Steampunk will help you, because you cannot, ever, be an authentic denizen of the 19th century. You will meet interesting people your own age who share your vague discontent with today's status quo. Clutch them to your velvet-frilled bosom, because you will learn more from them than you ever will from your teachers.
Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times.
Stretching your self-definition will help you when, in later life, you are forced to become something your parents could not even imagine. This is a likely fate for you. Your parents were born in the 20th century. Soon their 20th century world will seem even deader, weirder and more remote than the 19th. The 19th-century world was crude, limited and clanky, but the 20th-century world is calamitously unsustainable. I would advise you to get used to thinking of all your tools, toys and possessions as weird oddities destined for the recycle bin. Imagine starting all over with radically different material surroundings. Get used to that idea.

If you are European, you may further realize that you are surrounded by an ever-growing European "museum economy" that sells your heritage as a "heritage industry." Familiarity with steampunk will certainly help you here. The heritage industry does not sell heritage, because heritage is inherently unsellable. Instead, it sells the tourist-friendly, simplified, Photoshopped, price-tagged, Disneyized version of heritage. Steampunk is great at mocking and parodizing this activity. That's what makes steampunk a thoroughly contemporary act.

This dress-up costume play and these subcultural frolics will amuse and content 90 percent of the people involved in steampunk.

However, you may possibly be one of those troublesome 10 percent guys, not just in the scene but creating a scene. Frankly, the heaviest guys in the steampunk scene are not really all that into "steam." Instead, they are into punk. Specifically, punk's do-it-yourself aspects and its determination to take the means of production away from big, mind-deadening companies who want to package and sell shrink-wrapped cultural product.

Steampunks are modern crafts people who are very into spreading the means and methods of working in archaic technologies. If you meet a steampunk craftsman and he or she doesn't want to tell you how he or she creates her stuff, that's a poseur who should be avoided. Find the creative ones who want to help you, and who don't leave you feeling hollow, drained and betrayed. They exist. You might be one.
If you meet a steampunk craftsman and he or she doesn’t want to tell you how he or she creates her stuff, that’s a poseur who should be avoided.
Steampunk began as a literary movement -- for some reason no one understands, it started with young Californian fantasists writing about Victorian Great Britain, specifically James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter. This guy Jeter made up the term "steampunk." He made no money doing that, and you've likely never heard of him before now. I doubt this much bothers Jeter. Jeter was a major disciple of Philip K. Dick, so he always understood the inherent limits of bourgeois mundane reality.

Nowadays steampunk is not about historical pastiche with a sci-fi twist, because, although that's interesting, there's not a whole lot of room for literary maneuver there. Steampunk has become popular now because it is no longer just fiction. It is an international design and technology effort. Steampunk a counterculture arts and crafts movement in a 21st century guise.

If this idea makes your heart beat faster, I can save you a lot of trouble by recommending one brief essay called "On the Nature of the Gothic" by John Ruskin, the greatest design critic of the original steam era. Go read it. Read this manifesto with great care because it was the seed of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Jugendstil, Art Nouveau, William Morris wallpaper, Aubrey Beardsley Yellow Book decadence, romantic-nationalist architecture and about a thousand other things most steampunks would consider very cool.

Ruskin wrote an extremely influential and important essay which changed the world. Everything Ruskin says in that essay is wrong. The ideas in there don't work, have never worked and are never going to work. If you try to do the things Ruskin described in the spirit that Ruskin suggested, you are doomed.
When we trifle, in our sly, Gothic, grave-robbing fashion, with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech.
However. If you try to do those things in a steampunk spirit, you might get somewhere useful. Steampunks are equipped with a number of creative tools and approaches that John Ruskin never imagined, such as design software, fabricators, Instructables videos, websites, wikis, cellphones, search engines and Successful steampunks are not anti-industrial as Ruskin was. They are digital natives and therefore post-industrial. This means that they can make their own, brand-new, fresh mistakes -- if they understand the old mistakes well enough not to repeat them.

Steampunk's key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times. A host of objects and services that we see each day all around us are not sustainable. They will surely vanish, just as "Gone With the Wind" like Scarlett O'Hara's evil slave-based economy. Once they're gone, they'll seem every bit as weird and archaic as top hats, crinolines, magic lanterns, clockwork automatons, absinthe, walking-sticks and paper-scrolled player pianos.

We are a technological society. When we trifle, in our sly, Gothic, grave-robbing fashion, with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech. Steampunk is popular now because people are unconsciously realizing that the way that we live has already died. We are sleepwalking. We are ruled by rapacious, dogmatic, heavily-armed fossil-moguls who rob us and force us to live like corpses. Steampunk is a pretty way of coping with this truth.

The hero of the funeral is already dead. He has no idea what is happening. A funeral is theater for the living.

Steampunk is funereal theater. It's a pageant. A pageant selectively pumps some life into the parts of the past that can excite us, such as the dandified gear of aristocrats, peculiar brass gadgets, rather stilted personal relationships and elaborate and slightly kinky underwear. Pageants repress the aspects of the past that are dark, gloomy, ugly, foul, shameful and catastrophic. But when you raise the dead, they bring their baggage.

There's not a lot we can do about the past; but we should never despair of it, because, as Czeslaw Milosz wisely said, the past takes its meaning from whatever we do right now. The past has a way of sticking to us, of sticking around, of just plain sticking. Even if we wrap the past around us like a snow-globe, so as to obscure our many discontents with our dangerous present, that willful act will change our future. Because that's already been tried. It was tried repeatedly. Look deep enough, try not to flinch, and it's all in the record. So: never mock those who went before you unless you have the courage to confront your own illusions.

The past is a kind of future that has already happened.

Bruce Sterling is the author of the landmark Steampunk book The Difference Engine as well as numerous influential cyperpunk and science fiction classics.


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