Beruk chatted with various exhibitors and fellow attendees, and Ken took pictures of people in neo-Victorian garb. Unlike past years, Janice and I tried to attend more panels and performances. It was interesting to see an academic track at the “Author’s Den.”
We sat in on “Ay-leen the Peacemaker’s” (Diana M. Pho’s) panel on “Steam Around the World: Steampunk Beyond Victoriana.” Her discussion of the multicultural aspects of the burgeoning subculture was interesting, and I was glad that Avatar: Legendof Korra was among the many works she cited. Exploration of social issues is part of the “punk” in steampunk.
We enjoyed a little of Shin Daiko’s drumming as we went to Margarita’s for lunch. We then browsed a bit among the vendors on the Waltham Common before attending artist James Gurney’s excellent discussion of “Dinotopia: Art, Science, and Imagination.” Gurney’s talk was a master class in how to combine elements for fictional world-building.
Ken left for another event, and we then went to “Seeing What the Old Masters Sought: Thoughts on 19th Century Design,” by Steve Ebinger. It was a good analysis of how real-world architects, painters, and inventors reacted to the politics, trade, materials, and expectations of their time and how they’ve influenced the do-it-yourself ethos of those developing the alternative styles of steampunk.
The next day, we returned to downtown Waltham after Janice’s usual stint volunteering at the animal shelter, and the sun shone on a crowd that included families celebrating Mother’s Day. It was much easier to be in costume.
We went to Brandon Herman’s panel on “Clockwork Beyond Thunderdome: Steampunk in the Movies.” While I think that Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome shares only a few aesthetic elements with steampunk and dieselpunk, the genres are inclusive. Granted, there have been more bad movies and TV shows — such as Wild, Wild West — than good ones — see The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
In the past week or two, I’ve also eaten lunch with co-workers at the Newton St. Deli, Coconut Thai Café, and Taqueria el Amigo. Although I didn’t run the “Vanished Lands: Vistel’s Circus” fantasy campaign for my regular Monday night group this week, we did go out for dinner at Angelo’s House of Pizza and Seafood, watch the amusing animated Despicable Me, and discuss upcoming games.
The “Escapists” book club of former co-workers had dinner at Habaneros, one of Janice’s and my favorite Mexican-American restaurants in the area. At Lizzy’s, we had dessert and discussed Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which I liked more than everyone else.
This coming weekend, I look forward to hosting Byron V.O., an alumnus of the Boston-area social/gaming groups who now lives in St. Louis. But first, I’ve got to survive the workweek!
It is a period of incredible progress and terrible destruction. Communications and transportation grow ever faster, but they also hasten the spread of wars and disease. Old tribal rivalries and nascent social consciousness challenge vast aristocratic and mercantile empires, and urbanization and industrialization make life easier for millions but condemn millions more to seemingly inescapable poverty. The arts blossom as alliances tighten and harden, leading to what many believe will be a “war to end all wars.” It is the Victorian era, the setting for most steampunk.
Steampunk is a style of speculative fiction that has been growing in popularity in the past few years. It has literary roots, readily incorporates elements of other subgenres, and is well-represented across media.
-Steampunk is romance. The novel, classical and revived folk music (the opera, waltz, and polka), Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist painting, and modern theater all took shape during the 18th and 19th centuries. The swashbuckling stories of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas reflect this era as much as the ones they were set in, as does the “noble savage” described by James Fenimore Cooper or Rudyard Kipling. International cuisine, celebrity fashion, and travel for pleasure (and the first amusement parks) are all things we now take for granted that started during that period.
-Steampunk is science fiction. Just as its sibling cyberpunk examines the relationship of humanity with technology (specifically cybernetics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology), steampunk looks at how the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world. The railroad and the telegraph are only the beginning, with anachronistic conveniences such as personal computers, televisions, and jet packs weighed down by clockwork gears, levers, and dials. Real-world advances in engineering are exaggerated for dramatic effect. Getting there is half the fun, with dirigibles the signature conveyance of the genre.
-Steampunk is fantasy. Like its sibling gothic horror — another product of this era — steampunk often includes elements of the supernatural, just as spiritualism (the forerunner of the modern New Age movement), religious revivals, and utopian experiments were part of the real-world reaction to scientific advancement. Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsanay, L. Frank Baum, and Lewis Carroll inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other seminal fantasy authors. Lost civilizations still seemed possible.
-Steampunk is socially conscious. Labor unions, waves of migration, the long struggle for civil rights including women’s sufferage, and the polemics of Charles Dickens and Karl Marx are parts of the wrenching social change underlying steampunk. Unlike the real world, where racism and sexism were at their peak, people of color and women are often found among steampunk‘s protagonists.
-Steampunk is idealistic. Like its cousins space opera, pulp cliffhangers, and comic book superheroes, steampunk roots for the little guy to become the big hero. The American West is full of legends and antiheroes. It’s all about attitude. Anyone can put on a pair of goggles, a bowler hat, and suspenders and attend a steampunk convention. Anyone can be a mad scientist, brave archaeologist, laconic gunslinger, or alluring spy. It’s a century and a half ago as many authors and we wish it could have been.
-Steampunk is multimedia. In the actual 19th century, wide literacy made possible the rise of newspapers and “penny dreadfuls,” the forerunners of pulps, current mass-market paperbacks, and online fan fiction. Steampunk has taken advantage of modern media, as demonstrated by numerous Web sites, games, sculptures, and graphic novels.
Examples:Rasputina (musical band); Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (video game); GURPS Steampunk (RPG)
-Steampunk is punk. Like cyberpunk, which looks at the disenfranchised in dystopian near futures, steampunk celebrates individualism and defiance of the established order. The 1960s weren’t the first or last time a bohemian counterculture was fueled by artistic license, sexual experimentation, and drug addiction. The chaotic mashup of genres, a loose approach to history and science, and an emphasis on fun have attracted numerous fans. Many goth enthusiasts have also embraced the retro styles of steampunk. The apparent contradictions or ambivalence reflected in the idealist/punk or fantasy/science fiction strains are just fine in this genre.
-Steampunk is (pre)apocalyptic. The steampunk era roughly coincides with the growth of the U.S. after the Louisiana Purchase to the outbreak of World War I. The so-called Manifest Destiny, the growth of democracy, and the “Gilded Age” would all come to a close as Europe’s dynasties and colonial domination came crashing down after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. War machines loom on the horizon.
Just as we today look back at the Cold War or the 1990s with a nostalgia born of post-9/11 fears of terrorism, recession, and ecological catastrophe (floods, epidemics, earthquakes; with the attendant resurgence of zombies and other horror monsters), so too does steampunk look back at the 1800s through rosy lenses. In the 20th century, steampunk gives way to the pulps, noir, and dieselpunk. Who knows what else the 21st century will bring?
On Saturday, 28 April 2012, Janice and I went to Gore Place in Waltham, Massachusetts, for the 25th annual Sheepshearing Festival. I was impressed by the size of the event and the number of attendees. We enjoyed the herding dog demonstration, fair food, craft tents, and bluegrass music. Janice and I also took a brief tour of the early 19th century home of one of Massachusetts’ governors.
We caught a matinee of The Pirates! A Band of Misfits, the latest comedy from Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for Wallace & Gromit, among other things. We enjoyed the movie, which follows a hapless pirate captain (named “Pirate Captain” and voiced by Hugh Grant) in his quest to win the “Pirate of the Year Award.”
Along the way, Pirate Captain and his eccentric crew — even for pirates — meet Charles Darwin (voiced by Martin Freeman, also known as Arthur Dent, Dr. Watson, and Bilbo Baggins) and an entirely unamused Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). Also important to the plot are a dodo, a dirigible, and Darwin’s monkey butler.
If this sounds delightfully chaotic, it is. The Pirates! has a lively Anglo-American voice cast, sight gags too numerous to catch in a single viewing, and good use of modern music (the Clash’s “London Calling” is most memorable). The movie, which combines stop-motion and computer animation, also alludes to real-world literature and science of the 19th century.