Steampunk, a new trend

I am at C3 at MIT today, and I am sure I will have lots of interesting things to report by the end of the day.  But let me point to an article that appeared in the NYT this morning, for those of us interesting in trends and movements in contemporary culture.

La Ferla describes the Steampunk as a

subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines. First appearing in the late 1980s and early ’90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.

The term comes apparently from the The Steampunk Trilogy, written by Paul Di Filippo (eyes right).  I went to see if I could download this to my Kindle, but the publisher (Running Press) has yet to make this possible.  So I contented myself reading the excerpt on Amazon.  (This is a kind of "stealing signals" that shuts the author out of proceeds due to him.  Still, I am only going to take a little, and I would ask you to look the other way while how I generalize shamelessly on the strenghth of a page or two.)

The opening paragraph of the Steampunk Trilogy gives us a writing machine, all burnished copper, Moroccan leather, pumps, hoses, and glass jars, assembled in a gratuitously complicated contraption that appears in the "lambent, buttery glow" of Victorian gaslight.  It’s operator is Cosmo Cowperthwait, a gentleman of "comfortable income" who on this occasion wears  a "Paisley plastron cravat, embroidered waistcoat, [and] trig trousers."  Cowperthwait also carries a large turnip-watch which he sets by the passing of the 11:45 Totting omnibus. 

Lambent and buttery.  That’s the key.  We respond to this image, and, perhaps, to steampunk because it plays out our technological present in an interesting mirror.  First, this fun house reflection of our Airbooks and iPhones.   In this world, a passing trolly is better time keeper than our turnip shaped watch.  In this world, technology is on the verge of springing apart, something my ThinkPad does only under exceptional circumstances and duress. 

We imagine the Victorian social world is a rickety machine, one that works perfectly well without ever inspiring confidence that it will continue to do so.  This happens to be exactly the way Mumbai seemed to me.  By contrast, we live in an exquisite machine.  Tokyo, at the limit.   We like the idea of a world made of crafted beauty, where seams show, and things continue to be a miraculous even when they work.

Victorians appeal to us in several ways, not only out of a faux nostalgia.  These were people who were profoundly crafty, inclined to working on combustion engines in the tool shed at the end of the garden.  It was a place where rank amateurs could make a contribution to knowledge in their spare time, a motive that is a great motivating hope here at This Blog.  Several institutions of the Victorian period, including the Oxford English Dictionary, and great swathes of the periods of natural history came from amateurs working together in a thoroughly distributed way.  As an anthropologist who is Scottish only by genetic "origin" and otherwise Mediterranean, there’s a puzzle here.  How can the English have been so demonstrative from an intellectual point of view, when they were so utterly undemonstrative for a social one.  Aren’t ideas animating.  Do they make us marionettes (mechanically demonstrative) whether we like it or not?  One gets the feelings that the English men and women in Steampunk (past and present) are pretty darn demonstrative. 

These are early days in the trend, the moment when the thing is still forming.  Now that the New York Times and the likes of This Blog can have at it, we may expect this cultural innovation to begin to over-form and eventually to sit so far down the Kauffman continuum that the early adopters bail out and the thing turns to cliche.  I do my best to serve. 

Just a last note: who would have guessed how syncretic and cooperative punk was going to be.  This look was designed to be uncompromising, hostile to every other form of social life.  But it turns out that punk plays well with others.  We have had gothpunks, skater punks, almost as cooperative as hip hop.  True, still no hippie punks, or luncheon punks, or preppie punks.  There are some places punk can’t play.  Still you can’t help feeling that luncheon punks might be a movement waiting to happen.  No, not really. 


Filippo, Paul.  The Steampunk Trilogy.  New York: Running Press.  Order from Amazon here. For the opening page, go here.

La Ferla, Ruth.  2008.  Steampunk Moves Between 2 Worlds.  New York Times.  May 8, 2008.  here.

von Slatt, Jake, proprietor of the Steampunk workshop.  here.


To Sara Winge for helping me to understand the present trend for craftiness. 

8 thoughts on “Steampunk, a new trend

  1. communicatrix

    I’ve been reading snarky tweets about steampunk from the cool kids on Twitter for a while now, so I figure that as a cultural trend, it must be tipping. (Not b/c of snark, but b/c by the time a crotchety old gal like me hears about something…)

    On the “punk” note, by amazing coincidence (or not–maybe it’s synchronicity), I recently finished Brad Warner’s Sit Down and Shut Up, which is sort of a handbook on zen for those of us who nod off reading the “real” stuff. Warner was a musician in the hardcore punk scene in Akron back in the day, and a sort-of practitioner of straight-edge, the self-disciplined offshoot of punks (no drinking, drugs, smoking or sex, although he admits that last was not of his own volition.) He found a buddhist teacher and started on the path, ultimately becoming a zen monk.

    He talks about the similarities between the (true) punk ethos and buddhism. Aside from the self-discipline involved with both, there’s also a big DIY factor, buddhism being more about the doing than the studying or consuming.

  2. Andrew Breese

    Great post.

    But…no “hippie punks”? Even that very phrase gives 7400 search hits…

  3. Rick Liebling

    I read the NY Times article yesterday with great interest, but was ultimately left with the feeling, ‘Where has the NY Times been for the last two decades?’ I first encountered Steampunk in 1990 with the Difference Engine, a novel co-written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

    The authors and creators of this very wide-ranging genre has done a great job of creating Deeply Immersive Narrative Universes that have allowed fans to make their own creations and develop the concept beyond the written word or even moving image.

  4. Peter O

    I’ll just pitch in that in the little yacht-club centered town I grew up in, the punk rockers wore alligator shirts and topsiders. Untucked alligator shirts and kind of worn-out topsiders, mind you…

  5. Marc

    Hi Grant

    I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment on your blog before, though I love to read it, so just to say thanks for all the hours of pleasure I’ve had from it til now. Always intelligent, interesting, well-written, insightful and thought-provoking, thank you.

    Steampunk is a long-running meme on Boing Boing dot Net… which I gather (from all the “I got mentioned on Boing Boing today and I got a billion hits on my website” posts I see around) can create a cultural force in its own right. A year or so ago lolcats were all the rage there, and that one seems to still be in the thicker end of the long tail, so to speak.

    Boing Boing tends to take pet subjects (unicorns, steampunk, various writers, musicians, authors) and bang at them hard. The steampunk thread has been exceptionally cool for showcasing the creativity, inventiveness and sheer beautiful craftsmanship of a bunch of people around the world though. Well worth checking out. If you type “steampunk” in the search on the site you’re sure of some quality viewing time.


    =) Marc

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  7. Jesse Walker

    “Steampunk” was a term coined by K.W. Jeter in the ’80s. Back then it was a joke label (playing off “cyberpunk”) to describe some of the novels being written by Jeter and his friends Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock, three very different writers who all set science-fiction stories in the 19th century. Gradually it became a full-fledged subgenre, particularly when William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the most prominent cyberpunk novelists, decided to write their own attempt at the genre. The Steampunk Trilogy came quite a bit later.

    In recent years, steampunk has evolved from subgenre to subculture. It’s been very odd to watch, especially for those of us who were bandying the word around 20 years ago.

  8. Shaista Justin

    Hi Grant,

    I was attempting to find “aberrant nature” in the ROM today and thinking about the evolution of classification, as systems we seek to produce of the natural world and also to define both our social confines and limitlessness.

    The Victorians, I would argue, did function in less a rickety machine than one might imagine; it was a period of “high colonization” that refined and sparked the activities of current day imperialism. Their “demonstrativeness” was quite apparent in the hand they stretched out over foreign waters, both assured and vigorous.

    If we think of actions as defining or leading to the divination of thought, there is a body of evidence which suggests that they were indeed expressive…at least in one major intention they shared as a populous…the reification of their place (an assumed “natural” social, economic and political order) in the world. A world in which they saw themselves in a position of mastery over all things. Does a master feel inclined to display acts of revelry or anger, or haste?

    The emergence of “punk” in any form to me shows a slippage from that position…an uncertainty in the machinery of the world, no matter how beautifully its mechanism works.

    It is exciting to see the new avenues you are exploring with your work. My voice, merely an outsider’s passing comments on a thing not truly understood, but with interest just the same.

    Warmest Regards,


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