A World That Is, A World That Never Was
The pseudo-historical fantasy world of steampunk grows in response to modern life
by Alexandra Notman
Swish. Tap. Stomp. Bustled silk skirts whirl and tailcoats flap. Wooden floorboards creak beneath the weight of the swaying gentry. Gentlemen in sturdy leather boots and top hats and gentlewomen in ruffled high-collared blouses and plume-adorned fedoras float through an opium haze to the sultry waltz of a cello and accordion. Lovers wearing aviator goggles watch from velvet cushions on the floor. Beneath the barn loft, a mad scientist with a brass monocle concocts libations behind the bar; a sparking Jacob’s ladder illuminates his work. Past the bar, yellowed maps and leather-bound novels lead to a grand dining table filled with slabs of roasted meats and potatoes.
|H.M.S. Intrepid Sapphyre. photo by Dmitri Von Klein | monovita.com|
|Joe Mross in his barn. photo by Trask Bedortha|
|A reveler at the steampunk halloween party. photo by Dmitri Von Klein | monovita.com|
|Mood Area 52 at the steampunk halloween party. photo by Dmitri Von Klein | monovita.com|
|Joe Mross with his heli-pack. photo by Todd Cooper|
There are also potato chips and Oreos. The mad scientist wears jeans beneath his white lab coat and pours vodka tonics and microbrews into plastic cups. A fog machine and red light bulbs from a party store produce the crimson “opium” haze. And the sturdy leather boots look very much like Doc Martens. This is a steampunk party.
Eugenean Joe Mross, with the help of his family, has hosted this party on Halloween for the past two years — more than 20 years after the birth of this fantasy reenactment subgenre. Steampunk originated as a literary movement with science fiction novels such as Tom Powers’ The Anubis Gates and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (and, retrospectively, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and anything written by Jules Verne). Now, steampunk is a Victorian aesthetic with a modern twist and is influenced by cyberpunk, science fiction and steam technology. Some steampunks describe it as an alternate history to the Industrial Revolution; the writer Jess
Nevins has been quoted as saying, “Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.”
There are many variations within the genre: gaslamp fantasy, the wild weird west, techno-romantic, steampulp, neo-Victoriania. However it is defined, steampunks are reenacting a world that never existed, a fantasy Victorian-tinged alternative to modern life. And that world is growing, so much so that this weekend Seattle is hosting the three-day Steamcon II, one of the largest steampunk conventions in the U.S. (in 2009, nearly 1,500 people attended). The convention features steampunk author James Blaylock (Homunculus, The Ebb Tide), steampunk craftsman Jake Von Slatt (proprietor of steampunkworkshop.com), a fashion show, art exhibits and music by bands like The Gypsy Nomads and Rhubarb Whiskey. Cherie Priest, the Seattle-based steampunk author of Boneshaker, will also be in attendance.
Sitting in their leafy Eugene backyard — a whimsical sanctuary of untamed shrubs, welded sculptures and a knee-high stone Buddha — Eric Daws and Celeste Le Blanc talk about their place in the world of steampunk. Daws, a musician as well as a safety coordinator for Caterpillar, and Le Blanc, a local visual artist (and former Radar Angel), had been creating steampunk-esque art for some years before they discovered that their style had a name. “We didn’t even know we were doing it,” Le Blanc says, laughing.
Daws is trying to sell a playable steampunk Explorer guitar on the Internet that he describes as the “screaming metal beast” outfitted with sinuous metal tubing, plump gauges and an old tungsten light bulb. Le Blanc makes shrines like the Steampunk Time Machine, constructed from a mini-globe, golden compass, plate-sized gears and skeleton keys. She enjoys the combination of an old aesthetic, fine craftsmanship and materials such as wood, leather and brass. “It would be really cool instead of having a plastic laptop to have one that had all nice wood and brass fittings on the corners,” Le Blanc says, her rosy cheeks crinkling into a smile.
“It’s very feminine,” Daws says of steampunk, squinting beneath his silver brows in the bright sunlight. Daws prefers steampunk over other subcultures because of its cheerful disposition. Steampunk “is fun. That’s why we did not pursue goth or all those other depressing nihilistic things. Because it gets boring to be depressed.”
Steampunk is something of a retort to the seamless and impersonal world of cyberpunk seen in films such as Blade Runner and Hackers. Rather than dreaming of lofty and sterile digital dystopias, steampunks long for a tangible and romantic world of artistry and invention. Instead of sleek, high-tech gadgets like the iPad, steampunks prefer converting these gadgets to look like they are 200 years old and turned inside out — gears, cogs and wires exposed. “It is a form of nostalgia, idealism and escapism that is about the tragedy of modern life and the abuses of technology,” says Daws. “A way of participating that connects you to other people and accentuates the imagination.”
Le Blanc nods. “There’s belonging to a group but not wanting to be part of a flock of sheep,” she says. “You want your individuality, but you also want to feel like you belong. That’s the appeal of subcultures.”
One way dedicated steampunk followers distinguish themselves is through fashion. Rather than the quotidian jeans and T-shirt of the average American, steampunk attire values attention to detail, opting for buttery brown leather, brass buttons, intricate lace and aviator goggles. But don’t expect to buy a ready-to-wear ensemble at the mall; part of the fun and prestige of steampunk attire is creating it yourself.
The Rose City Steampunks (RCS), a two-year-old Portland group of about two dozen men and women, are attracted to this hands-on approach. Sitting around a long wooden table at the Twin Paradox Café, where they meet the first Thursday of every month, RCS members discuss costumes, literature and their costumes and accessories for Steamcon — an event that they prepare for all year. This week, RCS’ Yahoo group buzzes with conversations about carpooling from Oregon to Seattle (in true steampunk spirit, many are taking the train) and last minute costume adjustments. The chatter subsides when Storm Feather (her steampunk alias, common in reenactment groups) reads aloud an email from Captain Robert Brown, the lead singer of Abney Park, a self-proclaimed steampunk band. Brown is asking for the group’s help making an upcoming Portland concert more of a steampunk affair. Squeals of excitement bounce around the table and an unanimous “Yes!” rings throughout the group.
Above the din, Ursula Fowler (also a steampunk alias) talks about why she was drawn to steampunk. “The ethos is do-it-yourself,” says Fowler, a stay-at-home mother, her long silver braid hanging beneath a black top hat wrapped with an aubergine sash. “Making it yourself is really big. Everyone encourages everyone else to do it.” She says that on Brass Goggles, a steampunk website with more than 10,000 members, the forums are buzzing with questions about steampunking (yes, the word is also a verb) costumes and objects and even creating a sovereign steampunk society. However, making a Nerf gun look like it came out of a Jules Verne novel or adding brass epaulets to a suede vest are more common goals.
Storm Feather, her bejeweled 19th- century safari cap sitting firmly atop her head, says this is unique in reenactment fantasy cultures like steampunk. “There are always artisans in reenactment, but it has been very snooty. People tend to buy their props and accessories, whereas steampunk is all about going to the Goodwill bins and cobbling things together.” Mary Gypsea (another alias), a twentysomething steampunk, points to her shirt, a sleeveless beige top with a faux corset laced up the middle. “This vest was a shirt from Goodwill,” she says, a satisfied grin spreading across her face. “I cut the arms off.”
Fowler nods. “It’s a rebellion against the cookie-cutter world that we’re presented with. Everybody’s house has to look like it’s from Pottery Barn,” she says, picking up a ray gun pieced together from a shiny brass sconce, candleholder, clock gears and telephone wire. “Instead, you can use the old and make things quirky and fun.” This kind of repurposing is springing up all over the country. Kyle Robinson, a toymaker in Eugene, refashioned a Game Boy with a gold patina, brass tubes and cogs. Others have transformed laptops and even cars to look Victorian.
Joe Mross, host of the Halloween steampunk party, along with Paulina Mross, Gene Mross and Laurie Cox, decided to go even bigger and steampunk their barn. Joe and Gene own Archive Designs, a metalwork and fabrication company that ever so subtly incorporates steampunk into its creations. “I would say about 80 percent of what we’ve done here is recycled,” says Joe, patting the wall. “For example, all these pipes were just cardboard tubes someone had thrown in a Dumpster.” Other décor was found around their property, at garage sales and at places like BRING Recycling.
Sipping red wine at a rustic wooden table in their barn, the Mrosses point out the custom details of their party abode. The walls are lined with embellished golden mirrors, nautical paintings, oval portraits of anonymous Victorian women, weathered fishing nets and oversized brass gears. A dusty hardcover copy of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days sits on a wooden bookshelf and an old-fashioned copper scuba helmet lies askew beneath the loft stairs. Outside the barn sits a rough-hewn canvas dirigible, the size of a pirate ship, called the H.M.S. Intrepid Sapphyre. When it lights up, like it did on that brisk Halloween night, it outshines the moon.
“Life can really get to you,” says Paulina, her dark eyes sparkling. “This is like an escape. At least for one night, to feel like you’re somewhere else.”
“Every kid dreams about that stuff,” says Joe.
Late on that Hallow’s Eve, the partygoers gather in the crimson “opium” haze once more. The barn loft doors open, welcoming the freshness of the inky night. Mood Area 52, Eugene’s favorite cabaret-tango quintet, takes the stage and showers the sounds of cellos, trumpets, accordions and a toy piano on the crowd, rousing them to gather their full skirts, brush off their coattails, adjust their brass goggles, tighten their Doc Martens and dance. The party is the perfect rehearsal for Steamcon II, which Joe will be attending so he can finally show off his steampunk jet pack.