Steampunk: not your grandma’s counter-culture

Written by: Dan Povio

Combining science fiction, Victorian wardrobe, and the attitude of the Wild West, Steampunk is either the most ingenious or least sensible of all subcultural phenomena.

The Steampunk following in New Jersey is one of the strongest in the world, with the Steampunk World’s Fair being held in Piscataway, NJ each year in May. The event features, among other things, displays of sword fighting, unusual musical acts, a panoply of homemade Steampunk gadget vendors, and even an absinthe tasting.

What is Steampunk exactly? It is a cultural movement, that focuses on ornate aesthetic sensibilities. Steampunk’s pseudo-Victorian style is it’s calling card. Corsets, double-breasted vests, brass-handled canes, futuresque pocket watches, aviation goggles, and monocles riddled with gadgets and gears: are the cornerstones of the Steampunk wardrobe, as shown on Steampunk shopping websites such as clockworkculture.com.

In many ways Steampunk is a reaction to the modern throw-away culture, by adding painstaking craftsmanship to make modern technology look like old fashioned custom-made mechanics. It reflects our love hate relationship with technology. It is about taking objects that cannot be salvaged, and using their parts to make something permanent and beautiful.

Steampunk’s origins lie in a brand of sci-fi literature popular in the late 1980s. Since then, it has spread into more mediums.

Cinema such as “Wild Wild West” and “Skycaptain: World of Tomorrow,” and graphic novels like Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” all capture different aspects of the Steampunk aesthetic.

Former MCCC student, Samantha Stein, said, “To me, it fantasizes about what the Victorian era could have been, had there been more imagination in those newborn sciences and industries.” Stein listed some of her favorite Steampunk novels and movies, including the “Leviathian” trilogy by Scott Westerfield, and movies such as “Hugo” and “Sherlock Holmes.”

“There are no masks in war,” Westerfield wrote in his book, “Leviathan,” a popular Steampunk novel set on the eve of the Great War. “There aren’t many sword fights in war either! Not lately.” Yet sword fighting is common place in Steampunk society.

The fear of misusing technology on a massive scale is one of the grand themes of sci-fi, but Steampunk captures this fear in a very specific, very real moment. It captures the moment, uncoincidentally, that authors like H.G. Wells penned the first stories that would define modern sci-fi. In its quest to revert back to a more beautiful time, Steampunk ends up in science fiction’s birthplace.

“It brings together a lot of people that share the interest in the strange clothing and the time period it is based out of,” said former Mercer student Samantha Stein.

Stein explained that she has a strong interest in fantasy and sci-fi, which first drew her to the genre of Steampunk. “The genre as a whole tends to embellish upon a great time in recent history where science flourished.”

Joey Marsocci, also known as Dr. Grymm, is a popular figure in the Steampunk community. In a recent PBS documentary, “Off Book: Steampunk,” Marsocci said, “The key element of Steampunk is that it is a world that never happened.”

Marsocci explains that the Steampunk counter-culture pays homage to a time of personal craftsmanship preceding the industrialization of everything in our lives. “The industrial revolution took over,” said Marsocci. He continued, “We forgot how to make things with our hands.”

Marsocci explains that the world of Steampunk is an alternate world, where the technologies of steam power and Tesla-style electricity are combined to make “bigger and better things… But they’re still beautiful… they’re still art.”

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Dan Povio
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