I don’t know about you, but I spend so much time in a world of gears, cogs, pith helmets and imaginary robot butlers, I sometimes forget that there are people out there who see life quite differently. Hard to believe as it may be - there are some folk who haven’t ever pretended to pilot an airship, pulled on a scarlet corset or even polished their own goggles! How many of you reading this have had to fumble and mumble through a contrived explanation of exactly why you are wearing those brass wings and enormous top hat to some unassuming by-stander? It’s pretty much a Steampunk rite of passage to have to explain ourselves to the rest of the world, often unsuccessfully. Of course, it’s our duty to educate these unknowing and goggle-deprived folk whenever possible… but that’s easier said than done.
In the first instance, Steampunk is rather niche. To say the least. It is more niche than Victoriana and Sci-fi, both of which are niches in themselves. It’s a niche hidden in an alcove, tucked in a nook, sitting behind a cranny. It’s safe to say that, even with a Justin Beiber video and a robot arm being shown on some American detective show - in the great library of pop culture, true Steampunk still sits in a battered volume on the shelf marked ‘nerds only.’*
*with all the rest of the very cool stuff that’s only for us to enjoy
And as a long time comics nerd of the highest order, I’m aware of the dangers of explaining in depth, the beauty and wonder of the graphic narrative form; the main one being that before you’ve even got to the word ‘graphic’ in the previous sentence, people have either dozed off, or are thinking about whether or not they have run out of milk and really should pop to the shops as soon as the comic nerd in front of them has finally shut the hell up so they can get on with their lives.
So then, how to go about explaining Steampunk? No one wants to be bored to death by some overenthusiastic top-hatted maniac, rambling on like an unwanted Jehovah Witness who’s come to the door when you really need the loo. Likewise, the old joke of “Goths in Brown” doesn’t cut it. In fact, it has just been made official Steampunk law, that if anyone ever utters that overused and tired explanation of our cherished mini-culture, you are allowed to smack them in the chops with the business end of your blunderbuss.**
**It should be noted that this is only Steampunk law in my own head
It’s very hard to sum up something that means so many different things to so many different people and yet shares a similar aesthetic and attitude by its fans across the world. I know people who make machines, people who love history, people who think it’s only true Steampunk if you stayed up all night sewing your own rivets onto your own home knitted custom gauntlets*** and fools who have the audacity to wear a second hand seventies safari suit and rap about apes - while still daring to call themselves Steampunk.
***These people are quite wrong of course, Steampunk can be whatever you say it is
For my money, the thing we all share most of all is an attitude: every Steampunk I have ever met (with a single notable exception) has been caring, funny, polite, inclusive, able to laugh at themselves and endlessly creative. We may share a vaguely similar interest in a certain Victorian/sci-fi aesthetic, but we all come at it from so many different angles that it is as spectacular as it is dizzying when we get together. If anyone doesn’t believe me, simply look at Steampunk music: Abney Park, The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, Sunday Driver and myself are all purveyors of Steampunk music and yet have very little in common musically.
All of which is very nice, but it doesn’t really help in explaining Steampunk in one, simple sound bite, to an uninitiated and interested fellow. And I for one am tired of mumbling. “Erm… it’s like Victorian times… but erm… like if they kept doing Victorian stuff now… with… erm, jet packs and …umm… nice people.” So, for shows where the count of Steampunks is one, and the audience looks unimpressed with my potential cocktail of tea, suited apes and brass pipes, the best I have come up with is:
“Imagine a comic convention and a fetish night had a baby. In Victorian times. In the future. That baby is Steampunk.”
Anyway, that’s my simple description of how Steampunk appears to me, your take will be different and quite possibly better, so do add it to the comments below. Just as long as you don’t use the words “brown” or “Goths.”
Professor Elemental has created a unique neo-Victorian blend of hip hop and comedy, and is the man behind the world’s first steampunk rap album. With a heart of brass and a pair of goggles, he embodies the Victorian spirit of invention and exploration.