Mon
Oct 1 2012 3:00pm

Professor Elemental Defines Steampunk (or, at Least Tries to)

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.

This article is part of Steampunk Week 2012: ‹ previous | index | next ›
12 comments
S Cooper
1. SPC
A photographer at Dragon*con asked me to explain steampunk to him (I was trying to explain the Girl Genius character I was dressed as and he was confused). I think it came out as something about "the future as seen by Jules Verne" and then pointed out the various top hats, goggles, and clockwork we could see from where we were. Then we got derailed because the poor man hadn't ever heard of a webcomic so I had to explain webcomics to him too. I really hope he went home and did some more research because I know I wasn't all that helpful.
Tesh
2. Tesh
No mention of Steam Powered Giraffe in the music section? For shame, forsooth... or something like that.
Tesh
3. Sybarite
Steampunk = Victoriana + Duck Dodgers+ duct tape + brass

@ SPC: How can someone walk into Dragon*Con and have no idea what a web comic is? Scary...
Tesh
4. Bittersweet Fountain
@Sybarite, it's amazing how many people stumble into Dragon*Con and have no idea what's going on. It never fails that there are people not associated with the con at all staying at the hotel and just bewildered the entire weekend.

I remember last year a friend of mine and myself were dressed in steampunk style for Dragon*Con, but we were eating lunch at the CNN Center. A mother and her (approx) ten year old son passed us and I heard the mom say, "What are they wearing?" Her son just sort of rolled his eyes and said, "That's steampunk, Mom." It made me very happy. :)
Tesh
6. onisaur
Victorian Clockwork Supertech
... Long ago in the future, our heroes from the Wild Wild West, the LXG, the Shadow, the Firefly, Hugo, and the (2011) Three Musketeers discover Ancient Gummi metalworks in Atlantis.
Alan Brown
7. AlanBrown
How about those of us who actually HAVE piloted an airship?
Tesh
8. Lesbian Intersexed Pilot
RIGHT! Alan Brown, And Piloted several very faithfull reproductions of Pre- World War One Aircraft, and wear goggles out of necessity to fly them, and ride our motorbikes. YOU DITZES !! I AM Sabrina Hill, it is NOT my Alias, but seeing as you INSIST, I'll GIVE you one that probably is NOT in use, (See Above)
Sabrina Hill
9. LESBIANINTERSEXEDPILOT
RIGHT! Alan Brown, And Piloted several very faithfull reproductions of
Pre- World War One Aircraft, and wear goggles out of necessity to fly
them, and ride our motorbikes. YOU DITZES !! I AM Sabrina Hill, it is
NOT my Alias, but seeing as you INSIST, I'll GIVE you one that probably
is NOT in use, (See Above)No one TOLD me there could not be any spaces between the words, so I did it again. Please delete the one above with the incorrect username.
Tesh
10. Angharad V. Setherwood
I usually explain it to people by referencing the original steampunk book, the one where Babbage's calculating engine was actually built, and how that led to a Victorian computer revolution, and then invite them to add airships, goggles, cogs, and a Victorian aesthetic. On the other hand, the two people to whom I have actually explained steampunk were sufficiently geeky to know what Babbage's calculating engine was, but not sufficiently geeky to know about steampunk. (Yes, such people do exist.)
Tesh
11. Tess Elliott
Steampunk is an alternate history where steam became the leading power source, but what makes it beautiful is that it is also an alternate visual universe where people developed like our more liberal modern world but clung to what made the Victorian era beautiful. We live in a plastic world, and some more sensitive souls yearn for the complex and sophisticated designs. I think the artist William Morris had the right idea, paraphrased here, that what is useful should also be beautiful. Brass is so much more beautiful than plastic. Lace and silk more beautiful than cotton or linen. They took Madonna's popSchtick and wore corsets on the outside, but framed them in classical Victoriana. I do not cosplay, but do actually use chatelaines & when I build my next computer, it will be Steampunk style. It is a wonderful visual opera of different interpretations of classical and Victorian design that is sumptuous; imagine our technology made through the 19th century filter of ornamentation and sturdiness. That is indeed what artists like me yearn to see--everyday utilitarian things that you would never throw away as people do today.
Tesh
12. Ariel Childers
Succiently: Steampunk is the history of a future that never was.

There is a thrilling freedom in realizing that the past is as much a fiction and a dream as the future is, then taking both in hand and creating something utterly new.
Tesh
13. bookmom2
I don't think anyone is going to like this one, but my husband always tells people to think of the movie Wild Wild West(Will Smith) and then people usually get it.

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