What is Steampunk? A Guest post by Matt McCall

Introduction by Mark.

At the back end of 2014 and running into 2015 I started writing a couple of steampunk novels by accident. What I was actually writing at the time was Passing Place, which is many things but steampunk is not one of them. At some point, in the midst of the forest in the cellar I got stalled, as often happens when I write. I needed a break from explorations of the meaning of existence and the flexible causality of the perfect sandwich, I needed to throw some frivolities at the page, steampunk seemed delightfully frivolous in this regard.

Steampunk is indeed delightfully frivolous, its one of the reasons I find myself drawn to it and the people who inhabit the subculture. It is also a fay thing that flits about and is hard to define…

So anyway, I spent a couple of weeks writing some frivolous steampunk to clear my mind, with no intention of actually doing anything with them, before forgetting about them completely and got back to Esqwith’s and the right way to drink brandy in Paris in 1922 after seeing the phenomenon that was Josephine Baker in her prime…

A year or so later, between edits of Passing Place I needed frivolity again, read back those early steampunk stories and found both Hannibal Smyth and Miss Maybe hanging out in my subconscious arguing about the whole concept of Steampunk, and more importantly what tense they should be written in. (weirdly the earliest incarnation of Maybe was originally written in 1st person, while the earliest Hannibal stories were in 3rd, neither was happy about this… as the novels would later attest.)

In any regard, my not for publication side project to get around writers block on the books I wanted to write has manage to spawn four novels so far with at least three more planned, this strange kind of chaos delights me. What delights me more however are the wonderful people I have met along the way since I accidentally started writing steampunk. It’s not airships and top hats, corsetry and parasols, or cogs and pith helmets that make steampunk the sub-culture that it is. It’s the people.

One of those people is Mat McCall, a bulldozer of joyous exuberance and invested enthusiasm who manages to drag unsuspecting people into a whirlwind of frivolity. I love this man… He has some thoughts on ‘What is Steampunk’ he is something of an expert on the matter, though he would never claim to be.

What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is a celebration of the 19thc origins of Science Fiction.

Although the name “Steampunk” is 20th century, the style and form of Steampunk goes back to the earliest 19th-century authors who created the genre of Science Fiction. Those first authors were writing in the dawn light of the Industrial Revolution, a time of infinite possibilities and infinite change. As time went on, their fiction became not only speculation but inspiration and warnings to future generations.

Science Fiction as a genre was not invented in the USA in the 1950s.

As a literary genre proper, Science Fiction came about in the early 1800s. Modern Science Fiction finds its progenitor in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, daughter of two prominent British philosophers and political activists and wife of the poet Shelley. She wrote what was described as a scientific romance, a cautioning letter to humanity regarding mankind’s hubris and foolishness on the doorstep of a new age of science; the industrial revolution. She created one of her generation’s most essential and enduring novels by mixing fact, contemporary science and fiction, and a healthy fear of what was to come.

Today if her book, ‘Frankenstein,’ was newly released, it would sit firmly between ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘I Robot.’ As it is, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is the mother of all modern science fiction. And its imaginings and reimaginings, in books, theatre and most notably film, have had such a profound impact on our culture.

The first proper Science Fiction movie was Georges Méliès’ ‘Trip to the Moon,’ released 120 years ago, inspired by Verne’s 1865 novel, ‘From the Earth to the Moon,’ and HG Wells’ ‘First Men on the Moon’ of 1900. Science fiction has its roots deep within our culture, art, and imagination.

The first movie version of ‘Frankenstein’ was released 110 years ago and shaped our subconscious visualisations of one of the Steampunk world’s most important features: the mad scientist’s laboratory.

Steampunk celebrates the works and inspiration of those great creators, like Jules Verne, H.G Wells, Edgar Rice Boroughs, Hugh MacColl, and C.S Lewis. The filmmakers, from Méliès to Walt Disney, and right down to today’s authors, filmmakers and TV shows.

But what is or is not Steampunk?

There is no “canon” of work, no set of films or books, and no TV series that can be used to define what is and is not Steampunk. Steampunk is an inspirational vortex, a hurricane of creativity, drawing anything and all that appeals to the Steampunks into the eye of its ingenious whirlwind of imagination.

But is it all Fiction?

Well, yes and no. There’s an awful lot of science in the fiction and, there are many teachers, lecturers, educators, and people who just love to spread the word in Steampunk. The 19th c was an age of creativity on a scale unseen before, and a lot of what they invented most people have never heard of, from battery-powered jewellery to pneumatically powered railways, from Galvani’s experiments with reanimation to Hiram Maxim beating the Wright brothers into the air by 10 years. The real world of 19thc invention and science was almost as mad as the fictional world of Steampunk.

What you may see.

Steamers love dressing up. For some, a lovely Victorian dress or jacket and a fine hat worn at a jaunty angle are enough; for others, well, their own imagination is the limit.

As Steampunk as a movement spread, it encountered the cosplayers, who like to dress up as their favourite characters from comics, TV and film. You may have seen the Trekkies and, would be, Jedi at conventions, but Steampunk has no such limits.

There is no “you can’t wear that” or “that’s not in the films” in Steampunk, and so the Steamers have no limits to their creativity. We can take inspiration for our costumes from anywhere, from Lewis Carol to Batman, from the Dinosaur Hunters of 2000AD, and the ‘Land that Time Forgot’ to the real world of 19th C life; give it a Steampunk twist and wear it proudly.

Is there any logic to Steampunk?

Steampunks love the literature and style of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Steampunks love science and invention, mystery, and adventure.

An excellent example of how things get drawn into the vortex of Steampunk; Conan Doyle created the greatest detective character of all. Writing in the late Victorian age, a lot of the forensic science Holmes used was cutting edge, virtually Science Fiction to his readers, so Sherlock Holmes is rightly drawn inexorably into Steampunk.  And along with his creation, so is the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was a spiritualist and ardent believer in the reality of the Cottingley Fairies; though the images were first published in 1917, they, of course, are drawn into the creative vortex of Steampunk inspiration.

So, do not be surprised to encounter a Steampunk-inspired Sherlock Holmes sipping tea and taking tiffin with a Steampunk-inspired Victorian fairy, or H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller having a drink with an Airship Pirate and a couple of Morlocks.

Who are the Steampunks?

We are writers, musicians, dancers, sculptors, model makers, costume makers, performance artists, artificers, inventors and an innumerable multitude of other specialities and skills. 

Because of the freedom of imagination within Steampunk, it has become the most diverse, inclusive, and encompassing of all communities. We welcome all ages, genders, abilities, disabilities, and ethnic backgrounds. We come from all walks of life, from the unemployed and students to academics, professional artists, and actors, from comics to lawyers.

Are there rules?

There is but one rule; Be Splendid. We value good manners and polite conduct at all times and try to encourage this by setting an excellent example for others. We value individuality, creativity, and artistic licence, by encouraging and supporting each other in our creativity, especially new members.

One other kind of rule; Steampunks do not take themselves seriously. This is all about having fun and escapism.

Can I join in?

We welcome all. You do not need to be an artist to join in. You do not need to be even ‘into’ anything particular. You don’t need to dress up in a fancy costume or know anything about Science Fiction. And if you love it, then Steampunk will awaken creativity in you that you never knew you had. Just bring yourself because you have so much more to give than you realise.

Simply come along and say ‘hallo.’ There are no barriers to Steampunk.

So why don’t I credit Jetta and modern Steampunk authors?

I would no more credit Jetta with inventing Steampunk than I would credit the guy that called an elephant an “Elephant” with the invention of the elephant. It’s not to demean his contribution as an author, but identifying and sticking a label on a thing, as would a moth hunter on a newly discovered moth, does not mean that that lepidopterist invented that particular kind of moth, no more than it means Jetta invented Steampunk.

As with Gibson, who did not invent Cyberpunk, other authors were writing similar dark future stories before he published Neuromancer, but Gibson named it and had a far broader and more profound impact upon the genre, and consequently all Science Fiction than Jetta ever has had on Steampunk.

Don’t believe me? Ask a dozen Science Fiction reading Steampunks; far more will have read Neuromancer than have ever heard of Morlock Nights.

For inspiration, most Steampunks go back to those early greats and the various filmic reinventions of their stories; Jules Verne, H.G Wells, Mary Shelley, et al., and that is why, although us struggling authors are contributing to the genre of Steampunk, and there is some damn good stuff out there, we will never be the actual sources of inspiration for the whole movement.

Steampunks are a community.

Steampunks are a community of like-minded individuals; we are all different, some very different, and we celebrate those differences. In fact, we encourage those differences. We do not judge people, nor single out or exclude people; such behaviour is simply not splendid, and that’s not Steampunk.

We are a refuge for the outsiders, the people that never fitted in with the ‘right crowd’ at school. The oddballs and we are very proud of that fact.

Steampunk is what Steampunks do.

Do not allow anyone to tell you what you can or cannot do, what you can wear, or what you can take inspiration from. A few years back, we had a lot of people arguing about what Steampunk is and what is not. Mostly these were people who had come into the community with fixed ideas of what they expected it to be and took to their soapboxes to tell us all we were wrong, and they were right. Very few of those people remain. There is no pure Steampunkiness, no right way to do it, and indeed, no one who claims to be an expert is an expert.

Afterword by Mark

Mat McCall is rubbish at self promotion… He writes wonderful novels and doesn’t even bring copies of them to steampunk events he is organising. He writes a long blog post like this about steampunk and doesn’t once mention his own down right remarkable novels in the process. The man is an idiot, I would not listen to anything he says , I’d go and read a book instead. I recommend one of his, The Dandelion Farmer for example… Or is you like heroic fantasy of the kind once written by David Gemmell you can’t go far wrong with Annis.


About Mark Hayes

Writer A messy, complicated sort of entity. Quantum Pagan. Occasional weregoth Knows where his spoon is, do you? #author #steampunk http://linktr.ee/mark_hayes
This entry was posted in amreading, amwriting, books, Hannibal Smyth, indie, indie novels, indie writers, IndieApril, reads, retro book reviews, sci-fi, steampunk, Uncategorized, writes and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What is Steampunk? A Guest post by Matt McCall

  1. Pingback: What is Steampunk? A Guest post by Matt McCall – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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