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Monday, April 9, 2012

Steampunk on Earth and Barsoom Part 1

One dealer's unsold Steampunk apparel
on the final day of Condor

The theme of this year’s Condor was “Men in Black,” as Guest of Honor Lowell Cunningham created the comic upon which the popular movies were based.  But the unstated theme of the convention could have been Steampunk.  More attendees than ever wore Victorian-styled clothing, or carried gadgets that might have been designed by inventors in that era.  What?  Didn’t bring your Steampunk with you?  Dealers sold Steampunk apparel, accessories, add-ons to modern devices such as cellphones, and toys.  At times I wondered if the convention had time-traveled back a century or more.  Certainly the attendees would have looked more “futuristic” in 1912 than they did in 2012.

So what is Steampunk?  This is a question I’ve struggled to wrap my brain around for some time.  While I don’t fully understand it, for me, Steampunk seems to be primarily about looking back to the glories of a previous era.  It celebrates the scientific developments that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century promised.  It glories in the extravagant lifestyle that the aristocracy enjoyed.  It trumpets attitudes and outlooks that our culture might actually embrace, if only modern man valued form over function.  Like the conspirators in the Doctor Who adventure “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” it does not spend too much time dwelling on the drawbacks of life in that past era.  Instead, like all humans do, the movement draws inspiration from what delights it, and moves on from there.

It is just as well Steampunk does not look to the actual past for its inspiration.  In the nineteenth century, the poor left the country and smaller towns to find employment.  They descended upon London, the cultural center of Victorian England from which the Steampunk movement derives its signature style.  They flooded the workhouses, tramped the filthy streets in search of employment, or starved in its dark alleys.  In her novel Emma, Jane Austen writes, “My poor dear child, the truth is that in London it is always a sickly season.  Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.”  In his story “A Study in Scarlet,” Dr. John Watson, writing under the pen name of Arthur Conan Doyle, goes further.  “London, that great cesspool, into which all the idlers and loungers of the empire are irresistibly drained.”  

Needless to say, life in such a city proved dangerous for many.  Facing rampant crime, the understaffed police, overrun by the unwashed poor, bought into the Victorian philosophy that crimes were only committed by the lower orders, not the educated and well-bred gentry.  They could not protect ordinary citizens like you and me; more than likely, they would view us as suspects in any investigation.  Late in the century, “The Illustrated Police News” recorded the sensational details of the Whitechapel Murders.  The police could not protect the women from Jack the Ripper.  Nor did they catch the serial murderer.  (At least director Nicholas Meyer offered us closure ninety years later: in his movie “Time After Time,” we finally learned the identity of Jack the Ripper, how he escaped to the 1970s in H. G. Wells’ time machine, and how his reign of terror was finally ended).  

Nor did the early twentieth century, with its celebration of science, inventions, and industrialization necessarily make London a better place to inhabit.  While the rich and socially-adept Lucia glories in climbing the social ladder in E. F. Benson’s Lucia in London, her husband Peppino grows sick from the cold, the damp, and the pollution.  And in The Man From St. Petersburg, Ken Follett describes the rigid divisions of the social order.  Even if you were fortunate enough to have learned a trade and worked hard to build your business, you could not charge more for your goods or services than the aristocracy would pay.  The rules of fashion might have dictated what type of clothing the rich wore during each period of the day, the week, and for each type of social activity, but a tradesman could not reap the financial benefits of producing superior apparel, such as a finely made shoe or hat.  Life among the lower classes was hand-to-mouth; tradespeople faced too much competition to distinguish themselves and thus improve their social and economic position.  It wasn’t until after World War I that the overcrowding, and the barriers to improving one’s lot, began to fall.  Of course, the glorious fashion sense that Steampunk celebrates then began to die as well.

This entry will conclude with Steampunk on Earth and Barsoom Part 2.

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