That was me last week, seconds after I had name-dropped a certain term while interviewing someone for my day job. She was a bed-and-breakfast owner; I was your mild-mannered reporter for a “great” “metropolitan” weekly. And based on her expressed wishes to have more of an antique feel to the place, to match its hundred-year antiquity, I mentioned that things such as vintage fashion and design are actually growing popular because of “steampunk.”
Oh, good one, I thought, drop a geek-term and make her have to smile and nod.
But actually she agreed, saying her daughter was so into that type of thing, especially with long dresses. So not only did I learn another lesson about arrogantly thinking “regular” folks don’t know about that kind of stuff, I thought to ensure I knew the term’s definition myself.
Initial research seems to confirm my previous impression: steampunk actually doesn’t constitute a great portion of popular literature or movies so far. From what I’ve seen and read, it is more of a flavor. Science-fiction-meets-Victorian-alternate-histories themes, often with pipes, gears, valves and little circular dials, are being integrated into all kinds of designs for instruments, custom computer-screen casing, toys, even decorative cakes.
By contrast, cursory searches for “steampunk” fiction don’t turn up a lot, at least not yet: a fiction tribute or two to Jules Verne, a couple of early-hundreds Disney films that didn’t do too well (Atlantis and Treasure Planet, the latter of which I’ve seen and still enjoy), some graphic novels, the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, or the upcoming sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, called The Legend of Korra. (Biased moment: hurrah for more animated Avatar! and may M. Night Shyamalan repent of his sins and find inner peace, away from studio funding).
My first exposure to “steampunk” came from 2002’s Treasure Planet and one of the first all-in-front-of-bluescreen films, 2005’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I’m still not quite sure why I like them so much, or the “steampunk” idea. And that becomes more confusing when one takes into account that these films have devoted fans, but bombed in theaters.
Some stories also necessitate the quotes around the term steampunk, because technically they’re not set in some alternate-history or even alternate-universe version of this world with steam-powered devices. Better terms, I suggest, might be retro-fantasy, or historical fantasy.
Yet it seems steampunk is a catch-all description for many kinds of stories, or designs based on implicit ideas, that suggest: what if such-and-such event occurred in a world/our history, or this invention caught on more than it actually did, or mankind never had this or that war, or helium dirigibles revolutionized the world instead of airplanes, or silicon chips were never developed?
You might think of revisions or supplements to that definition. And of course, steampunk concepts aren’t just applied to alternate-history stories set in this world. Howl’s Moving Castle, my wife tells me, included a fantasy world with steampunk elements. The American-created-so-please-don’t-mock-me-for-watching-a-supposedly-anime series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, incorporated all kinds of fantastic retro-fantasy concepts, especially in the Fire Nation and the machines used (‘ware spoilers!) to attack it — which gets really fun when you have machines powered by the magic-like abilities of earth-, fire- or water-controlling people called “benders.”
Two questions, for which you might know the answers better than me:
Have Christians caught up to steampunk?
As has been firmly established by the wisdom of our Speculative-Faith comment sages (may they be blessed), Christians tend to be about two years behind cultural trends. (Thank God our best and brightest somehow missed emulating the “Spice Girls,” but some of us are still stuck on “Fear Factor”-themed youth-groupie stunts.) That means that if steampunk is popular now among readers of visionary fiction, it might be a while before publishers catch up. But have you seen retro-fantasy styles or themes in Christian visionary novels, for youth readers or others?
Why is steampunk growing in popularity?
My best theory probably did make my bed-and-breakfast acquaintance smile and nod politely.
I ventured the idea that, at least clothing-wise, as fashions just keep going up to here and down to there, there just isn’t much left to strip off. Naturally the culture could swing the other way: back in time, to “vintage” styles, maybe a little tricked out to add a fantasy edge, but as a subtle kind of “rebellion” against the notion that sees new and modern as always better.
If that’s nearly true, I may have found an actual theological reason to enjoy steampunk. Often the past is better, and history is fantastic, whether it’s real or with what-if-Jules-Verne’s-world-actually-happened? notions. It’s also fun, and I’m still trying to discern why. Want to help?