Steampunk: The new Goth
The retrofuturistic trend draws on a Jules Verne-like view of the world and Victorian-era technology.
Some pop culture genres such as Tolkienesque fantasy imagine a magical past of strange races and global quests. Others, such as hard-core dystopian science fiction, warn against a future marred by apocalyptic meltdown.Skip to next paragraph
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Then comes steampunk, a hybrid vision of a past that might appear in the future – or a future that resides, paradoxically, in the spirit of another age.
No, you're not stuck in some goofy concept album by The Moody Blues. Steampunk is a fantasy made physical, made of brass and wood and powered by steam, born of the Industrial Age and inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It takes form both as an aesthetic movement and a community of artists; role-players; visionaries; and those who use the tools of literature, film, music, fashion, science, design, architecture, and gaming to manifest their visions.
"[Steampunk is] drawing on actual history. You can pull into it what you're into and put your spin on it. It's accessible yet expandable," says Jake von Slatt (real name: Sean Slattery, of Littleton, Mass.), who likens the philosophy behind steampunk to the open-source software movement. "There is a real focus on sharing, exploring things together, building community."
Steampunkers gather in conventions to exchange ideas – plus, they know how to dress to the nines and party like it's 1899.
Mr. von Slatt, who came of age in the era of punk rock, new wave, and Goth, has always been a tinkerer. Steampunk lets him "revisit youthful enthusiasms," he says. Now he creates intricately crafted anachronistic objects: for example, computer keyboards taken apart and rebuilt with brass, felt, and keys from antique manual typewriters. He's transformed a 1989 school bus into a wood-paneled "Victorian RV," which he uses to travel to steampunk conventions.
Currently, he's "steampunking" a fiberglass, 1954-style Mercedes kit car, tricking it out with salvaged gauges and lights from other cars and gold filigree trim. Drawn to steampunk's "do-it-yourself, making something from nothing" mantra, von Slatt scavenges most of his components from the dump.
Roots in a 1960s TV series
Steampunk was first introduced as a literary subgenre. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel "The Difference Engine" popularized the idea of an alternate history where the Industrial Revolution-level technology of pistons and turbines, not electricity, powers modern gadgets, as Victorians might have designed them. But even way back in 1960s, the television series "The Wild Wild West" helped define the genre. The sci-fi western featured a train outfitted with a laboratory and featured protagonists who were gadgeteers.