In the middle days of my steampunk involvement, when the term ‘steampunk’ was still pretty new, I was reading the available books just to read a good story. I wanted an engaging narrative set firmly in the Future That Never Was. I just wanted to be entertained.
Once the online community started to grow in earnest, there was a chance to interact with people from around the US and in other countries. Ah, the joy and promise of the burgeoning internet – dial up modems, CompuServe, bulletin boards, and minimal graphics. Still, it was there and people in our community were starting to find each other.
It was when I started getting into steampunk with a real continued passion, attending Steamcon in 2009 and Nova Albion in 2010, and starting Airship Ambassador that my education, and sometimes re-education, started to, uh, pick up steam.
Because of that participation, I have come to learn a great deal about many topics I hadn’t really given any thought to before.
In school, I found history classes to be the most boring subject ever, a vast desert wasteland of dead, dry, dusty boredom. Ancient Egypt was cool, though, and the Greco-Roman days – at least what little was presented in those textbooks. Bugs Bunny’s version of Christopher Columbus, and the Brady Bunch’s dream sequence about Jesse James was a thousand times more interesting than all of my history classes put together.
My Dad would always say in response to my general disregard of history, “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.” Yeah, yeah, boredom for eternity, got it.
The History channel came along and peaked my interest in some topics for an hour at a time. It was a bit more lively than sitting at a desk, learning dates and names and whatever.
But then, steampunk.
Well, I mean, if I’m going to live in this world, I should have an idea what it was about so I can start breaking all the rules and create the Future That Never Was that I wanted. it started simply enough – music. Abney Park was around and some other groups were becoming more known, and I wondered how any of that music might be related to or compared to the music of the 1800s. There can’t have been much, right?
Within a few google searches, music I had listened to my whole life came flooding in with a realization of “Oh, yeah, that was in the 1800s”. Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, and so many more for the Romantic Period. But there was also religious and folk songs, ragtime and the days of vaudeville. The music of the time was as varied as it is today.
Moving on from that, I did an interview with artist James Ng and asked about his iconic work, the Imperial Airship. That, and his image of the Immortal Empress led me to more historical research fro about a weeks worth of reading on the Dowager Empress Cixi and how she came to rule China for decades. Another interview with Michelle Black led me to learn about Victoria Woodhull, who sought to run for the US Presidency in a time when women couldn’t even vote. Now THIS kind of history was interesting!
It’s not just real history that I’ve learned from steampunk. it’s present day factors that I’m learning about too. I have come to realize just how finely nuanced each and every one of us truly is. “Normal” is just that range of responses with the most hits, but within that range, and especially outside of it, are the really interesting bits to be learned. I have come to learn more about other people and what affects them, and perhaps more importantly, I have learned much more about myself.
Descriptions like introvert and extrovert barely scratch the surface in describing how and why people act in their lives. Sexual orientation like gay and straight are only two stops on the tour. Gender identity, race, culture, family structure – not just words to use in describing someone but rather they are interesting facets of who a person is.
Ultimately, all of that comes down to people being more than a bunch of convenient labels and becoming something much more – our friends.
What else have I learned through steampunk? A billion ways (ok, maybe thirty) to tie a (despised, hated, evil) tie beyond just a Windsor knot. The evolutionary style of the bustle. The reason for paper collars on men’s shirts. Population migration patterns and reasons. Technological development and the associated setbacks and breakthroughs, along with the “respected but ultimately disproven” and the “ridiculed but correct” theories. How a steam engine is designed. How gas lines for home lighting were pressurized. And the potentially obsessive history, reasons, and design of indoor plumbing. (You think that’s funny? When you get dropped into a steampunk world all on your own, one of the first things you will want is modern indoor plumbing and hygiene and not a chamber pot or an outhouse.)
What could possible be left to learn? Modern electronics, painting faux finishes, construction techniques, adapting old recipes to work in today’s kitchens and foodstuffs, and the benefits of reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Steampunk, more than any other fandom type group, is our classroom and makes us learn something, even if we are involved “just for fun”.