Getting Out of London

While Victorian London might be the default home and first representative thought of steampunk settings and influence, there is still a whole nineteenth century world out there to explore, with unique cultures to experience and (steam)punk. Our literature and movies, fashion and materials design, and our own attitudes and actions, can directly benefit from the rich diversity of other locations, customs and ideas. The steampunk community and culture would be at a loss without including the rest of the Victorian era world. We are too creative to stay in just one city! Where can the steampunk Adventurers and Explorers (and Ambassadors) go? What can we learn about others, and in so doing, learn about ourselves?

With this expansion of focus and thought, it is important that it is done with the actions and intent of inclusion, not mere appropriation of a superficial look, nor the adoption of the spirit without the underlying meaning of peoples and their traditions. There’s a great deal of Imperialism and colonization to recognize in Victorian age history, and we should not trivialize that which is so valuable to others.

Onward then, from English countrysides and coastlines, to the Scottish lochs and Irish glens, German forests and French valleys, Spanish ports and Italian orchards. Further afield, there are Persian deserts, Turkish markets, and Indian Himalayas. Transylvania ZanzibarTongaMechanicsburgh!  Oh, wait. That’s already in use.

There are cultural roles to understand like Japanese ninjas , Native American spiritual leaders , and Russian Tsars , and traditional garments to try such as Chinese silk robes, Peruvian tunics, and Arabian thobes and ghutras.

Steampunk is all about “What if” in order to create our stories, fashions, and design. If new stories from steampunk authors look past the England-centric themes there is so much more which could be considered.

Who might have used a fully functional Difference Engine from Charles Babbage to assist Guatemala, Panama, and Santo Domingo in proclaiming independence from Spain in 1821?

How could steampunk technology help mitigate Ireland’s potato famine of 1846?

What creative steampunk weaponry would have ensured that revolutions in Vienna, Venice, Berlin, Milan, Rome, and Warsaw in 1849 succeeded?

What if Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus had actually been Paul Guinan’s Boilerplate ?

Our form and fashion expressions of steampunk can include not only the visual aesthetic of other cultures but also share the underlying significance of the original inspirational source. How might we accurately and respectfully incorporate Maori tattoo designs  , the neck rings of Karen (Kayan) tribes in Myanmar (Burma),  and South African Zulu beadwork into the back story and clothing of our steampunk characters?

What would various aspects of steampunk look like with an influence of Chinese ceramics, African ivory carvings , or Incan or Mayan art and architecture?

What would be the impact of steampunk technology developing in the African Plains, the Amazonian rainforest, or the Samoan Islands?

Recognizing the potential and opportunities, authors, makers and conventions are already exploring new possibilities for growth. As examples, unfortunately leaving out many others:

Cherie Priest sets her novel, Boneshaker, in an alternate version of Seattle. During a panel at Steamcon , October, 2009, Priest explained a bit of the thought research which went into shifting actual historical events in time to create a plausible cause and effect of events making the setting more believable and easier to suspend disbelief.

James Ng talks about his artwork, steampunk with a basis in Chinese culture, in an interview with Jaymee Goh. In it, James says he wondered:

“what if China was the first to modernize during the turn of the last century, if China was the standard that other countries had to work towards, what would things look like today?”

Bruno Accioly co-founded the Steampunk Council to create and promote Brazilian steampunk.

Michael Redturtle describes his thoughts in how he came to create his Native American steampunk outfit with a guiding principle of “Native first, steampunk second”.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia had her Mexican steampunk story, Distant Deeps or Skies, published in the webzine Expanded Horizons.

Cabinet of Wonders had a posting about the potential of Arabian steampunk, citing the engineering developments of Badi Al Zaman Abul I Ezz Ibn Ismail Ibn Al Razzaz Al Jaziri in the twelfth century.

And of course, Jules Verne gave us Captain Nemo who was actually Prince Armitage Ranjit Dakkar from India, a leader of the Sepoy rebellion against colonial rule in 1857. (See here , also)

Stephen H. Segal says in his Five Thoughts On The Popularity Of Steampunk:

“Sure, steampunk “proper” may simply be retro-alternate-19th-century science fiction — but in practice, writers and artists and filmmakers and musicians are all starting with this basic aesthetic and then mixing in some fantasy, some horror, some superheroics. We’re seeing steampunk pirates, steampunk faeries, steampunk Wonder Woman, steampunk Cthulhu cultists!”

The exploration of other locations, themes and design is underway and will continue to grow in evermore creative avenues, because steampunk is ever evolving and ever inclusive. When we know and understand what was happening historically around the planet in the Victorian age, and why, we are better able to incorporate elements of people, places, things and customs into our steampunk culture, to make more informed choices, and to bring along substantive meaning and reasons for a change or addition instead of just a simplistic and superficial “it looks cool”.

We can enjoy and express the visual aesthetic of non-English cultures, but it is also important for us to remember and respect the sources of inspiration. Take the best, but make sure you address the rest.

Published in: on April 25, 2010 at 7:54 am  Comments (4)  
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Steampunk is … Reaction, Rebellion, Resolution

When people are first exposed to steampunk, they may read stories set in an alternative Victorian history, they may see movies filled with creatively designed if not primitive versions of modern technology, and they may see people in the real world wearing stylish if anachronistic clothing and using decoratively modified devices.

They see the resulting resolutions to an individual’s rebellion against a personal situation and a way to make changes a lived reality. Underlying those external expressions and behaviors by others is a guiding philosophy of how one wants to live their life and be fulfilled in it.

While the term ‘steampunk’ is a tongue-in-cheek reference to ‘cyberpunk’, coined by K.W. Jeter in 1987,  and it is not the ‘punk’ of ‘punk rock’, it can be argued that all three have a similar basis of feeling and response.

For some people, the steampunk world, encompassing both the physical aesthetic and the virtual themes, is driven by that ‘punk’ attitude: a refusal to accept the world as presented, with a correlating desire to reshape it, and ultimately action to bring those envisioned changes to reality. Individuals with their independent ways and views, with a more encompassing or outsider attitude, and with a desire for something at least different if not more fulfilling, see how their own status quo is lacking or oppressive and seeks to make a change for themselves in their own lives for their own happiness. Punks test the limits of societal acceptability, confront conformity and complacency, and create jarringly unexpected new forms of expression.

Reaction: an idea evoked by some experience; a response that reveals a person’s feelings or attitude; doing something in opposition to another way of doing it that you don’t like;

Reaction is where everyone begins before making a change. Sometimes, the reaction is positive when we find something pleasant and agreeable, like delicious new foods and fulfilling experiences. Alternatively, the reaction could be negative when something causes tension and discord in our lives, like stifling limitations, disappointment and frustration, and overt or subtle oppression.

The strength and endurance of our reaction determines the next step: yielding to inertia and maintaining a course of action, or making a decision to change. Some people will experience the variety of expressions in the Steampunk community and will walk away unimpressed, uninterested, and apathetic. Other will find it offends their very nature and be completely opposed to any consideration of what it might offer. But there are those who embrace the initial emotional, even sub-conscious, appeal and enticement to explore their newfound interest.

Rebellion: refusal to accept some authority or code or convention; refusal of obedience or order; break with established customs; break an allegiance.

Rebellion often follows a strong negative reaction against something, a visceral feeling or attitude to pull away from something for simple escape, to fulfill an attraction to something else, or even a desire to change one thing into another. As simplistic examples, one might want to leave an unhappy relationship, or move to a better job, or transform one’s physical appearance.

Steampunks may rebel against something in their lives feeling a need to explore new things beyond their experience, or find more visual or tactile fulfillment in the physical things around them, or desire to create or modify something anew. Rebellion may happen against social injustices of the past and present, or current inconsiderate and uncompassionate behaviors, or the effects of monotonous, mass-produced, corporate design.

“Punk in the seventies was a rebellion against contemporary society. We are most definitely rebelling but we are making a stand against: throwaway society, poor manners and antisocial behaviour, homogenisation and commercialism. We are punks who are polite, friendly, care about the environment and the past and encourage creativity.” “What is Steampunk” by John Naylor, The VSS

Resolution. finding or being a solution to a problem; a decision to do something or to behave in a certain manner; resolute = firm in purpose or belief.

Resolution is the cathartic action taken to change a situation from a problem to a solution, a liability to an asset, a life-sucking depression to an energetic elation. It is finally doing something after feeling and thinking about a need to change.

Steampunks may find resolution by reading the growing list of literature and sharing their interest with friends. They may want to learn more and add more to their lives by participating in online forums, initiating discussions with others and by attending local meet-ups and regional conventions. They may want to expand their skills by making and building something never seen before.

Steampunks may require more direct and tangible actions. Some will be moved to write their own stories and make their own movies. Others will design and sew their own clothing, and create their own accessories. Some will transform mass produced, commonplace, soul-breaking lackluster objects into unique, hand crafted works of functional art.

Steampunks will find their reaction, rebellion and resolution spanning the spectrum of motivational reasons. Perhaps it’s the desire to learn more, do more and be more, or the need to break free of internal or external imposed limitations, or an inherent revulsion at the excess materialism clothed in a complete lack of style in a commerce-driven society.

Our group resolutions, our common acts of rebellion, take the form of corsets and top hats, of artisanship and intellectualism, of re-creation and re-imagining. Mainstream society may not understand, but then, it usually doesn’t initially comprehend nor accept something perceived as radically different or out of synch with conventional norms. But it is that rebellion which drives us forward as individuals, as a community, and as a society.

Regardless of the reasons for rebellion, the Steampunk community is a collection of journeys of self expression through paths of individualism, creativity, and acceptance. We are inclusive, inquisitive, and always evolving. Our resolutions to our own rebellions are dressed in form and functions of times past, knowledge and skills of times present, and optimism and visions of times future. Paraphrasing Arthur O’Shaughnessy, we are the dreamers of dreams and we are the makers of our reality.

Published in: on April 18, 2010 at 7:09 am  Comments (16)  
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Introductions All Around

Ladies and Gentlemen, introductions all around!

My name is Kevin Steil and I wanted to start this blog, Airship Ambassador, as a way to discuss and tie together the disparate elements of the steampunk world and community, as well as sharing with those readers who are just becoming familiar with the “Future That Never Was”.

Steampunk, admittedly, means something a little different to everyone, and everyone participates in a way which is comfortable and meaningful for them. There’s the literary aspect, in addition to fashion, makers, gamers, and other forms of media.

Some people find they now have a name for interests they’ve had for years. Some are exposed to new ideas from their friends, mainstream media like the Wall Street Journal, movies like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Sherlock Homes, and videos on Youtube.

However someone comes to the Steampunk community, there is welcome room for everyone. There are local groups like the Seattle Steamrats and the Sacramento Steampunk Society. there are conventions around the globe in Seattle, San Francisco, Deerborn, Madison, and Lincoln England. There are places for people who make things(1, 2, 3), online and off, discussion forums, book and movie reviews.

In short, there’s something for everyone with an interest, and I hope to share those interests, resources and ideas with you.

Published in: on April 14, 2010 at 4:25 am  Comments (1)