Steampunk Role Models

While I was researching and writing this entry, NPR (National Public Radio) aired a story about a father who wrote a short book about heroes for his son. “The one thing you need, in my mind, to be a hero is you have to help someone,” Brad Meltzer says. Meltzer goes on to say that one result of his research was learning that there are heroes all around us.

Heroes can be role models, and steampunk, in all its facets, can offer the world a wealth of role models. In those role models, we find people whose behavior and character can and should be emulated. Those people we hold up as examples we aspire to be like. Strength of character. Clear sense of right and wrong. Working to help others.

Role models are all around us, if we choose to look and see them. We can learn something of value from every person we meet. Sometimes, we can find all of the greatest characteristics in a single person: Honesty, compassion, knowledge, culture, and more. They can seem like a superhero to us, but one of their greatest strengths is that they are still a person, that they are fallible, just like the rest of us.

More often, we find an admirable trait, or a defining moment, in someone, something that we want to include in our own lives in some meaningful way. Maybe it’s being more considerate of others, or more helpful, or more outgoing. It could be speaking out against injustice, or crafting a solution to a problem, or leading others to a common goal. There might be something we want to accomplish like learning a skill, or teaching others, or building something new.

In steampunk narratives, we can learn lessons from and find admirable qualities in the fictional characters.

Captain Nemo – While the revenge-driven, anti-hero phase of Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might be the first image which comes to mind, it would be the redemption-minded, altruistic version in Mysterious Island which makes for a better role model. As Mike Perschon cites in his analysis, Finding Nemo: Verne’s Antihero as Original Steampunk , Nemo recasts himself as “…an ecumenical and egalitarian humanist …” with “…an ethic of compassion and egalitarianism.” Nemo is a brilliant scientist with deep convictions about how life should be, and his journey of rebellion, revenge and redemption shows us how he sought to address the wrongs he saw in society and within himself.

Mina Murray – In Brahm Stoker’s Dracula , Mina is romanticized and idealized, characterized both as stereotypical Victorian woman  , the perfect wife, upright and proper, and as a more modern woman, selfless, intelligent, and daring, when she works to help track down Dracula at great risk to herself. In Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , Mina is recruited by British Intelligence to gather and lead a group in protecting the Empire from more unusual challenges, and while often still the epitome of Victorian propriety, she is also clearly a courageous leader with keen intellectual skills.

Agatha Heterodyne – Confident, daring, and with amazing optimism, the heroine of the Girl Genius web comic moves from one adventure to another, adapting to her current situation, making the most of the opportunities presented and making new friends in her travels. Everyone could benefit from a stronger positive mental attitude, and in taking charge of their lives by creating solutions instead of being blocked by perceived obstacles.

Victorian history is replete with role models of all types. It was an age of invention, industrialization, exploration, and war. In every area, there are people whose actions and attitudes are worth remembering and emulating.

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was the husband of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Although his position as consort included neither public authority nor responsibility, Albert took on several public causes, including educational reform, the abolition of slavery in other countries, and the organization of the Great Exhibition of 1851. He led other reforms in royal political conduct, finances, welfare, and applying science and art to the manufacturing industry.

As President of the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Labouring Classes, he expressed a prime Victorian moral of helping everyone to better themselves – [It is the] “duty of those who, under the blessings of Divine Providence, enjoy station, wealth, and education” to help others not as fortunate. “The Condition of the Labouring Classes”. The Times, 19 May 1848

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1)  was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke and is often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer following her notes about Charles Babbage‘s  mechanical computer, the analytical engine , and the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine, calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. Ada Lovelace shows us that education, social and professional friendships, and a bit of forthright imagination can put us in an unexpected yet (ultimately) respected position of taking advantage of unforeseen possibilities.

Florence Nightingale – “The Lady with the Lamp” creatively and subtly shirked her family’s and society’s Victorian expectations of her as a “Lady” through secretive education and wound up creating modern nursing under the terrible conditions of the Crimean War. Her Notes on Nursing is still used today as an introduction to nursing. Afterwards, through her connections to the Queen and government officials, she exercised influential opinions on public health and the war office.

At every turn in our steampunk community, there are role models for each of us even in the most unlikely of places and people.

Looking past the usually cited founding triumvirate, there are authors of our narratives showing us how we can use our innate imagination and vision to create whole new worlds and how great people and society can be.

At every convention, dance, and local meet-up, there are people expressing their creativity in what they wear and the image they project. It’s not just about the visuals, however, it’s also about how it makes us *feel*.

Beyond the most famous names, there are those people who bring the aesthetic of steampunk to technology, whimsy, and the wide variety of visual arts. Here we see the physical results of experimentation as well as just making an effort.

And there are the voices of our community, talking about all of the various aspects and facets, the ideology and opinions, the rants and the raves. Bloggers and magazines for us to read and discuss topics of interest. In no particular order, here are just a few of many which I follow:

Steampunk Scholar

Silver Goggles

Voyages Extraordinaires

Exhibit Hall

Steampunk Magazine

The Gatehouse

Steampunk Tales

Tea and Automatons

We only need to look around us to see worthy role models, and sometimes, we need look no further than in the mirror. As you go forth today in all of your best steampunk ways, remember that you might be a role model for someone else, too.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 9:35 pm  Comments (2)  
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Steampunk Lifestyle

This is a slight revision of a  posting I made on the Great Steampunk Debate site


a manner of living that reflects the person’s values and attitudes

the habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards, economic level, etc., that together constitute the mode of living of an individual or group.

Lifestyle is a manner of living that reflects the person’s values and attitudes. A person’s pattern of living as expressed in his or her activities, interests, and opinions.

Is there a steampunk lifestyle?

Using the definitions of lifestyle, then on the whole, no, there is no steampunk lifestyle, even thinking of steampunk as a community including the facets of literature, fashions, makers and ideology.

There’s very little in the way of actions, attitudes and opinions that would be unique to the steampunk community, and even as a grouping of behaviors, I don’t think there’s enough there to say “*This* is a steampunk lifestyle and *that* is not”.

By comparison, looking at an individual having a healthy lifestyle, the goal is to do things to be healthy in mind, body and spirit for that one person. Eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep. Keep stress down, keep enjoyment up. Laugh a lot. Be happy. All of those contribute to being healthy in one’s life, and as a collection of generalized behaviors, constitute a healthy lifestyle. However, the details of one person’s healthy lifestyle may vary significantly from another person’s. Being vegetarian is one of my choices for a healthy lifestyle, and while my sister-in-law has been and wants again to be a vegetarian, her body needs meat in her diet right now to remain healthy.

Applying that to a steampunk lifestyle, then the goal is to be ‘steampunk’ in mind, body and spirit, to express ‘steampunk-ness’ in our thoughts, actions, and attitudes. What does that actually mean and how would we do this? We can adopt the best of Victorian behaviors and ideals and integrate them as a fundamental part of who we are, such as politeness and courtesy to everyone, developing genuine altruism, education and awareness, sympathy and compassion. We can speak out against social ills and actively work for the benefit of everyone. But is that really ‘steampunk’ or is it just Neo-Victorian, or is it really what everyone should be doing anyway?

Looking at our fashions, the design style itself expresses an interest and attitude that public image is important, or at least that looking good is important to ourselves. There might be a hint of rebellion in choosing to wear unconventional clothing in every day life. But is that ‘steampunk’ or just looking for attention, er, being avant-garde, by dressing out of the norm? Making our own clothes is not unique to steampunk. My mom has made her own unique and stylish clothes since she was a teenager. Using salvaged and upcycled materials is not unique to steampunk. The final image might be in the steampunk aesthetic, but it might just be neo-Victorian.

Making items and artwork in the steampunk style is attractive and enjoyable, but how does it contribute to an actual lifestyle for other people?

So as an individual, then, I may consider myself to live a steampunk lifestyle, or not, and then decide what are the specifics that make my lifestyle qualify as ‘steampunk’.

I am a steampunk, as much as I am a Whovian, a Trekker, and a person with a host of other interests, but I can’t really say I live a lifestyle based on any one of those interests.

I will adopt some but not all of the Victorian ideals, I might make, or more likely have someone else locally make, my steampunk outfits, and I might mod my toys and tools to look steampunk, but those items are not the whole or even majority of my life and interests, and generally are not unique to the steampunk community and culture.

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 9:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Steampunk is Intellectual

Steampunk encourages intellectualism, valuing independent thinking, questioning, and the pursuit of knowledge, on many fronts and for many reasons. Investigate the unknown. Challenge authoritarian proclamations. Validate speculation and hypothesis. Experience your erudition as a positive and meaningful life for yourself.

Intellectualism is an act of rebellion against the control of fear, falsehoods, and ignorance by basing our actions and beliefs on informed logic and reason combined with curiosity and creativity. It is a fight against immutable ideology, prescribed doctrine, and contradictory precepts. It is a confrontation of infallible authority, conformist truths, and hypcritical perceptions.

Therefore, using information as our flame, inquiry as our sword, and experimentation as our shield, steampunk is rebellion.

Even the most minimal participation in the various forms of steampunk culture and community practically begs for, if not demands, ongoing, open ended, ontological education. We are not content to be told how things are, what we must do, or how we should act. In our steampunk revisions, reinventions and recreations, we seek to understand how things originally work so we can make our own changes and build something new. We seek to analyze in order to know the underlying meaning and significance. We seek to try new experiences so as to expand the boundaries of our lives.

Our stories are not just about literacy but requests the ability to comprehend, understand, and relate to an alternate, if not altogether new, world, to analyze the underlying themes and symbolism, and to interpret the messages beyond the surface plotline.

Our fashions are not just imitations but new creations, not just pulling together disparate elements in a haphazard way but with structure and desire to project a specified image.

Our technology is not just reimagining or reinterpreting but forging something new from reusable materials using a different perspective.

For all of these things, we need to constantly review and deduce how people are, what history is all about, and why things actually work. It goes beyond a desire to merely learn new topics, it is an innate drive to experience and absorb those untried ideas and concepts and then to combine them into something hitherto unforeseen. Much like our symbolic brass, our inventive enlightenment is about the connection and integration of the unrelated, the fusion of contradictions, and the amalgam of diversity.

Writers learn the techniques of their craft but then must also go on to learn about the people and the world around them. Successful steampunk authors aren’t telling a formulaic story with the superficial trappings of the nineteenth century. Their characters aren’t one dimensional caricatures or stereotypes. Their commentary is not shallow. In creating a believable world setting, they must understand cause and effect and real world history in order to present plausible explanations for differences. For characterization, they need to understand the psychology of human behavior and motivations, how people change and why they stay the same. There is an understanding of symbolism and metaphor, of structure and tactics, of the form and impact of the very words themselves.

Designers learn the initial construction process, but then examine history for inspiration. The fantastic outfits we see at conventions and in artwork are not mirrored replicas. They are not even simplistic interpretations of a bygone era. There is thought and planning behind the image to project, the character to be, the attitude to own. The colors and patterns are not splashed together like abstract art, the shapes and functions are not cubist elements brought together as crude building blocks, and the final collection is not just the sum of its parts but is a greater composition with its own substance and meaning.

Makers learn about technology and how things work but then move on to experimentation and pushing the boundaries of mechanics and imagination. In all forms of the arts – technology, sculptures, drawings and more – they create realities out of dreams. They are the ones who bring the tools and toys to life, transforming the potential into the tangible. It is hands-on skill combined with creative vision which creates objects of inspiration and wonder.

All of this is the result of investigation, research, and practice. It is questioning what is and asking “Why not?” It is that inherent drive to take one idea and walk down multiple surprising new paths of study and interest.

Every steampunk is an author, a designer and a maker in their own right. Each of us has those aspects, grown and nurtured in everything we see, read, and do. Each of us writes a story every day in our beliefs, actions, and attitudes, if not actually on paper then on life writ large. Each of us creates images of how society and culture might be, how people could be, and how we as individuals should be. Each of us builds new constructs, if not tangible artwork then as imaginings, discussions and friendships.

You rebellious steampunks think you are so smart.

Thankfully, you are.

Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 8:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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