FlowchartA little bit of a side rant here on what “steampunk” means.

Before I start, let me just say that I don’t have a problem with any of what I’m about to piss on.  I love this kind of genre play, and I think that a lot of the artwork and stuff created by the many talented artists in Steampunk really kick ass.

However, I think something needs to be said about “keeping it real” in the interests of fairness.

The way I’ve always understood “Steampunk”, it’s a genre based on an alternative historical timeline that assumes we never transitioned from steam power to the internal combustion engine, for whatever reason (and the reasons are quite varied and really unimportant).  There’s usually some history rewritten as a result: Charles Babbage actually built his Difference Engine (and it is used to “power” much of society), Nikola Tesla was successful in his 1899 Colorado Springs Experiments, some (not experienced in our reality) natural disaster had far reaching consequences,  and/or the popular science-fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells became true as written.

In short, there’s a fairly specific time period that “Steampunk” looks like it is trying to emulate: that of the late Victorian era.  In fact, most of the seminal works of Steampunk seem to want to wrap themselves in the Romanticism of that era, regardless of how far forward they put themselves in the timeline (see: a few Doctor Who episodes I can name: in fact, the present image of the TARDIS is, itself, very “Steampunk” in character).

Yet, at the same time, it seems that a lot of us in the Steampunk-admiring fandom forget the world that we’re actually supposed to be living in.  We forget that “Metropolis” (the 1927 Fritz Lang silent film) is probably, at best, in Steampunk’s very near future, but probably not in the present.  I see Art Deco influences up-played, Art Nouveau downplayed.  An excellent example of some of this can be seen here at BuzzFeed: some of the artwork is excellent, but is it really Steampunk?  Are silent films even technically “Steampunk”?

I’d venture to guess, if I understand the timeline correctly, that the cinema didn’t really take hold until the early 1900’s at best.. and it wasn’t until the 1910’s that it really caught on.  As I understood it, “the new movies” were largely shown in burlesque (and the later Vaudeville) houses, and rarely as stand-alone features until well into the 1910’s, if not even the early ’20s.  Okay, I’m willing to accept some “Steaming” of the tech to make it work, and the invention of the motion picture is inevitable.. but given that it requires the production of celluloid film in enough quantities to shoot miles of the stuff, it’s largely a product of the early 20th Century, and of the petroleum revolution that ends the Steam Age in our reality.

“Steampunk” is more ferrotype, less celluloid.

tintype of the author and a female friend

Tintype of feedle and Norma, SteamCon 2010

At SteamCon II this year, I observed something that kind-of made me sad as somebody who’s in this fandom for the history.  A wonderful Gentleman was doing ferrotypes, even though conditions for the same frankly sucked.  He was using period techniques, even using a period camera (although his plates were aluminum and not “japanned iron”).   He even had a wonderful cart, not unlike what you would have seen in a country fairground of the era: he completely had the “travelling photographer” thing down as you would expect to see circa 1885.  The sad part: he was not promoted at all by the convention (in fact, they seemed to kick him to the curb at the earliest opportunity when a vendor complained about the odor), and eventually was relegated to a dark corner of the hotel’s atrium out in front of his room.

Why was this guy not “front and center”?  I had two ferrotypes made, and they are something I will cherish about my SteamCon experience.  This is the sort of thing we should be embracing as “Steampunks”.  (Side note: He’s in Salem, and deserves your business: http://yaquinaphotography.com/)

Maybe my experience as a Renaissance Fair rat comes through a little strongly here.  I’ve already ranted a bit about the tendency towards poor hat etiquette.  I have a whole laundry list of complaints, quite honestly.. but this is at the center of many of them.

This is the Victorian era, people.  We don’t have to follow everything down to the letter (goddess knows the racism and sexual repression alone is something we could do without), but at least let’s try to maintain the class, lustre, and genteel-ness of the era we love.  To throw that away is to miss the greater point of the Age of Steam, and turns us all into that flowchart above.  Does it have gears?  No, guess I better add some more…

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