It’s about Time: Reading Steampunk’s Rise and Roots


Originally published at:

In Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures , Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall present a lively, engaging collection of essays about the past, present, future (and alternate versions thereof) of steampunk culture, literature and meaning, ranging from disability and queerness to ethos and digital humanities. We’re proud to present this long excerpt from the book’s introduction.


David Bowie said the future computer would be made of ornamental teakwood. Steampunk is culture rebellion against bland technology. All art and literature has been compressed to digital files in a black box. Steampunk adds meaning back.



Netflix is carrying a really good, depthy steampunk documentary called Vintage Tomorrows. It has commentary by @Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Cherie Priest, William Gibson and many other notables. It takes off the rose tinted brass goggles at times, too.


I would basically categorically disagree with your assertion. A computer with an ornamental teakwood case would be no more steampunk than one made stone, and neither one adds meaning to technology.

It could be said to evoke a time where technology was much more tangible and interactive. A gigantic steampunk machine is self-evident in how it operates and in that way it’s certainly a rebelling against modern quiet electronic tools. But ascribing meaning to it is as hilarious as saying that Victorian style ornate furniture is more meaningful than simpler fare.

Even better to me is that so much of modern steampunk costumes and aesthetic is inherently without use. Cogs and gears glued to hats and attached to nothing at all. It’s the opposite of meaning.


NY Architect Anne Surchin penned an eloquent explanation in 2008 in response to the rise of Steampunk art and design: She stated, “Instead of curlicues and scroll work over metal to conceal the inner workings of things, Steampunk delivers the opposite effect. In short, it is a full blown design exfoliation.”

“But why now? Has contemporary modernism, which is so downright sterile in it’s lack of ornamentation, run it’s course?”

“Perhaps the answer lies in a restlessness and a desire for a messy vitality which allows the imagination to soar.”


I’m on board with this explanation. Messy vitality is a pretty eloquent way of describing it. I think it’s silly, but I like minimalism so that is pretty in-line.


I too enjoy minimalism :slight_smile: I suppose when it’s done well, every style counts.


Yeah, and to be clear, I appreciate some of the cool steampunk stuff I’ve seen. But there’s a line for me between ‘that’s a cool costume or an excellent setting for a story or game’ and ‘oh, you glued gears onto your computer case. Hmm.’

Speaking of which, I’ll just go ahead and say that Tales of Maj’Eyal’s Ashes of Urok DLC is pretty freakin’ great and dang steampunky.


The essay about 9/11 is interesting in presenting Steampunk as a reaction to tragedy, but it may have missed a larger and more obvious one. The Victorian era is quite close to the high water mark of the British Empire. World War 1 & 2 and the Cold War loom just ahead, and as such it seems to mark the end of a great optimistic era of Western expansion. Spengler would start writing the Decline of the West in 1911 and technological progress and parity with Germany would lead us to the literal dead end of World War I, spiraling down to WW2, and at last further stalemate with the Soviet Union and Mutually Assured Destruction. By the end of the short 20th century (1914-1991), cynicism about progress and the universality or even goodness of Western civilzation was rampant. The collapse of the Soviet Union renewed a sense of Triumphalism in the west and expansion of Nato into Eastern Europe. The internet was just becoming popular and for a decade, we were all abuzz about a technical revolution with its infinite possibilities. And then, history reasserted itself. Our technology, passenger planes, GPS, cell phones, electronic money transfers were all turned against us again. Time will tell whether 9/11 marked the high water mark of America’s unipolar moment, but it was certainly the end of the Peace Dividend. Ah, nostalgia, it isn’t what it used to be.


It’s the fetishization of Victorian trappings without the wherewithal (or the knowledge) to delve deeper a lot of the time. That “-punk” prefix and the attendant sociopolitics that it implies often get left in the dust or completely subverted without examination, in favor of cogs and airships. There are good works where the net has been cast wider, but an awful lot of what makes up steampunk seems like more sizzle than steak.


“…an awful lot of what makes up steampunk seems like more sizzle than steak”.
Correct. After the initial creative frenzy drives the defining visual language of any style, it then becomes a popular pursuit and is very often reduced to it’s simplest and most identifiable parts.

For example: Art Deco had so many diverse visual and cultural influences, from the discovery of Tut’s Tomb to the streamlined industrial design of the 30’s. But for many (and popularly) Art Deco is simply flocked black and chrome wall paper and Tamara Delimpika paintings. Visual shorthand. The same has happened to Steampunk- Corsets, Top Hats with goggles and that damn giant squid :slight_smile:


Why is it happening now? Probably an extinction burst.



One can look at any dozen disparate examples of steampunk, and all but one will be, “Meh, you took something ordinary and added a layer of metallic crap onto it.” But that one last one will be, “Wow, that was really well thought out and marvelously executed!”


I agree. There’s even a marvelous song about it…



Well I’m delusional enough to consider myself an independent inventor of Clockpunk back in the early to mid 90s and I can tell you that from my perspective it was about a couple of things. One was a tiredness of blue and gray and black and bleach 80s futurism in favor of sunlight, wood, brass and warmth. Another thing is it has a lot do do not with reimagining a better past, but with recognizing how advanced and sophisticated the real past actually was. Sort of how Westworld subtly celebrates the cybernetic data storage of the player piano. So I actually prefer a slightly tweaked past grounded in reality (more like how I assume the difference engine is for steampunk) and not a completely crazy alternative past or present.


It would be interesting to agree on a definition of “steampunk”.

If steampunk just means putting technology into an alternative scenario, its popularity may just be caused due to the passing of time. Technology is branching out and is ageing, and so we see more and more sub-groups. Very darwinian. Do we know whether science fiction or fantasy in general has become more popular as well? How about a generation which has grown up with World of Warcraft and cos-play - is this generation more open to steampunk?

Apart from the problem that pointing to 9/11 as the reason for the steampunk movement is very US-centristic, on first glance it seems to me that there many other, better reasons to explain the development of steampunk.


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