On Thursday of last week I attended the Manhattan signing of Jeff Vandermeer and S.J. Chambers’ newest release The Steampunk Bible. The book’s cover summary classifies it as “a fully illustrated compendium tracing the roots and history of this subculture, from the works of its godfathers, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, to the key figures who first coined the word that would spawn a literary genre, to the vast community of craftsmen and artists that has translated the spark into a lifestyle with clothing, accessories, and a backstory to match.” A varied group of genre fans and contributors to the compendium showed up in everything from street clothes to full Steampunk regalia surprising and confounding some of the book store regular patrons, which I found devilishly humorous. Several of the attendees at the signing were representatives of the NY Steampunk Meet-up Group in Manhattan. Other personalities such as Dexter Palmer, Aleks Sennwald, Jaymee Goh, Ekaterina Sedia, Liz Gorinsky and Ay-Leen the Peacemaker were also in attendance per their contributions to the compendium.
S.J. Chambers introduced the guest contributors as well as setting the mood for what was to be a lighthearted look at the steampunk genre and its expansion in the past several years into all areas of culture from literature, music, film, and invention to philosophical and political ideologies. Jeff Vandermeer started the talk with a quip about his clockwork lapel pin being “all that is needed to be called steampunk” and following with, “I feel like a poser if I dress up or put on a fake British accent” which poked fun at the foppish current trends in steampunk festivals. According to Vandermeer, steampunk encompasses a variety of art and industry, music, sculpture and churchtanks, yes churchtanks (see page 97). There are a variety of influences within the steampunk genre but most often it gets traced to the literary work of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with the re-emergence in the 1980’s as read in the work of K. W. Jeter and Michael Moorcock. While the current evolution of Steampunk has moved away from its roots to a bit broader stance, the various artistic qualities still have a very definite “look” similar to the speculative/science fiction illustrations by french author Jules Verne. The inclusion of heavier than air “airships” in Verne’s Robur the Conqueror and its sequel Master of the World has sparked many artist’s imaginations and become an almost universal symbol in the Steampunk genre today. Vandermeer also made mention of Verne’s book The Steam House and its use of a mechanical elephant with mechanical automatons or golems being another common theme in contemporary steampunk literature.
At the conclusion of the talk in response to questions from the audience Vandermeer stated that he felt the appeal of steampunk in this age was the hands-on approach to ingenuity. In a generation of disposable iDevices with smooth corners and sealed cases there is an almost romantic appeal to the design elements of the yesteryear as well as the non-disposable build quality of things that, if broken, were fixed and not thrown away. “Steampunk is becoming something new… cross pollinating with a variety of topics,” said Vandermeer in conclusion.
In The Steampunk Bible, on pages 54 and 55, is a list of some of the more prominent cross-pollinated sub-genres within the general steampunk theme. The list includes Boilerpunk, Clockpunk, Dieselpunk, Stitchpunk and others. If you find all this a bit confusing, don’t worry. Steampunk in general is classified by an openhearted acceptance of all aspects of fandom and tinkering with a heavy nod to Victoriana and its speculative fiction.
If you’re interesting in reading The Steampunk Bible, look for it at your local bookstore or online and enjoy!
Thanks to Jeff Vandermeer and S.J Chambers for bringing together this great Steampunk compendium.
I’m posting this on my birthday. How’s that for dedication? Cheers.