Queen Victoria, aged 4
I use the phrase quite a bit here at the Aldersgate Cycle. And for good reason. As some have noted, this is not historical steampunk. There is no Queen Victoria, there are no alternate histories. I’m in the middle of The Difference Engine right now, and I imagine it’s the book that most people equate with the initial “steampunk novel” idea. That, or of course, someone like Verne. It’s beefed up Victorianism, suffused with a sense of “if only this had happened, then…”
But my starting point was not Queen Victoria, not England, not a clear conscious effort to engage the high-flouting Victorian culture that is so much a part of steampunk. The aesthetic exists in the art, the fashion, the literature, a kind of gauzy brilliance. I found steampunk not in the back alleys of London, but somewhere in the desert of a land that doesn’t really exist but, in part at least, resembles places in Arizona and California.
See, even though I’ve been handily obsessed with the fantasy/medieval all my life, there’s always been an undercurrent, like a tumbleweed in a sandstorm: the American West. God only knows where this came from as there’s not even a remote connection between me and these pioneers to be found genealogically, but there it is. The history, the mythology, the adventure.
And the inspiration for my getting into steampunk had more to do with researching the time period–which is, of course, Victorian at the late end, anyway. And the aesthetic there, in the West, was so much more raw. I saw a real possibility to open up a world influenced by that time, tempered with the notion of advances in steam technology, and spiced with a heap of magic. Because, to me, setting “fantasy” in a Neo-Victorian setting is just as plausible as setting it in a Renaissance or Medieval setting. And I’m certainly far from the only person that sees it that way.
So, certainly, I have my own idea of how the aesthetic of steampunk affects what I write. For me, it’s extremely visual and tactile. I look to people like Jake von Slatt, like Datamancer, the incredible folks over at Etsy, to see what can be–and is being–done. It’s a combination of color and form, of arc and line. It’s part of what translates to me, what inspires me to write, that actual seeing process. But I translate the visual into something else. In the end, I only have words to use.
I don’t mean to come off as grumpy toward fashionistas, and I think I may have in the past. My biggest gripe is that, to me, there is sometimes too much of a concentration on the look, and not the underlying aesthetic, craft, history, and literary influence. But that’s what happens when popularity is achieved; and honestly, if it makes people happy, that’s all that matters in the end. Ultimately, steampunk in this world is about doing things your own way, identifying with something far and away from the norm, and making it uniquely yours–it’s punk, after all, not just steam. What it means in my world is quite different. And that’s quite okay.
To me, the steampunk aesthetic can be molded in a thousand ways. I’m having a blast writing quasi-historic steampunk for Pilgrim of the Skies, which is urban American steampunk (if there is such a thing). This does draw heavily from history, and alternate history, and goes much further than just a Victorian flavor. It’s more like the Victorian period on steroids; it’s lush, colorful, vibrant. But it doesn’t feel the same to me, at all, as the Aldersgate stuff. It’s in a class of its own, but it shares the aesthetic.
Anyway. I admire and adore steampunk: culture, aesthetic, literature, you name it. It represents to me the best combination of new and old; a convergence of technology and magic, of mystery and horror… And as you might have noticed, I like to share what I find; that’s been one of the most fun parts about this blog. Steampunk continues to inspire me, and will continue to, regardless of how mainstream it gets. Because sometimes exposure means innovation; look at Victoria herself. She was an icon, and the period named after her continues to inspire, more than a century later. That, dear people, is quite the accomplishment! (Vicpunk anyone?)