steampunk_lordnevermore

Lord Nevermore by Brigid Ashwood

It’s been a few years since I first stumbled upon the term, drooled over the aesthetic, and learned about the culture. From a writer’s perspective, it’s been an interesting ride. I didn’t start out with a steampunk novel in mind, and I hope I’ve never given that impression. However, since discovering that the world of the Aldersgate Cycle was a fantastic take on steampunk, I’ve done my own delving into the culture.

I came to steampunk, as I’ve written before, by way of the American West, and through a love of fantasy and alternate worlds. While I spent some time in the early 2000s hanging around lots of punk rockers in the Baltimore area, I’ve never considered myself very counter-culture. I mean, sure. I’m weird. I’m a geek. I’ve always been a maker of words. It’s not to say that I don’t have plenty of political views that might be considered unusual, but I try not to let that leak into my blog or (too much) into my writing.

What’s been interesting to watch, however, is the greater absorption of steampunk culture into the mainstream. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a progression like that before, save perhaps the goth progression in the late 80s and early 90s (though I was listening to the Beatles at that point, I certainly watched from the wings). Search trends for steampunk continue to rise, and everything from fashion to home decor shows signs of cross-pollination.

But I wonder, is the definition of steampunk changing? As it becomes a known part of our culture at large, does it diminish? Or does it grow? Here’s a few scenarios I think we might see in the coming months.

Gaining literary steam. I’m not the only writer out there with a love for steampunk. In fact, I see more and more writers trying their hand at incorporating alternate history/fantasy steampunk facets into their writing; we’ve seen Steampunk Tales for the iPhone, for example, and of course the VanderMeer short story collection (which, I believe, is in talks for a followup). From a novel approach you’ve got people like Ekaterina Sedia, Tobias Buckell, and Cherie Priest (among others) either publishing or actively working on steampunk-esque books. Why? While “steampunk” literature has been around a long time (well, they didn’t call it that when they were writing it in the late 19th century) it’s seen a rebirth. With appeal for fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and thriller writers, it’s not surprising to see growing trends in steampunk writing. It’s wonderfully fertile ground, and can be written in a multitude of ways. From a fantasy perspective, it’s a nice break from the standard medieval approach.

The -punk phenomenon. We may start hearing about lots of other “new” punks. You’ve probably already heard of cyberpunk and dieselpunk, etc.. I know plenty of writers who hate these terms (even the term steampunk itself) but it is what it is. In a way steampunk has become an umbrella term, incorporating bits and pieces from the 17th century onward to the Edwardian, and sometimes beyond. There are definitely divided camps, here, some who believe steampunk is only Victorian, and others who want to broaden the definition. Of course, there are positive aspects of each, but I certainly see–especially in the realm of fashion–the second camp winning out. It tends to give historical nitpickers hives, unfortunately… Is “steampunk” the right term? I dunno. It is what it is at this point.

Movin’ down the dusty trail. As with any subculture, there are always folks who are transients. That is, people who “find” a movement, become active, and move on. Now that you can buy steampunk inspired clothing at JC Penney, it’s not as hard as it once was to fit in at an event or a club. But, given time, and other new subcultures bound to crop up, people will move on to other things because, by nature, they always need to be different. Hell, there are already folks disenchanted with steampunk, or frustrated with the growing commercialization of steampunk. Or just bored. Because for some people, being different is all that matters. What lies beneath is inconsequential. (Although, if you join a movement to look like a bunch of other people, “different” is very relative, I suppose.)

Makin’ a steampunk buck. I’m sure you’ve seen it. The superfluous gear. The short story that tries too hard. That friend of yours who has become a born-again steampunk and is now making bookmarks, postcards and t-shirts all proclaiming love of the culture. Yeah, it’s tough territory here. You want to be welcoming to everyone, but at the same time, so much of what I’ve been seeing lately just comes across as people trying to make a quick buck. And I hate that.

Asking the hard questions. Steampunk isn’t perfect. The Victorians, for all they gave us, were highly flawed people. They were often racist, sexist and classist. And while some writers, in particular, have explored these issues, it hasn’t really seeped into the culture. I love corsets, from an aesthetic perspective, for example. But, some of the extremes women went through–or were made to go through–in attempt to “look right” is downright uncomfortable. That we can choose to wear corsets or not in this day is rather amazing. Know what I mean? It’s amusing to find that one of the instruments feminists rallied against has become a symbol of feminine power and sexuality… Anyway. I digress.

Not your parents’ steampunk. Steampunk will change. People will push the envelope. It’ll move beyond gears, cogs, and goggles, and become something else. It will be reinterpreted, re-envisioned, re-appropriated. It will move to Asia, to Africa, to the Middle-East, and bring new flavors, sounds, sights, and influences. And it will be better for it. I, for one, can’t wait!

What about movies? I think they’ll continue to be few and far between, and of middling quality. So far, most attempts, including most recently City of Ember, have not done terribly well. There’s something steampunkish, certainly, about 9, as well as a few others (not to mention new RPGs). I mean, in the past, the outcome just hasn’t been that great. Not even I could sit through Wild Wild West again. My hope is that something comes to television, soon. I think there, steampunk might find its home. With shows like Warehouse 13, which certainly cater to the aesthetic, I’m optimistic!

So, what do you forsee for the future of steampunk?

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Photo by Curious Expeditions

Photo by Curious Expeditions

I’ve been pondering the connection between the modding movement (particularly steampunk, of course) and the art of reliquary making from the Middle Ages (and before) a great deal lately, and thought I’d share some general thoughts. While I’m not technically an art historian, the subject has always fascinated me, and the connections between art and literature are, of course, myriad.

To begin, well, what is a reliquary? Simply put, a reliquary is a vessel, or housing, designed to fit holy objects–typically of a saint or a martyr–in order to enable worship, adoration, and experience. The actual structures varied immensely, from those small enough to house tiny locks of hair, teeth, and scraps of cloth, to large enough to compensate for entire bodies. While most people associate reliquaries with Catholic and Christian tradition, they are also very common in Hindu and Buddhist religions as well.

What initially astonished me about reliquaries, when I began studying the art of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, was the diversity and grandeur to be found in various examples. So much of the artwork during this period seems watered down, simplified, lacking in luster (to some… this is a point I’d argue rather vehemently). But the reliquaries dazzle with their ornate scrollwork, precious metals, inlaid stones, and sense of individuality (not to mention… oddity). That these reliquaries were so adored is no surprise; people believed they could work miracles! And in contrast to the day-to-day life of a medieval peasant, yes, I imagine I would have thought the same thing, too.

Photo by Jake von Slatt

Photo by Jake von Slatt

So, steampunk. Consider the word reverence:

1. a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; veneration.

Now, is this day and age, religious homogenaiety is far from the norm. But we do revere our technology. And yet, alone, as a generic product of mass-production, our computers and iPods, our guitars, our phones–these things are not uniquely ours. Steampunk design has always striven to re-make, to re-apportion, to re-define the contents within. Because, like a finger-bone or lock of hair is indistinguishable without context, so too is your average computer/technology. Yet many of us feel compelled to read personalities into our own tech, striving to soften the edges of cold, hard, circuits. Granted steampunk artists tend to work in brass and wood, rivets and cogs, etc, and our medieval counterparts used gold, but the sentiment is surprisingly similar. Reliquaries house mysteries, and so, to some extent, to the mods of the steampunk aesthetic movement.

What’s particularly divergent when comparing the two is that while reliquaries and reliquary making were relegated to churches and those in control of power (and, some would argue, the Diety in general…), steampunk is almost like modding your own god. It brings to mind old practices of pagan “house gods”–the sorts that inhabit your kitchen, your hearth, your bedroom, the objects that you interact with every day. I mean, no medieval peasant would ever be able to afford their own reliquary–let alone a relic (thought I bet there were some pretty clever folks who made a pretty penny playing into the system). This diversion is at the heart of steampunk, that it’s something accessible rather than distant, something to be claimed rather than something that claims you. That’s why the best the concentration is on aesthetic–the look of the final project–rather than worth, i.e. much of steampunk material is scavenged, recycled, etc.

So, have our gods been replaced by the spirits of our machines? For some, maybe. But as different as people may be across milennia, it’s fascinating how much does indeed stay the same…

My personal favorite medieval reliquary, for those intrigued, is that of Saint Foi. Not only is she, essentially, a gold recreation (of sorts) of the original container for the bones (that would be Saint Foi herself), but the history behind the reliquary is fascinating and includes not only feuding medieval monks but also a series of thefts!

More shiny pretty reliquaries here, for those intrigued!

Something kindled this weekend, and I not only wrote in the novel, but composed some novel-related music and did some sketches. I’m particularly proud of these two, Sir Sylvan and Sir Gawen, and thought I’d share this first version. It’s been a while since I’ve brought a picture from sketch to colored final, and I’m not sure if I’ll get to that point with these two. But suffice it to say, after at least a dozen attempts to get them right, I’m glad to have finally done it.

I am an Etsyholic. I am just so in love with the crafts there, and especially the Victorian/steampunk inspired art that I’ve wasted hours (hours!) going through the listings, and have yet been able to make a purchase because, ugh, I want them all.

Eventually I will buy more pretties, but in the mean time, I thought I could share some more great makers and particularly lovely listings for you to enjoy. You can start by searching for “steamteam” which will automatically generate a great bunch of artists, but here’s some more highlights:

edmdesigns – If you like gears, this is the place to go. From rings and pendants to cufflinks and brooches, these incredible beauties really are spectacular. And if you don’t believe me, you can see they’ve been linked by BoingBoing and Wired, too. I particularly like the men’s steampunk gear rings.

BoilerGoth – In the market for some gorgeous goggles? I was incredibly impressed by the work on these sets, both in craftsmanship and design. Whether you want something industrial, or tinged with Victorian filigree, this is the place go to.

19Moons – Combining antiques and reclaimed materials, 19Moons is whimsy and mystery. I love the combination of material and color, and the use of letters, numbers, and symbols.

MadArtjewelry – While some steampunk artists are decidedly industrial, inspired by the smooth lines and clockwork of machinery, these designs combine both that aesthetic with ornate Victorian inspirations. These beautiful pieces will certainly turn heads, and, in my opinion, accent just about any outfit if done right. Not only is this a local artist to me, but egads–this Seven Seas Steampunk Necklace has got to be one of the coolest things I’ve seen, like, ever.

I’ll be adding to this list in future posts, hoping to send some traffic their way. Not only is Etsy just an amazing place for artisans, but it has been a true source of inspiration for me. Just trying to share the love!

Through BoingBoing I’ve become well-acquainted with Etsy, which displays a host of incredible crafts and arts for sale in all sorts of mediums, colors, and flavors (okay, maybe not flavors… but I’m being slightly metaphorical here, yeah?).

As I’ve grown older, I’ve had less and less time for my maker hobbies–including and not limited to knitting, sewing, corsetry, beading, quilting, model-making, sculpting, and oil painting–due mostly to the fact that I have a child, a husband, a job, and a vocation that require most of my attentions.

But it’s with utter awe and amazement that I approach the artisans and craftspeople at Esty who are collectively some of the most creative people I’ve ever seen. Sifting through the listings there is like being at a never-ending gallery, chock full of things I never knew I simply had to have.

BoingBoing posted today about slurkgirl, and the delightful steampunk artwork she has for sale (some of the work is NSFW, FYI). But Etsy doesn’t stop there. Oh no. A simple search for “steampunk” opens a truly astonishing treasure trove of sumptuous and whimsical designs including jewelry, clothing, and art.

As I’ve been drooling at them with envy, I thought I’d collect some of my favorites for you to gaze upon.

birdsNBees – Mostly pendants and jewelry, combining Art Deco/Steampunk flavors and lots of (as you guessed by their most clever name) animals and insects and whatnot.

AlliesAdornments – Beautiful reapportioned vintage buttons that become works of art in and of themselves–it’s recycling and it’s antiques!

VelvetMechanism – If gears are your thing, this is your heaven. Especially for a little more masculine look–I particularly adore the cufflinks; now to see if I can get Michael to wear some.

VintageFiligree – If you’re like me, and you have an eye for ornate, shiny, sparkly, colorful designs, this is your stop. Unique, expressive, eclectic jewelery that combines stones, gears, and metals for some unbelievable results.

There are many more I could name, but these are the sellers that just had that special something and caught my eye. If you’re curious, check out the links, or go to Etsy proper. I’m sure you’ll fall in love, too.