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?

Okay, so, um. Yeah. Steampunk. I was going to be writing something about that. As of late… well, huh. I follow a lot of steampunk boards. And there have been some things I wanted to make mention here. Maybe a list will work better than a rant. There have been a few elements in steampunk culture/writing/fashion, whathaveyou that have been rubbing me the wrong way recently. So. Here’s five comments.

1.) Just because you slap some gears on something doesn’t make it steampunk. Sure, it can reflect a bit of the aesthetic, but people. Listen to me. Gears serve a purpose. They’re part of a working machine, like a clock. Sure, exposed machinery is neat, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Gluing a gear to the top of some felt and slapping it on a hat does not steampunk make. I think the ultimate steampunk jewelery/fashion is the sort that actually makes use, real or imagined, of the object. Like, the gears function, y’know? Or at least there’s a story behind it. It’s about craft, not crap.

2.) The goggles, they do not do everything. As most makers will tell you, the purpose of goggles is to keep things out of your eyes. Not every outfit, not every character should wear goggles. They ought to serve a purpose, or at least make the effort to incorporate it into your persona. I love goggles, personally; they’re iconic. But iconic also borders on totally cliche if not done correctly. Make your goggles your own! (See Jake von Slatt’s comment below in regards to the etiquette involved if you also wear glasses.)

3.) Read a little. Just a little. As I mentioned in my Steampunk fashion vs. fiction piece a few weeks ago, the fashion of steampunk is by and large overpowering the literary contribution. More and more I see people that are “into” steampunk, but have never heard of Verne or Stevenson, or considered picking some of the wonderful publications out there. Do yourselves a favor, eh? Try the Gatehouse Gazette, the Willows, and Steampunk Magazine for starters. These publications will inspire those who follow the fashion, but they’re also great for folks who like the movement, but aren’t into the whole costume aspect.

4.) Stop pretending you know the definition of steampunk, and that you embody it. So, okay. Steampunk isn’t real in the sense that the actual Victorian Period is real. And the aesthetic is as plastic and pliable as any other genre. It mixes with a multitude of flavors, real and imagined. It doesn’t have to be historically accurate, doesn’t have to include corsets, etc. It’s, at heart, a philosophy (hence the whole PUNK aspect, eh?). And that’s extremely important to keep in mind.

5.) Please, please, please, PLEASE I beg you, beware of the corset. Darlings, darlings. Corsets may appear beautiful, but their steel-enforced sides can pose real hazards both in the physical and in the fashion sense. First, corsets are intended (if you’re going for the Victorian look anyway) to keep things in, not spill things out. If your, um, assets are flowing over to the point that you need scaffolding to keep it in place, consider getting a new measurement. Just because you can cinch it, doesn’t mean you should. And that’s not to mention, if you’re serious about corsetry please read up about it. I recently read about an enthusiastic steampunk young lady who broke two ribs in a car accident because she’d laced a borrowed corset too tight. This is no laughing matter. Honestly, the issue of corsetry is… well, another post altogether. But consider that when women finally got rid of them, it was considered a huge leap toward feminism, toward reclaiming our own bodies. So if you’re going to wear a corset, read. READ! Research. Get one for you, specifically. Don’t hurt yourself. It isn’t worth it, k?

Ahem, so that’s over. You can go back to your other reading now. Your unsolicited advice for the day has come to an end.

Holy the craps I’m exhausted.

I have to admit, I’m really not hard core when it comes to this con stuff. I think my con constitution is -2 or so, or something. Not that I’m not totally enjoying myself, just that… TIRED. *whine*

I will be posting more updates, including an interview with Tobias Buckell, in the following days. I have to get the audio from our Flip and assemble it into something cohesive for the rest of you. Bottom line, though, is that Tobias is a really awesome, insightful fellow, and you should definitely go to his website. He posts the first 1/3 of all his novels there, and if you like the flavor of steampunk and some truly fascinating SF, do yourself a favor and read.

Also: Sean Astin is the most courteous con panelist ever, and Nathan Fillion is hysterical in person.

Also: The Steampunk panel this evening attracted so many people that literally dozens had to be turned away (including me). Note to the folks at D*C next year: STEAMPUNK TRACK. I know a writer who’s writing a steampunk novel and podcast who’d love to help you out (HINT HINT).

I’ll be posting some pictures a little later this evening if I don’t completely fall asleep in the mean time…

I will admit it. I love clothes. I love fashion. I love style.

But let me qualify that. I don’t love clothes in the omigod-I-have-to-have-that-purse-that-Carrie-had-on-Sex-and-the-City way. I don’t love fashion in the have-to-get-that-three-hundred-dollar-pair-of-shoes-because-they’re-so-in way. I don’t love style in the omigod-she-should-not-be-wearing-that-it’s-so-2004 way.

I love the cult of clothing. I love studying what people wore, finding out why they wore it, learning about different trends, ornaments, garments. (In fact, in the third grade I was convinced I’d become a fashion designer.) This is particularly true when it comes to women’s fashion. I haven’t got the time to dedicate to it here and now, but what’s considered acceptable or daring for women has fluctuated so much through the centuries, it’ll make your head wobble.

So it’s no surprise I’ve landed myself into the realm of steampunk and Victorian clothing, is it? Perhaps no other period of design so typifies absolute decadence and divine beauty more than the Victorian Era. In spite of some rather rigorous modesty going about, the dresses are a perfect symphony of texture, whimsy, creativity, and culture.

That said, some of the most fun I have (writing is, on occasion, quite fun, in spite of rants to the contrary) is describing clothing in The Aldersgate. Between the royals, knights, ladies, gearlings, Sibs, and the rest, it’s both a wonderful adventure and a great excuse to peruse the dozens of beautiful garments posted by various sites and resources online. My favorite site, hands down, is Vintagetextle.com not for the least of which is their amazingly high-resolution photographs that allow me a close enough view to see the individual bead-work and embroidery. If I start linking photos to all the dresses that I’ve incorporated into the closets of my main characters, we’d be here all day. (Okay… here’s one, but just because it’s so perfect: Cora’s dress for walking around in Vell day to day: linen with a jacket and contrasting dark brown embroidery… )

I also take liberties because, strictly speaking, my book has nothing to do with our world directly. So though the fashion is Victorian-inspired, it’s certainly not held to the same societal standards. A great place for those of us with steampunk leanings to start is the LJ community steamfashion. Though I don’t often dress up myself, these sassy and savvy individuals post their delightful designs on the community board and always, always inspire me. It’s become something of a gateway for designers, too.

Fashion is a study that many have taken up, so whether your story takes place in the here and now, or the long ago, you’ll likely be able to find something that can help you flesh out your characters wardrobes.

Here’s some notes on main characters and their clothing:

Maelys I – Queen of the Realm, so of course, she’s at the height of fashion. Elizabeth I was a clothes horse too, and since she’s a partial inspiration for Maelys, I wanted to be sure that facet of her personality showed through. Maelys prefers black with gilding. Anything with gold embroidery, bead-work, or other ornamentation. My favorite costume she wears is a black and peacock green, complete with feathers for a head-dress and gold slippers.

Coras dress at the beginning of the book, but in blue

Cora's dress at the beginning of the book, but in blue

Cora Grey – As an Alderclass girl she’s expected to wear certain clothing to reflect her status and her age. If given her choice, she’d most likely ride around in breeches, but at the story’s start she’s made to wear a hideous blue gown that I imagine is early 1870s style, low shouldered and covered–covered, I say–with yards and yards of bustles, ruffles, and lace. Far from her own sense of style, I torture her for a few chapters by making her run around in it, corset and all, while being pursued by the Order of the Oak. Yes, I’m mean.

Brick Smithson – As a boy from the territories, and a blacksmith to boot, Brick doesn’t have a lot to choose from when it comes to fashion. He wears the clothes he’s given or made, and it usually includes rough-spun britches, suspenders, and a linen shirt. Nothing fancy, but somehow… I’d say it works rather well for him.

Emry Roy – Like in many cultures, the bards of Earena are supposed to wear specific clothing to identify them as such. Emry is no different. But by the time we meet him, he’s significantly more bedraggled than your garden variety court bard. His shirt would be light yellow linen, over which he has a high-cut brown vest (no v-neck, but it’s flush at his collar-bone, typical of Islander clothing). His slacks are green with gold piping on the sides, tucked in to the top of his high brown boots. He’d wear a long camel-colored duster, as well, with a pin on the lapel in the shape of a lute on a leaf, in silver.

Sir Gawen of Fenlie – Though the Order of the Asp has abandoned a strict code of dress in recent years, Gawen–being of the Alderclass sort, and a consummate gentleman–still adheres to the old school. He wears a high tan hat belted across the brim with black and yellow braided leather. His duster is darkest brown, and his uniform (if you can call it that exactly) is comprised of a linen shirt dyed sage green, a white nubuck vest, black trousers, and brown chaps.

I got the chance to interview Jay Cartwright of the new steampunk band Lemming Malloy and talk about all things steamy, marvelous, and musical. More than just a music interview, though, Cartwright also contributes some fascinating thoughts on steampunk in general, the power of music, and individuality (and of course, steampunk keytars).

Lemming Malloy’s debut album Avalauncher takes to the skies this week! Get it here!

Jay Cartwright of Lemming Malloy

Jay Cartwright of Lemming Malloy

Nothing says steampunk like a Marvelon.

In this case, I mean the steampunk modded keytar of the same name, prominently featured on the steampunk band Lemming Malloy’s debut album Avalauncher, and lovingly created and played by frontman Jay Cartwright.

Based out of Chapel Hill, NC, Lemming Malloy is comprised of Cartwright (on the Marvelon), Wendy Spitzer (bass), Joe Mazzitelli (guitar) and Dylan Thurston (drums). Their music is infectious: a rousing concoction of peppy yet complex rhythm, thrumming Marvelon, catchy guitar riffs, and harmonies both unusual and lovely.

Cartwright’s songwriting provides both ample musical and lyrical space, creating a layered whole that satisfies the guy who’s “just here for the music” as well as the one who wants to pore over references to Foucault and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As evidenced in our interview, Cartwright demonstrates he’s a a real song-crafter, one of those who writes from an amazingly rich place.

Lemming Malloy is a welcome and eclectic addition to the music scene here in NC, and certainly a wonderful new voice for steampunk adherents and dabblers alike.

You owe it to yourself to visit their website, snatch up the album, and take the next airship to audial bliss.

Natania Barron: So, first things first. Who is Lemming Malloy?
Jay Cartwright: We culled the band name from a favorite children’s novel of mine about forest creatures overrun by a cadre of animal Commies.  Also, many believe that lemmings run in mobs off cliffs to their deaths in an act of fatal conformance.  In actuality, this belief has root in legend and was only captured on film once–by a documentary crew who used trick photography to get the shot they wanted.

Avalauncher

Avalauncher

The metaphor is that as much as the establishment wants you to believe that lemmings are a mob-ruled conformist species, we all know that ultimately we cannot let them trick us into believing that this is true!  The same goes for our own species: HUMANS!  All of the above seemed to capture our feelings about the interaction between the group and the individual, the weak and the strong, and authority and the populace.

NB: What’s the background on some of your musical compatriots?
JC: Wendy, Dylan and I all met at UNC Chapel Hill.  Dylan and Wendy were both music performance majors.  Their background contributes to the tightness and ambitiousness of their playing.  The three of us played in the defunct Eyes to Space.  Joe was a supportive fan of Eyes to Space, and his recent project Invasion opened for us a number of times.  From many conversations with him at shows, it became clear we were quite musically aligned, and from watching Invasion, it was clear he could play!  When we formed Lemming Malloy, he was an obvious choice.  Wendy is currently heading her own project Felix Obelix, which also features Dylan and I, and she plays in the all-girl-skronk trio Gates of Beauty.

NB: Steampunk certainly extends well beyond the borders of your sound alone. Your costumes, your personas, your instruments–the Marvelon! Tell me all about the Marvelon.
JC: For most, steampunk is a genre born in literature.  My primary exposure to steampunk instead was through reading about the efforts of steampunk modders online who were re-fashioning their laptops and CPUs to seem as though they were steam-powered.  I played a keytar in my last band but smashed it to pieces at our final show.  I knew I wanted to make another one, and since steampunk was on my brain, I fashioned my new keytar to look Victorian.  Actually, technically I suppose it’s more Edwardian.  Our bassist Wendy nicknamed it the The Marvelon, and I thought that name was hysterical. (more…)

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!

Weirdo GooseWe Geeks come from all sorts of weird places. Walking around Little Five Points today in Atlanta, I was struck by the beautiful oddities around me, reveling in the weirdness that seems to ebb from every stoop. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t amazed by strange objects, stores, and people. And this works, because a writer I have a habit of watching people and making up adventures about them.

The odd places attraction comes from my childhood. My godparents used to bring me to Northampton, MA and I’d get to visit the most eccentric stores. The best, of course, was Faces. Faces, for anyone who’s ever been to Noho or Smith College, is definitely a Pioneer Valley landmark. Back when I first visited, it was one floor, and more than anything, it had toys–toys so lovely and fantastic, so colorful and funky, so beautiful and eclectic, that I never wanted to leave. There were magnets and doohickeys, sandscapes, and well, to save the trouble of description: ThinkGeek has a great page with many of these objects of which I speak.

I’ve always been more crafty than makey, but I realized as I was going through chapter two, and thinking about Professor, that much of her character comes from my love of odd toys. Half of what I found today and wanted to take home were odd toys, strange dolls, odd tinkerings. But I exercised restraint. (And holy crap did I ever fall in love with Bungalow360 Bags… I was so close to buying one, but could hear my husband complaining about the purses I already have and… darn, darn, darn).

Anyway, what I’m trying to say in this late night post is that oddity, eccentricity, and the writing process really do go hand in hand. It’s no surprise that the steampunk movement is so complex, so broad, and so unbelievably artistic… We tinkerers (whether in a literal or literary sense) are really part raven, drawn to the stunning, the strange, and the shiny.

(Note: I did not get the Bungalow360 bag, but I did score some great perfume, some skull and crossbones hair clips–oh so cool–and a great shade of lipstick; I said restraint, not complete denial.)