Steampunk is a Movement of Compromise

by Bess Goden

(This article is part of the Airship Ambassador #SteampunkHands event.)





Can you spot the difference?

Unlike other rebellious popular movements, Steampunk is a movement of compromise.

This millennium has brought a smorgasbord of changes that have cast a pall of fear over our society, thicker than a London fog. New technologies are tripping over each other to get into our pockets, emerging ways of viewing gender identity and sexual orientation continue to baffle the mainstream, and the populations of people that were once considered ‘minorities’ are now statistically pushing the majority. In the past, we have associated popular movements with societal rebellion. Flappers, Beatniks, Hippies and Punks have all classified themselves as countercultural or alternative movements. But in this modern age of uncertainty, we should not be surprised that the Steampunk Movement emerges as one of open, friendly compromise.

Instead of rejecting the cultural norms of the past to create something new, we Steampunks are obsessed with innovating, upcycling, rethinking and repurposing those traditions. These themes are scattered throughout every expression of the movement, as we draw upon the style, technology, thought, and skillsets of the past to express ourselves. Because the idea of ‘rebelling’ requires the assumption that everyone in history acted in exactly the same manner; that we draw a line in the sand between what was, (as being pervasively 'wrong'), and what will be, (as being unilaterally 'better'). But Steampunks utterly reject such notions, preferring instead to deconstruct our perception of the past to show that it was actually a lot more diverse than our common textbook interpretation.


If we can find the rebellious, the risque, the ethnic, the freaky, the gender-bending, the experimental forgotten and tell their stories; then perhaps we can show the mainstream that changes we consider to be ‘modern’ have really been a part of who we are all along.

Only familiarity can drown fear and we endeavor to remember, reimagine and celebrate as much of history's diversity as we can.

Steampunks: Fighting Fear with Exposure

One of the fears that has come to the forefront of public conversation is the fear of outsiders, aka xenophobia or racism. As the mainstream default perspective has always been white/European, this fear is not only directed at new immigrants but also at members of marginalized groups such as Latinxs, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans and African-Americans. These Steampunks are fighting this fear with exposure...

Steampunk scholar, activist and performer Diana M. Pho actively combats this fear and our traditionally Eurocentric view of history through her blog BeyondVictoriana.com: whose mission is to highlight steampunk and alternate historical fiction that takes place in countries often underrepresented in American/Anglican memories of the past. Her insightful reviews emphasize the well-rounded humanity in nonEuropean characters and cultures, as well as reminds us that European history does not exist in a vacuum and that our history has grown in tandem and intertwined with the histories of other cultures.

Visual artist James Ng researches historical ships, airships, robotics and architecture from a variety of cultures to create interesting and whimsical steampunk illustrations in both traditional and digital painting techniques. His juxtaposition of artistic references teaches us to see the similarities between design aesthetics and reminds us that seemingly different cultures often develop in parallel, as variations on the common themes of humanity.

Writer Marcel Dupree creates a world in which diversity is rightly a given. In his multiracial and multispecies cast of the upcoming comic, Delilah Blast, (set in a steampunk future ruled by Earth’s Science Association), he depicts an intriguing, adventuring, kickass set of characters that bust stereotypes and possibly change the world. 

Steampunks: Fighting Fear with Normalization

Another fear on the tip of our brains is LGBTQ and Feminist phobias. Some would have us believe that those who identify as non cis, non straight or feminist members of this society are in some way out to destroy the traditional family structure. No matter how unfounded, this fear is so old that some continue to believe it despite massive evidence to the contrary. So these Steampunks are fighting this fear with normalization...

Steampunk and children's author Lynne Lumsden Green of Cogpunksteamscribe.wordpress.com chronicles the lives of those who did not fit into the tidy interpretation of ‘traditional’ that society has so often imposed. Through her interesting remembrances of the gender rebellious spirit, she reminds us that our real ‘tradition’ is just as diverse as our current population, and that the questioning of gender norms has just as lengthy and intricate a history as the existence of the norms themselves.

Gail Carriger, author of the Parasol Protectorate Series, includes positive depictions of gay male characters, strong female detectives and gender norm bunking inventors. Her work exemplifies the conceit that diversity of skills and personality is inherent amongst the genders and always has been. Her fiction helps us to remember that societal norms are a construct and in reality there have always been those that refused to conform to those constraints.

The atmosphere of acceptance among the Steampunk community is best reflected in this livestream video from event coordinator/promoter Jeff Mach of the annual convention The Steampunk World’s Fair:

“Steampunk at the very least cannot ignore intolerance. ... The Victorian era was a time of tremendous intolerance. The Steampunk alternative Victorian era can talk about intolerance, can play with Victorian mores, but needs to be a space of tolerance.”

Steampunks: Fighting Fear with Community

‘Technofear’ may not be a topic that many of us have consciously thought about since the 1990s, but nevertheless it is a subject on which we have not sufficiently modified our collective views. There is still a presumption that technology isolates us, keeping us plugged into our computer screens in lonely cubicles instead of conversing with each other in town squares. But with the development of social media, this perspective couldn’t have proved more wrong. We are by no means the only community availing ourselves of these relatively new forms of interconnectedness, but we certainly exemplify technology’s capacity to unite like minded individuals from across the globe. These Steampunks are fighting this fear through community building...

The Collaborative Writing Challenge’s Steampunk Novel, (coordinated this year by steampunk author Pheobe Darquling), combines the efforts of several writers across the globe to create a collaborative work of fiction. The plot outline is decided on and each author is responsible for contributing a chapter to this interestingly coordinated process. All communication is conducted entirely online as authors have to coordinate across time zones as well as continents.

Steampunks are adamant about supporting their fellows, like artist Dianne Keast of Sister Earth Steampunk Shop who also runs the website SteampunkMakersMall.com specifically to bring attention to Steampunk artists and small businesses, (donate to help her keep the site going).  She also encourages community through Facebook groups like Steampunk Maker’s Workshop, which brings steampunk artists from around the world together to discuss their creative processes and get critique on ongoing projects.

Blogger and reporter Kevin Steil also exemplifies the Steampunk passion for community. His blog, Airship Ambassador, is the go to center for all Steampunk news and events in the community. Here he interviews artists and writers, sells an excellent collection of media from the genre and hosts blogging events, (like this one), to help publicize smaller blogs and businesses. He even hosts a map of all the known local Steampunk groups across the globe, encouraging newcomers to get involved.

Steampunks: Fighting Fear with Innovation

Another iteration of ‘technofear’, (and this is certainly a fear that we can trace back to the early Industrial Revolution, possibly even earlier), is that greater mechanization results in the devaluation and eventual loss of handcrafting skillsets and the individuality of handcrafted items. Steampunk artists have rallied around this idea as a challenge and many of us strive to confound this assumption by combining mechanical components and technology with traditional workmanship to create new art from pieces of the past. These Steampunks are fighting this fear with innovation...

Artist Michelle Murray of Steelhip Design combines watch parts, scrap metal, computer chips and jewelry findings to create handcrafted, sculptural pieces of art and jewelry with a biomechanical theme. She cites her struggles with Psoriatic Arthritis and the addition of a mechanical hip as an inspiration to explore the intersection of the human and the technological. 

Another artist, Raymond Guest of Recycled Salvage Design deconstructs the rigid monotony of assembly line design by using salvaged materials from auto yards to create new art. His work highlights the beauty in functionality, as each piece gives new life to the mechanical remnants he molds into unique furniture and garden sculptures.

And lastly, (but hardly leastly), this author, Bess Goden Creatrix of Steampunk Parliament, researches traditional crochet lacemaking patterns and modifies them to house digital illustrations in unique and affordable cameo jewelry.

“I considered it very important to really research and learn the skill of crochet lacemaking,” she said in an exclusive self interview, “It not only lends an historical elegance to what would otherwise be relatively simple and commercial digital illustrations, but it also makes for the most streamlined piece. Lace manufactured through modern means is now so inexpensive that it is tempting to buy an applique and snip it up to make jewelry that mimics lace adornments from the 1800s. Some jewelry made this way is very lovely. But when you create the shape of the lace yourself, you can really design pieces with lines and sizing that compliment the curvature of the human body.”


So take that, assembly line! Handmade skillsets will not be crushed.

Steampunks: Fighting Fear with Compromise

Our society, much like it was at turn of the last century, stands on the divide between tradition and change. The shifting landscape breeds fear and many of us seek comfort in the familiar. But Steampunks know that this reaction is natural, and we also know that there is nothing new that grows which does not have it’s roots in the old. Rethinking, reinnovating, reviewing and reassessing are the vital first steps in moving forward together as a society. So in that spirit, the Steampunk community endeavors to be the place where traditionalists and revolutionaries alike can come together to decide how we can best build tomorrow from the remnants of yesterday.

Please sir, can I have some more?

(Blog articles, not gruel silly!)