What is Steampunk?

20090314025046Albert_Robida_-_La_Sortie_de_lopéra_en_lan_2000

its antique tones, its steampunk

I won’t compete here with other sources of general info about Steampunk. In brief, it is a sub-genre within science fiction, one that finds expression not only in literature, film and art, but also in a subculture and lifestyle. Its hallmark is the combination of futuristic and vintage elements: airships are a frequent reference.

You can follow the link above to learn more, which I recommend in the sense that the labyrinthine tracery of Steampunk’s many tendrils is part of what makes it a mot juste for me quite apart from the specifics of its style.

The term “steampunk” has a canonical moment of origin. Search and you’ll find it credited repeatedly to novelist K.W. Jeter, one of whose novels features H. G. Well’s Morlocks using his famous time machine to terrorize Victorian London.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
—K.W. Jeter in a letter published in the April 1987 issue of Locus, a science fiction magazine
Steampunk is also thought to be a riff off the more familiar “cyberpunk”, a link supported by the influence of a 1990 novel co-written by cyberpunk hero William Gibson, in which Babbage’s speculative difference engine is realized bringing early onset to the information age.  (Babbage is also referenced in Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s book of poems, Mausoleum: 37 Ballads from the History of Progress.)
The word came info this poem late and not as a result of any passion for the genre. It sounds pleasant in conjunction with “surrealism” in the line, and the two terms expand on the charm of the image’s “antique tones” possibly representing “high” (surrealism) and “low” (steampunk) dimensions of such charm.
In looking into steampunk now, more closely than I ever did before, what strikes me is the “archeological” depth of the term. Gibson’s novel is from the nineties, but the term turns out to be coined in the eighties, but by an author one of whose quintessential works is from the late seventies, but it turns out that the early seventies featured works about alternative airships and chunnels. Perhaps Michael Moorcock, author of The Warlord of the Air (1971), also had seen the 1968 airship episode of Spiderman cartoon series (“Criminals in the Clouds”). But my father often told me about being fascinated in the early sixties by a movie based on the works of Jules Verne that began as an engraving that seemed to come to life (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne by Karel Zeman.)

In 1995, I flipped through a remainder bin at an art bookstore, a heap of handomely produced German pocket editions, picking out a selection of Albert Robida‘s illustrations. The picture at the beginning of this post is his. Robida meant nothing to me at the time except that I liked his work. Now it turns out he’s a touchstone for Steampunk. Affection for Robida takes right back to Jules Verne. (A more mainstream example of the same effect: Scorsese’s film Hugo, which has a Steampunk feel in the context of taking us right back to the reality of Melies’ time and of his inventions.)

When Heinrich Schliemann found the site of Troy, object of his lifelong quest, he immediately blasted to the bottom of the site through multiple layers of settlement, convinced that the earliest, deepest layer must be true. On a surface level, there’s much nostalgia in Zeppelin, in the introductory poem and throughout. And Steampunk is, in part, a nostalgic style. Going deeper, Steampunk seems to me to be one expression of a recurrent impulse, characteristic of many of my poems and characteristic of our time: the impulse to use our awareness of history to trace back to a place where we might find a lost turn toward a better, or at least more interesting, present.

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Filed under Poetry, Zeppelin, Zeppelin In Flight Safety

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