Gentlemen and Ladies, I bring to you from the strangest parts of the world... Steampunk!
Please, hop into my dirigible, mind the pipes and gears, and let us set out upon an adventure of literary proportions to attain a basic grasp on this genre.
What is Steampunk?
The best definition I can use is an amalgamation of my own thoughts mixed with the differing definitions on the web from several different authors (not to mention Wikipedia).
Steampunk as an art is the joining together of the Victorian historical period with alternate/sci-fi history, characterized by anachronistic items. Modern-day technologies, if imagined then, would be powered by steam, and heavily decorated with the elegant and graceful design motifs of the Victorian era. The use of brass fittings, copper pipes, cogs, wheels, gears, clockwork and metalwork filigree would be ubiquitous. I will speak primarily about the artful aspect of the genre, although I shall allude to the other facets as well, especially the literary aspects.
Steampunk, speaking historically and categorically, came into existence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although it has roots that reach more than a century prior to that. Authors such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have inspired the category heavily, as well as films like Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The Time Machine (which happen to be based on the books by Verne and Wells).
Steampunk has become a sub-culture that thrives on the Internet through blogs and forums dedicated to making Steampunk a way of life. I consider this aspect of Steampunk to be rather superfluous and escapist; this is the arena where the “punk” in Steampunk comes out.
How is Steampunk used?
In most stories and art that I have viewed that use Steampunk heavily, I have noticed a common trend. One of them is the extensive use of the genre as a forum to present postmodernism and feminism in a positive light. Also, the genre's mood is very dark, usually depressing. Foggy skies and monochrome colors make us think that we just stepped into post-apocalyptic 2506 instead of the late Victorian or Edwardian era of Europe. There are usually anti-heroes, cynical protagonists that use whatever means necessary to makes things happen. Nihilism is presented as the only option left in a world powered by steam, monitored by robots and ruled by tyrannical dictators.
A few of my favorite examples of Steampunk within film production design are these:
Okay, I understand: vampires and werewolves don't exist. But Steampunk does. Here is an excellent portrait of how extensive Steampunk should be emphasized... hardly at all, unless there's an express point. Helsing is only as awesome as his Steampunk-influenced gadgets, which he uses at every turn.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Aside from a stellar performance by Jim Carrey, the production design seems to mix sub genres, with Dieselpunk and Steampunk gladly embracing each other to formulate an attempt at timelessness, which I think the film accomplishes to an extent.
Several tools that quirky, introverted constable/physician/mortician/inventor Ichabod Crane have some semblances of Steampunk about them. Interesting that Rick Heinrichs was the production designer for both this and Unfortunate Events... Coincidence? I think not.
How should Steampunk be used?
I believe that Steampunk is merely the frame to place your picture in; a setting, which should never take the place of story; style, not substance. Steampunk as a lifestyle or philosophy is complete bogus. It should be nothing more than a genre of art, a sub genre of science fiction. Therefore, it should never take precedence within whatever capacity it is used merely by virtue of its presence; in other words, it should never take the limelight because it's cool. The levels of Steampunk usage should be relevant to the needs of the story. In fact, whatever you use, make sure it's up to standard with God's Word and the story's needs. During the design process on Heumoore's Ace Wonder, I utilized a few Steampunk motifs to signify and accentuate the quirkiness of the grandfather. Several times, I was struck with the thought that maybe it was out of place; perhaps I was merely catering to my own desires; to have one thing to which I could point and say, "That was my idea!" Many times the temptation was to over accentuate the presence of the Steampunk motifs, and I had to remind myself that the design was merely the servant of the story. Altruism... I gots it.
Concerning the time-pertinence of Steampunk, my personal preference is to have it within the time frame of an alternate 1820-1900, although I think that it would not be without it's historical or scientific bounds if it were used at any time within the last 1000 years, alternately speaking. I prefer the former era because I am very attached to the Victorian-era roots of the genre. I think it would be pretty spectacular to see Steampunk technology in use during the Middle Ages. King Arthur would have so totally pawned Mordred...
Anyhow, to sum up my post: pay attention to what your story calls for. Don't use anything just 'cause it's neat or hip or cool. Think through everything thoroughly, as best as you can; research, compare, seek counsel. Remember that any piece of art you create has the potential to influence millions. Don't take that lightly.
Also, you'll have to forgive me if I gear all of my points toward filmmaking. You have to understand, however, that that's what I'm called to, and I can't help but write about how to utilize it for the glory of God.
I enjoy the art and style of this genre very much. It piques my imagination like none other. It's such a fantastical joining of history, science and fiction.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey through the epic landscape of Steampunk. I hope it was coherent enough to understand, and hopefully you can apply one or two things that I spluttered forth onto this humble blog.
I will remain,
Your Faithful Rambler,
John Scott Reighard
P.S. Steampunk was used 25 times in this post. Epic.