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Steampunk and the Academy; or it really is a clockwork universe, my dear Victorianists

2011 September 12
Lisa Hager, JVC Online Editor and steampunk crossplayer, as Dorian Gray at Dragon*Con 2011

Lisa Hager, JVC Online Editor and steampunk crossplayer, as Dorian Gray at Dragon*Con 2011

Every year, just before my fall term starts here in Wisconsin, I, your intrepid JVC Online editor,  make a trip to Atlanta, Georgia to attend and participate in one of the largest fan-run science-fiction and fantasy conventions, Dragon*Con. I go to Dragon*Con every year to indulge in the geekiest part of myself, along with 40,000 fans, dealers, exhibitors, artists, guests, and volunteers from all over the world. For four days, we all pack into 3,500 hours of panels, workshops, contests, concerts, world record attempts, and a parade.

In addition to all of the general fun and geekery to be had at the Con, the main reason why I return year after year is to be a part of the steampunk events and community that have grown into such a major part of Dragon*Con.

Steampunk is a subculture with its own music, literature, immersive personae, costume play (cosplay), and visual arts. At its core, steampunk reworks and revises nineteenth-century culture by exploring an alternate past that is marked by differing outcomes of key historical events, the presence of the fantastical and magical, and the existence of technology often only theorized by the Victorians, as well as the alternate future such a different past would create. In this subculture, we find a primarily non-academic community engaging with the nineteenth century in a simultaneously playful and thoughtful manner.

At Dragon*Con, steampunk is represented by the Alternate History Track, which has grown dramatically from its humble beginnings in a fifty-person room that was often standing-room only to become a central fan track at the Con. The track encompasses all sorts of events including a panel discussion on Back to the Future with actors Lea Thompson and Christopher Lloyd, costume and persona design sessions, academic and author panels, and a costume ball.

Austin Sirkin, Lisa Hager, and Anthony LaGrange at the Race and Gender in Steampunk at Dragon*Con 2011

Austin Sirkin, Lisa Hager, and Anthony LaGrange at Dragon*Con 2011's Race and Gender in Steampunk Panel

This year, I had the privilege of being on the race and gender panel for the track, along with Anthony LaGrange, steampunk cosplayer and Captain of  the Airship Archon, and Austin Sirkin, steampunk cosplayer and graduate student at Georgia State University who organized and moderated our panel. This panel and our lively and engaging audience represented what I like most about steampunk — the interconnections between the academics who study the culture and literature and the cosplayers and artists who create that culture.

Our conversation ranged from how to understand the difference between celebration and appropriation of a culture in  one’s steampunk persona and literary works to the connection between African-American literature and steampunk by way of a discussion about how Victorians often represented concerns about race and the imperial project in speculative fiction.

I also had the pleasure of catching up with noted steampunk maker, Thomas Willeford and his partner Sarah Herrick of Brute Force Studios and Fallen Angels Fashions, for a brief chat about the qualities of the Victorian period that so capture their imaginations. Thomas’s work was featured in the recent Steampunk exhibit at the University of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science, and he has a new book out on how to make steampunk objects and costumes.

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And though we might disagree with some of Mr. Willeford’s assertions about period, we, as Victorianists, must admire the undeniable enthusiasm and careful attention to detail in responding to the Victorian period that his work represents — work that has recently found its way onto American network television on an episode of Castle.

Aside from the general geek coolness factor of these costumes, novels, and gadgets, you might wonder why we, as scholars of the Victorian, should take an interest in steampunk. The first and foremost reason is that here we find an entire subculture founded upon the study of the period to which so many of us have devoted a significant portion of our professional lives. Secondly, steampunk is a subculture that is on the cusp of becoming a significant part of global culture as steampunk groups form across globe and its aesthetic increasingly find its way into popular culture.

Considering both its interest in the Victorian period and its growing popularity, we should recognize how steampunk asks us to take part in the remaking of Victorian literature and culture in our own time and perhaps expand our notions of what constitutes our field of Victorian Studies.

To borrow and revise a phrase from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer:

It really is a clockwork universe, my fellow Victorian studies scholars.

Alternate History Track's attempt to break the world record for the most steampunks in one photo. (Photograph by Michael Blitch)


A Few Suggestions for Further Reading on Steampunk

Blogs, Online Periodicals, and Discussion Groups

Anthologies

  • Donovan, Art. The Art of Steampunk: Extraordinary Devices and Ingenious Contraptions from the Leading Artists of the Steampunk Movement. Fox Chapel Publishing, 2011.
  • Vanderhooft, JoSelle. Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. Torquere Press, 2011.
  • VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, Eds. Steampunk. Tachyon Press, 2008.
    —. Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. Tachyon Press, 2010.
  • VanderMeer, Jeff and S. J. Chambers. The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature. Abrams Image, 2011.

Novels

  • Carriger, Gail. Soulless. (first book of the Parasol Protectorate Series)
  • Gibson, William and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. 1990.
  • Priest, Cherie. Boneshaker. Tor Books, 2009. (first book of the Dreadnaught series)
  • Westerfield, Scott. Leviathan. Simon Pulse, 2009. (first book of the Leviathan trilogy)

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