‘The Steampunk Bible’: Goggles and Corsets and So Much More

Adjust your goggles and hitch your corset tight. Jeff VanderMeer and S.J Chambers are offering an airship ride into the world of Steampunk.

Lots of fashions with a literary component end up getting encyclopedias. Often these efforts are poorly organized and heavy on prose that only skims the surface. You barely get any pictures because the project was so hastily organized that nobody could be bothered with copyright issues.

Thankfully, this is not the case with The Steampunk Bible. Its grandiose title is much deserved, as the authors and their collaborators have gathered a substantial guide to the world of retro-futurist fantasy. The text is bulging with historical allusion, provides fascinating connections, and gives a full definition of how the movement has expressed itself in fiction, film, comics, fashion, craft and ideology.

So many different kinds of materials are included in The Steampunk Bible that it has the feel of a multimedia presentation. Photographs of Steampunk cosplayers share the page with diagrams of fantastical Victorian machines. The book gives us images of the Steampunk treehouse at Burning Man and a mixed media Steampunk gas mask. There’s even a step-by-step pictorial guide that explains how to create Victorian-era etchings. Sumptuously illustrated throughout, it well captures the aesthetics of the movement.

The authors deal directly with the problem of definition. Steampunk is certainly a word becoming elastic with overuse. Goggles are Steampunk. Every film that has a clockwork mechanism or monster is Steampunk. Slap a gear or two on modern technology and you have officially “steampunked” it.

VanderMeer and Chambers work hard to slow down this word devolution. They suggest that it’s a clearly definable sensibility that combines a sense of Victorian/Edwardian aesthetics with a kind of alternate futurism. Perhaps more importantly, it arises out of some specific literary sources, rediscovered and reclaimed by writers in the ’80s and ’90s.

There’s another treat awaiting steampunk fans here. Bruce Sterling contributed a short article entitled “A Users Guide to Steampunk”. Sterling, every steampunker knows, co-wrote the classic novel The Difference Engine. Published in 1990, its an ur-text of the movement, a perfectly researched evocation of 19th century London that imagines an early coming of a steam-powered computer age and a resultant Victorian information revolution. It made use of issues of class and sexuality and wrapped it all in a damn fine adventure/mystery tale.

Sterling’s essay here is brilliant, containing advice for young Streampunk cosplayers and a biting political critique for all of us. The 19th century may have been “crude, limited and clanky”, he admits but the 20th century was “calamitously unsustainable” while the 21st century promises to be simply “dead”. He celebrates, rightly, the punk aspects of the Steampunk phenomenon, its DIY sensibility in relation to a society increasingly reliant on technocrats and experts who are helping us create an unrecyclable mountain of garbage.

It’s hard to imagine how VanderMeer and Chambers could have put together a stronger collection. It’s publication marks a significant, self-conscious moment in the history of the movement. But beyond the value of this book, there’s a lot to worry about in this movement’s future. So much of the best Steampunk writing has faced the darkness of the 19th century, and a reading of Sterling’s aforementioned essay shows that it was a period something worse than “clumsy” and “clanky”. He knows better than anybody that the 19th century was not an alternative to, but the beginning of, the “catastrophically unsustainable “ 20th century.

Revising the past has its dangers, indeed it risks taking the punk out of Steampunk. I know of at least one devotee of the movement who steampunks a Confederate soldiers uniform. Fair enough, but he’s also quite certain that slavery had little or nothing to do with the Civil War and thoroughly romanticizes the southern war effort. Darkness lies in that kind of revisionism. Dangers and confusion can come with be-goggling the past.

Of course right now, this is a movement still in formation, still not yet what it’s likely to be. There’s every reason to believe that Steampunk will go down like a zeppelin in flames, guttering out in a series of costume contests and “steampunked” furniture purchasable at Target.

Its maybe just as likely that it will acquire more depth as more important works are written, as its practitioners follow VanderMeer’s lead and trace down its literary roots in Jules Verne and, maybe most importantly, as its would-be philosophers spend some time with William Morris, the arts and crafts movement doyen who is the often unacknowledged spirit guide to this movement.

And hey, I’ll even say it: serious steampunkers ought to be reading Marx. Believe it or not, some of his writing on the revival of anachronisms from within industrial capitalism actually makes more sense when read against the Steampunk movement.

My only real complaint about the tome that VanderMeer and Chamber’s have assembled is that they spend more time on the movement’s 19th century genealogy than its more recent precursors. They certainly are at their best when writing on the Victorian roots of the movement and explaining the literary sensibility of writers like Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter. What seems to be missing is a really full discussion of cyber-punk, that ’80s movement represented by people like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

Cyber-punk is Steampunk’s dour older brother, sporting a mohawk instead of a top hat. Its dark rendering of techno-dystopias obviously might have more resonance with contemporary times that the generally more positive message of Steampunk. Is Steampunk an escape into the dead past, a refusal to face up to the questions cyber-punk raised? Maybe or maybe not, but I wanted to hear VanderMeer and others on this question.

But really, there’s not a lot to be unhappy with, here. VanderMeer and Chambers have done enough, and probably more than enough, to please the pickiest completist. This collection of materials will both educate you about this aesthetic and cultural movement, and give you much to ponder about the nature of modernity itself.

RATING 9 / 10