Many subcultures come and go, contributing little to the long-term arc of society. (When is the last time you saw a pompadour-sporting greaser outside the touring company of Grease?) Other subcultures pass on elements of their aesthetic or mode of representation to newer forms: the beatniks gave up some of their identity to the hippies, and Punk style has been incorporated into many subsequent movements. And occasionally, styles remain mostly unchanged for prolonged periods. I never thought that Goth would last as long as it has; despite some changes Goth has experienced, it is fundamentally the same subculture today as it was in the early ‘80s.
There is one subculture, or perhaps sub-subculture, that has drawn my attention recently for its durability: Steampunk. Its origins are wide-ranging and contentious, but the coinage of the term (and thus, the start of a definable subculture) dates to the often-cited April 1987 letter K. W. Jeter wrote to Locus magazine where he referred to the small circle of writers working in Victorian retro-futurism as “Steampunks.” But three people does not a subculture make, and soon related writers, artists, designers, and musicians were exploring a Victorian retro-futurist aesthetic.
This puts Steampunk at an official age of twenty-five. That is a long time to exist in sub-cultural terms. Hippie culture was on the wane after the chaos of Altamont and the grisly Tate/LaBianca murders; even a generous estimate would give the Hippies (formally) only a decade. Punk was declared dead as early as 1979, and Post-Punk took over. Punk as a style experienced renaissance and resurgence movements as well as exerting a strong influence on later subcultures, but Punk as a unified subculture didn’t make it past a decade. Kerouac first coined “the Beat generation” in 1948, but by the late ‘50s it had been co-opted and turned into the mass-culture “beatnik,” a term that many of the Beats themselves explicitly rejected. Putting Steampunk up against these other subcultures shows its longevity. Of the major Western post-war subcultures I’ve looked at so far, only Goth has lasted longer than Steampunk: Goth is now thirty years old.
I am not ready to try my hand at final definitive explanations of Steampunk’s longevity. But I think a few things might be worth exploring:
1. Steampunk flew under the radar: For a very long time, Steampunk was a geeky, minority sub-subculture, located simply within SF conventions and role playing games. It existed even before the term was coined, and many Steampunks enjoy finding works that participate in the aesthetic but predate the term itself. But the ‘90s saw a few significant events. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling released The Difference Engine, FOX released the cult television show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and in the late ‘90s Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill released the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Gibson, of course, was a SF writer with mainstream appeal; Brisco County starred Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead semi-fame, bringing semi-celebrity status to the subculture; and graphic novels were riding high the tide of mass-culture respectability. People who might have never picked up a Steampunk novel found an entry point to the aesthetic in a graphic novel by Alan Moore.
But by the time these major works were released and the public was starting to get clued in to Steampunk, it had been gestating in the geek community for a long time. Geeks had been playing games like Space: 1889, reading books like Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, and generally enjoying the aesthetic possibilities Steampunk offered. Mass-culture attention often kills subcultures in their infancy, but Steampunk had been allowed to grow up without mainstream media attention. Even though The Difference Engine was released in 1990, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wasn’t released until 1999. The ’90s saw a slow build mainstream awareness of Steampunk, and that allowed the subculture to avoid scrutiny during its awkward early years.
2. Steampunk is resistant to co-optation: I neither want to lionize Steampunk as a bastion of “authenticity” (whatever that actually is) nor condemn capitalist culture for the tendency to co-opt subcultures. That is another argument. But the cultural narrative exists: when mass culture co-opts a community and sells it back, it becomes “inauthentic.” (When something goes on sale at Hot Topic, the early adopters that drive “cool” have already moved on to something else.) I am old enough to remember the way Cyberpunk got co-opted. Billy Idol’s atrocious Cyberpunk album is just one example: “cyberpunk” as a label was attached to games, sunglasses, even jeans. By that point, whatever made Cyberpunk what it was had been emptied out and turned into a product.
Steampunk, however, seems to resist that drive to co-opt. In part, that is the nature of the community. For example, many people probably could charge an arm and a leg for the ubiquitous Steampunk fashion item of the brass goggles. But rather than mass produce them and sell them at a profit, most Steampunk fans would rather post their free videos and free blogs about how to make brass goggles yourself at home. Most Steampunks take their home-made costumes as a point of pride. It doesn’t matter if the costume doesn’t look the best as long as it was made by the person wearing it. Steampunks love to share information about how to improve costumes and props, and they do so for free.
But on top of all of that, a community that mixes Victorian aesthetics with a DIY mentality and an off-beat, subversive sense of humor just doesn’t sit well as something that can be mass-produced. The entire aesthetic goal of Steampunk is to resist mass-produced culture. It eludes co-optation by its very nature. (This is not to say that it can never be marketed. But mainstream mass culture has not yet figured out how to do it. Every time mass culture tries to market Steampunk, it fails: does anyone remember Wild Wild West? It made some money, but it was generally disliked by Steampunk fans and movie critics alike. The closest Hollywood has ever gotten to nailing Steampunk was in Sherlock Holmes.)
3. Steampunk is multiple: Unlike many subcultures that are highly unified, at least in some aspects of their aesthetic or ideology, Steampunk is highly varied. There is Steampunk literature, Steampunk music, and Steampunk fashion. There are games, conventions, and manga. But there is really no one “flavor” of Steampunk within any of these: some Steampunk is very faithful to Victorian history and culture with only semi-plausible changes to technology, while other Steampunk is set in a secondary world, involves magic, posits substantial changes to world history, or even entirely different laws of physics (such as the luminiferous aether).
There are Steampunk novels with dwarves and elves, Steampunk with rigorous technological extrapolation, and Steampunk with wizards in London, etc. There is no single, definable Steampunk culture. And, what is more, Steampunks themselves seem very tolerant of those who are not like themselves. While many subcultures strive for orthodoxy and worry about “poseurs,” Steampunk is unusually welcoming.*
Steampunk looks as if it might be poised to be a long-term cultural phenomenon. Of course, it is when people like me make these kinds of pronouncements that cultures seem to suddenly die. I hope to see Steampunk continue to grow and evolve, and look forward to its continued vitality.
*Steampunk’s ideological and aesthetic cousin, Dieselpunk, is similarly welcoming.