This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"We're tired of all your so-called evolution / We’ve dialed it back, to 1886 / Don’t ask us why, that’s just how we get our kicks."
"Steampunk Revolution" by the band Abney Park has accumulated well over a million YouTube views since March 31, 2012. It's a call to arms—an incendiary hymn dipped in sea shanty cadence and wrapped in a swooping nu-metal guitar tone. This isn't just an anthem, comrade: It's a manifesto. But before the barricades are erected in London's Trafalgar Square and the means of goggle production are seized, a few salient questions remain unanswered. Namely, what is a steampunk? What does a steampunk believe and do? Are any of my loved ones steampunks? Am I a steampunk?
Getting to the heart of these mysteries means effort. It means immersion in a bewildering array of High Victoriana, Cyber Goth, early modernist literature, 1920s sci-fi utopias, 19th century French illustration, early H.G. Wells, Jules Verne pastiche, waistcoats, teapot nerf guns, leather breeches, 1999's Will Smith-fronted blockbuster Wild Wild West, customized Doc Martens, and the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes adaptations.
Most pressingly, though, it means spending a hot Saturday in New Malden, a suburb in London, at the sixth annual Surrey Steampunk Convivial—an event spread across two floors of a roomy pub and the entirety of the evangelical church across the street. For today, at least, these are the UK epicenters of one of the most fluid, compulsively magpie-ish, and persistently ridiculed subcultures on the planet.
It wasn't always this way. Back in the 2010s, you couldn't fling a tattered paperback of Wells' The Time Machine without hitting a wide-eyed editorial feature on the subject. The Atlantic published The Ultimate Guide, Buzzfeed gave us the Six Rules of Steampunk Fashion, and the New York Times composed a glowing style review. Buoyed by the arrival of the Cumberbatch-led BBC Sherlock in 2010 and the success of the Bioshock video game series, it seemed steampunk was on the brink of mainstream acceptance, if not breakthrough. Even Nicki Minaj and David Guetta were at it.
For the already converted, this belated recognition was founded on old news. Steampunks have been around from at least the dawn of the 1990s, with Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s historical sci-fi The Difference Engine (1990) often claimed as the foundational text for the modern "movement." Its name was largely to differentiate itself from their purely future tense-loving Cyber Punk cousins because to be a steampunk is to have one eye on the rearview, to a reimagined Victorian idyll powered by the tech of today. iPhones powered by steam, Fitbits charged with coal dust. Form intersecting with function, the past imagined through the present. You get the drift.
It doesn't take long after leaving the train station to pick up the right scent. A steampunk is instantly known by sight, even if the embroidered details vary. Every subculture has its dress codes and etiquettes, though few outside of mainstream goth and traditional punk can claim quite as unmissable an aesthetic.
One glance is enough to tell you it's the steam, not the punk, where most of the emphasis lies. The closer to the venue, the higher the concentration of ingenious outfits and costumes. A pretty much gender-balanced array of soldiers, dandies, vampire artistos, explorers, and plucky prostitutes. It isn't all 19th-century chic, with a number suicide girl fetishists and Jack Sparrow enthusiasts adding to the tumult. One middle-aged guy, on close inspection, appears to be wearing a suburb's worth of copper piping clasped to a cardboard jetpack.
We’re immediately greeted by a tall, waistcoated man in the main hall of the church who introduces himself as Duke Box. After a handshake of purest cast iron, we get straight to the nub of things. In his definition, steampunk is a logical home for a creative mind. "A lot of us come from different worlds, so we might have previously said, 'I'm a writer,' or, 'I'm a musician,' or a painter. But now we get to wake up and say, 'I'm a steampunk: What am I going to do today?'"
This all sounds very liberating. But what about the underlying politics? It's tempting to think that amid all the good will, family friendliness, and evident cheer that there aren't any; that this is a safe space for pure creative expression and well-meaning nerdism. But the nature of the Victorian time frame raises unavoidable questions of colonialism, imperial expansion, and slavery.
In enthusiastically celebrating this very particular slice of the past, isn't there a risk of glorifying things that should at the very least be interrogated? After all, it's one thing to have H.G. Wells as a model and prophet, quite another to totally ignore his shitty eugenicist views. It's a fraught question, with steampunk radicalism and tone-deaf steampunk blusterappearing to exist side-by-side.
Box wants to stress the inclusivity of this particular slice of their sprawling universe, and he's quick to point out that, although they aren't recruiting enough members for his or others' liking, it isn't through a lack of effort. "Of course it's understandable, considering the Victorian-slash-Imperial connotations, but we're very inclusive," he says again. "Just wait for the tribal belly dancing in a little while."
Moving forward, I decide to ask how Box how he found himself as a full-fledged member of the fraternity. To pick up on his earlier image, was it a Damascene moment with a sudden flash of morning light through the curtains accompanied by the urge to staple a pocket watch to a top hat?
Not quite. Like many others, he already loved "the ethos, the design, the look, and the textures. And then bang, one day you find it already has a name." He starts on the films. "A lot of us were introduced through the likes of Hellboy 2, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hugo, which are all just great steampunk movies."
The precise terms vary, he says. "In the States, you might have the Wild Wild West stuff, while the Italians are crazy about the craftsmanship—whether that's hyper-intricate leather work, masks, etc. It's what we call stitch-counting, where it has to be a proper Victorian coat. For our group, it's about carnival, it's about Monty Python and not taking yourself or your situation too seriously."
However, the vision of steampunk Without Borders doesn't extend to every strand of the British scene, says Box. "Maybe some of the groups in north England are a bit different—they do a lot more High Victorian, Dickensian reenactment," he says, explaining this style is "where it has to be just so."
Revolution is difficult when emphasis is firmly on the past. And despite all the gadgets and modifications, it's a vision that fundamentally imagines "what if" not "what now," or what could be. The Time Machine exists to idealize the past and partially to scrub clean its faults. But there’s something colossally endearing to proceedings on this gentle afternoon. A mixed crowd, full of enthusiastic couples, grizzled veterans, and slightly bashful newbies. There's little-to-none of the frigid glare or protective fierceness an outsider might anticipate, with very few comic book guys to harsh the gently supportive buzz.
We stop and chat with a number of people, all of whom are generous with their time and explanations. One vampire (with her less undead partner) beams about her cross-country steampunk adventures. A large family shows off their attire, having driven an hour down to support a relative, one of the Convivial's organizers. It's their first, they admit, though the casual observer wouldn't be able to tell.
Among the craft stalls, we meet 20-something Jack, who arrived at the scene in his teens via the leisurely world of dandyism, itself an offshoot of the Chappism mini-movement (think waxed mustaches and willfully archaic diction). He flitted back and forth for a while, simply because you could. By self-definition, he's a maker. "That means I ideally like things to be made of leather or wood. I've even learned to weld, to work with copper," he tells me.
Primarily, steampunk is a vessel for escapism for Jack. Not from anything huge, just the daily grind of a "completely mundane" day job, which he doesn't specify. The craftsmanship takes up the weekends, or the evenings if he's really into the project. The fluidity helps. You can broadly be what you want, in a space that lets you take risks and wiggle free of most constraints. "People really rally around others that have taken the time to make something beautiful or functional," he says. "My version of steampunk might be absolutely different to the person sitting next to me."
And they'll usually be cool with it. Even if, unfortunately enough, there are always people who ruin it for others, that's just life, says Jack. Although, in his experience, they're few and far between. "People will often just quash things in the bud by saying 'can you not,' which is perhaps something you don’t have in other scenes," he says.
If New Malden proves anything, it's the genuinely baffling variety of steampunk: A world grown fat on a universe's recommended intake of disparate threads and influences. Later on in the afternoon, we head to the top room of the pub to catch the last few tunes from a nervy, rake-like man in his mid-40s billed as the President of the UK's Autoharp Society. In the temporary lull between songs you can almost feel the vibrations thrumming from his heavily garlanded jacket.
"Bear with me, just a second," he says to cheers, before launching into a rendition of "All I Have To Do Is Dream" by the Everly Brothers. "You know, the thing I love most about this gig is laughing while I play."
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