7 Reasons Why Steampunk Is Totally "Now"

Basically, it's the kind of structured yet flexible framework that allows for endless reinvention, and it rewards experimentation within the shared yet ever-evolving universe of the alternate past.
10/27/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

1. It's the perfect mash-up genre for a culture obsessed with mixing and remixing, fanfic, memes, and 'shipping.
Gotham. Sleepy Hollow. Bates Motel. Guardians of the Galaxy. Fifty Shades of Grey. Kindle Worlds. Lately, we really seem to be into creative takes on the old classics. And Steampunk is like the ultimate mash-up genre -- both futuristic and retro. Plus, it's got room for anything and everything fandom's little heart can dream up: Aliens and AIs, zeppelins and zombies, pirates and corsets, goggles and gaslights, mad scientists and scullery maids. It's romance, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and adventure (and even occasionally a whodunit or a spaghetti western). Basically, it's the kind of structured yet flexible framework that allows for endless reinvention, and it rewards experimentation within the shared yet ever-evolving universe of the alternate past.

2. It's all about getting back to the basics.
We're in the middle of a massive generational shift, originally led by a hipster vanguard but now becoming mainstream: what's old is new again. Gen X'ers and Millennials are raising urban chickens, dipping candles, planting vegetable gardens in their front yards, canning jam, keeping bees, sewing their own clothes, and rediscovering the joys of an old-fashioned shave. Part of it is practicality; these are valuable skills to learn, practice, and pass on, based on the kind of folk knowledge that can get lost forever if it's not carefully preserved. Part of it is just the zany, passionate joy of developing an expertise, and making something practical and beautiful with your own hands. Anyway, Steampunk totally fits into this larger picture -- whether its aficionados are restoring a vintage typewriter, creating historically accurate costuming, or painstakingly modding a Victorian PC.

3. It's a much-needed countercultural aesthetic for design.
Today's futurism all looks like Apple: slick, shiny, hyper minimalist. All form on the outside, all function on the inside. You can't tell, from looking at it, exactly what an iPad does - and you're not supposed to. You're also not supposed to be able to take it apart, tweak it a bit, and put it back together. The guts are entirely self-contained.

This style can be attractive, but it's also become completely mainstream. So certain visually hungry types are searching for something distinctive... something more. The Steampunk design aesthetic? It's minimalism's polar opposite. The guts of a Steampunk machine are on the outside. You can see the function, you can see the bells and whistles, you can see how it does what it does. You can also see how to take it apart and make it better. Plus, it looks old; it revels in a sense of history, of having been somewhere, of having lasted and endured through a long, long time. It's scratched and scuffed and stained, and like its function, it wears its history on the outside.

4. It's both global and local.
In the past couple years, Steampunk has become an international movement. The Steampunk User's Manual includes wonderful contributions from artists and Steampunkers in France, UK, Brazil, Czech Republic, India, Scotland, Serbia, Poland, Hong Kong, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, and more. This diverse global community is communicating and sharing, getting together online and passing around their favorite imagery and newest work, collaborating to publish anthologies with Steampunk stories in translation, and fueling each others' creativity with a profusion of cultural influences and historical context.

At the same time, each local community tends to be closely knit, maintaining their own unique local "flavor." In Brooklyn you've got the fantastically decorated, ever-so-classy and sophisticated Steampunk bars where patrons flaunt their finery and top-level mixologists ply their trade. Meanwhile in Oakland, you've got a rougher-edged kind of Steampunk (extra emphasis on the "punk") that focuses on the DIY side, with masterfully outfitted machine shops where makers and tinkerers build awesome contraptions from scratch.

5. It's class conscious.
We live in an era of massive inequality and an exponentially increasing gap between the rich and the poor. While some movements like Occupy address the inequality head on, science fiction and fantasy have always provided a means for writers and artists to critique their society indirectly. (Just look at The Hunger Games.) Steampunk takes place in another period of massive inequality -- the Victorian Era and the Gilded Age, a time when lords and ladies dressed in absurd regalia lounged in luxury while a permanent underclass shoveled the coal that fueled their society and starving urchins begged for bread in the streets. Many Steampunk writers are drawing on this obvious metaphor to our current age and exploring pressing social issues. Of course, not everyone is using Steampunk in this way - some simply see the past with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, or find it easy to imagine themselves as the lucky lords and ladies -- but as Steampunk "grows up," so to speak, it's increasingly becoming a tool for critique.

6. It's eco-conscious.
At Steampunk's core is an obsession with the environmentalist's battle cry: Reduce/Reuse/Recycle. Steampunk is based on an appreciation for reclaiming something old and making it new again, for cherishing the long-lasting and well-made over the slick, disposable, and new. Throughout The Steampunk User's Manual, artists and designers explain how they've reclaimed vintage materials, from wood and metal to glass and cloth, to create their handiworks.

And while we're recovering still-sound antique items from the scrap heap (or at the very least, the thrift shops and consignment stores), we can also look to the past for still-sound ideas about the future that just might make sense for us today. In an era before mass production, physical items and artifacts were made well and made to last, not designed to be used once or twice and then thrown away, relegated to a landfill. In many ways, we've made a lot of progress since then, socially, culturally, and technologically. But perhaps the past does still hold a few nuggets of wisdom for us about how to live more scalable, sustainable lives.

7. Your individuality is Steampunk's strength.
Steampunk is customizable and flexible, with a "start where you are" mentality that makes it incredibly easy to join in, whatever point you're starting from. You can approach it through the medium of storytelling (fiction, films, comic books), or fashion (a dash of vintage flair in your outfit, or full-on cosplay), or interior design (DIY... or hire the experts, a few of whom are profiled in the book). You can hop on Etsy and order a custom-made corset... or search out popular Steampunk bands on Spotify. It's OK if your budget is limited, or if your skill set is still developing, or if your top interest is something completely specific and random -- like Steampunk postage stamps. Steampunk is a big friendly movement, and you can jump in anywhere and anytime you like.

Desirina Boskovich is the co-author of The Steampunk User's Manual.