Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, Mediums, Genres, and Making Choices

Going to the Steam on Queen Fair on Saturday made me think about some things. And despite the adage that if there aren’t photos it didn’t happen, I was there. There were booths with various things: including a squid-headed cane (which I still insist was Cthulhu without his batwings), a decoration of a spider made out of metal parts, some vintage-looking ray guns, and so on.

What really got me–though–were the costumes. Some people really got into the spirit of the thing in an insane way: with women in elaborate bodice-dresses, hats and coiffed hair, men in suits, and people even wearing turn of the twentieth century summer dresses, bowler hats and suits that looked more at home in the Prince Edward Island of Anne of Green Gables and Road to Avonlea than twenty-first century Toronto. Add some clock-work props and Steampunk aesthetics and you pretty much see what you get. It was like going into a time-warp.

The event took place at the Campbell House off Osgoode Station and it was like being in a shady verdant bubble of alternate Steam Age reality while being surrounded by a busy and summery contemporary world. The inside of the house had various Steampunk exhibits: one drawing room looking like a makeshift Victorian workshop and laboratory while outside were singers and even a bawdy dance or two. But one group of people that really caught my interest were two women sitting on a blanket in the grass dressed as though they came from Avonlea: The Lost Ladies of Zion Schoolhouse.

These lovely and adorable ladies–having found themselves lost from 1910–are on a quest to find their way back to it again. They also represent the Gibson House Museum and Zion Schoolhouse which hosts birthdays, historic dinners and special theatre events using said “costumed” interpreters to immerse people into a Victorian-Edwardian frame of mind.

But after going to this Fair, I started thinking about Steampunk: as well as more pesky considerations of how to view a medium’s growing complexity. Steampunk is a science-fictional genre–with consequent costume aesthetics–that generally operates from an alternate nineteenth to early twentieth century that utilizes the power of Steam in its day-to-day technology. Yet I have always felt it was more than that. I always believed that Steampunk hearkens back to that old Victorian utopian mindset of Science being a power of benevolence and constant progress. You can see it in a lot of Victorian literature and media of that time. Yes, in the genre there are people who use Science and Steam Age technology for evil, but they are always countered by “the good guys.” There is swashbuckling, an ideal of honour, and a lot of anachronistic versions of modern technology powered by steam and sometimes–if it is very special–there is still magic and the supernatural coexisting alongside all of this as well.

It seems a sunnier world, doesn’t it, or at least the conception I’m talking about. I have a friend who thinks Steampunk is all about the costumes now and a certain kind of elitism: which I think is hilarious seeing where it derives itself from historically and culturally. But on Saturday, all I saw was people having fun and one can never get tired of seeing that. I also think that Steampunk is our time’s way of creating a genre–a sort of retroactive genre–of an alternate form of progress where Science and Adventure are still seen as these great forces with good intentions.

Because of course you have Steampunk’s alternate: Cyberpunk. If Steampunk is an attempt at utopian fiction, Cyberpunk is dystopian. It is a world where generally technology and science have invaded the lives of its people to an insane degree. These worlds are generally polluted and corruption is everywhere and no one of authority can be trusted. There generally aren’t “good guys” in the traditional sense, but there are definitely survivors. I think that for a time we leaned more towards Cyberpunk because it was exemplifying just what our world was turning into. I also think Steampunk was a reaction to that dark mindset: because while Cyberpunk seems to talk about where we are heading, Steampunk seems to be a deceptively nostalgic genre that talks about what could have been … and yet by doing so, it encourages what could be too.

These are both obviously generalizations. It is tempting to get caught up in them. For instance, there are some historians that say that the Western world’s general optimism about Science and progress was ultimately destroyed at the advent of World War I: when that same knowledge that should have helped people was used to destroy and degrade them instead. It is tempting–at least for me–to wonder if there would have been a World War in an alternate Steam Age. Of course, there could have been: just with different tools because human beings do not change that much with different technology.

But I sometimes wonder what our world would have been like without World War I. What would have happened if those generations of young soldiers hadn’t died? Or what would have happened if the Holocaust had never occurred? Who would they have become? What would our world have been like?

You see how tempting those lines of thought are. I guess you could say: “Okay Matthew, maybe you should write a book or story about that or something instead making these suppositions,” and I’d say sure: when I am more qualified or there is an angle that catches my mind and I can build on with the knowledge that I have.

I’m also tempted to talk about Dieselpunk: about a genre (some say a sub-genre of Cyberpunk) that has 1950s technology and a 1920s or 30s culture. You can definitely find influences from Steampunk and Cyberpunk: save that it is a genre that centres around the internal combustion engine, diesel fuel, and the discovery of nuclear power while computers and the Internet are not quite there yet. I believe it is still a contested or developing genre and subgenre and I find it amazing just what can actually be classified under it. It is a genre I am really interested in and I think I can relate to a lot more because it is closer to our world and time-line in a less nostalgic way. Of course, there are a lot of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon moments in this genre as well: as exemplified by Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Hell, you can even say that Captain America and the Hulk are some examples of Dieselpunk superheroes if you’d like: with the retro-50s aesthetics, science-fiction serial feel, mentality as well.

And here I go on a tangent again. As I was thinking about all of this, I started thinking back to what I said about video games–about how mediums can turn into genres–and I began to ask myself this question: what does it mean when a medium can turn into a genre? What does that mean? And I think that if I had to give a one-word answer, it would be choice.

I think that when you can choose to go beyond the technical and ideological aspects of a medium–of what you can materially and creatively do–then you can create a genre or something that defies genre entirely. When you have the options, or make the options to do something different with a familiar convention, when can choose to do so, that is the moment when everything changes and variances can be made. It’s about there being an option and therefore being able to make a creative choice.

Because, in the end, that is what being creative is about. It’s about making choices and knowing that we can always do so: whether you want to dress like a grease-monkey, wear a soldier’s uniform with a clock-work eye, look like a hacker, draw it, or write about all of it.

I think I’m going to let the “Lost Ladies” end this entry off. Though I imagine it to be somewhat frightfully inconvenient to become lost from your own time period, there is just something encouraging to see them making do with their picnic basket and afternoon tea. If only getting lost in time were that convenient and pleasant. Say your hellos, ladies and gentlemen.

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