Steampunk fiction features a heady blend of influences like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and inventor-hero fiction from the American pulps of the 1800s. It typically includes some mix or mash-up of airships, mad (or, at least, heavily-invested) scientists, eccentric inventors, Victorian-era adventure, and clockwork technology of the sort that we've largely abandoned. Its godfather may well be Michael Moorcock, with his novel The Warlord of the Air, and it gained huge popularity in its first wave because of novels like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine in the 1980s and early 1990s. Other classics include Paul Di Filippo's The Steampunk Trilogy, K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, and Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates.
Now, it's returned in full force through what's being called the "steampunk subculture"--a subculture my wife Ann and I have encountered and enjoyed while editing our most recent anthology, Steampunk. The book collects iconic short stories of the subgenre by the likes of Joe Lansdale, Michael Chabon, James Blaylock, Neal Stephenson, Mary Gentle, Rachel E. Pollock, and many more. Quite purely by accident, Steampunk's release has coincided with major features on steampunk in the national press, like a recent article in the New York Times. Not only has our anthology already gone back to reprint, but we've been inundated with requests for interviews (including from the Weather Channel website!), with the anthology featured recently on the LA Times blog and on Australian national radio. (For an amusing moment or two, listen to the radio interview and wait for my major brain freeze when asked about steampunk fashion, whereupon I babble about "mechanical corsets," which prompts the interviewer to ask, "What are you wearing?")
But the great thing about having edited this anthology is the cross-pollination. Some in the steampunk subculture--brought there by other media like comics or movies, or simply through their friends and social groups--are encountering these classic stories for the first time. Meanwhile, we're getting a crash-course in the steampunk aesthetic, which especially appeals to our tastes in art. Baroque laptops and other retro-fitted gadgetry show that functional does not have to be seamless and slick to be pleasing to the eye. Websites like Brass Goggles, Voyages Extraordinaires, The Steampunk Librarian, and Dark Roasted Blend, among others, frequently hold forth on steampunk-related subjects. There's even a Steampunk Magazine, and bands that create steampunk music, like Abney Park.
One of the best-known "steampunks" is Jake von Slatt, the driving force behind the Steampunk Workshop. He's been featured on Boing Boing and in the previously mentioned NYT article, among many others. I interviewed him recently to satisfy my own curiousity about steampunk and the surrounding subculture...
Amazon.com: How would you describe yourself? An artist? Mechanic? Craftsman?
Jake von Slatt: Dilettante. I am interested is everything and I want to try it all, but I'm not particularly fussy about how well it comes out. Of course, the things I really like--such as making stuff--I do repeatedly and thus gain some proficiency. That also translates to the people I'm interested in, I'm much more interested it the work of passionate amateurs than polished professionals. Yes, passion over polish every time!
Amazon.com: You have a background in renovating and customizing all sorts of things, including vehicles. Do you come from a mechanically-inclined sort of family? Where did you learn to do what you do?
Jake von Slatt: It's mostly book learn'n--my parents are librarians so my questions as a child were always met with lessons on the Dewey Decimal system rather then actual answers. Also, nothing beats just going out, buying a tool and then hacking around with it. Don't tell my wife, but I've got my eye on this used bulldozer on Craigslist!
Amazon.com: Out of all the things that you've created, of what are you most proud?
Jake von Slatt: Well, I had some help with the project from the Lady von Slatt, but I'd have to say my two daughters who are ages 8 and 13. Actually for me it's really the shop time I'm after--the finished projects are fun to have, but I'm less invested in them then you might think.
Amazon.com: How long have you been interested in Steampunk? Can you recall an "aha" moment that led you to become interested in this movement?
Jake von Slatt: The Difference Engine--powdered coal fired jet engines on a Zeppelin, I don't remember the plot but I remember the artifacts in detail. Making my own versions of these things started not quite two years ago and the reaction from the internets was so wonderful that it spurred me on to do more. I'm a SysAdmin at work, it's a career were the best you can be is invisible--and I'm pretty good at it, so Steampunk Contrapting is a great antidote to that!
Amazon.com: Steampunk is moving out of the nightclubs and into mainstream America. To what would you credit its recent growth in popularity?
Jake von Slatt: It's about romance, passion, and adventure. It has aspects that appeal to everyone, music, fashion, costume, DIY, literature, sculpture and even politics as we use the mirror of the Industrial Revolution to reflect on the Information Age. I understand there's even a cook book in the works.
Amazon.com: Is Steampunk going to eventually fade away? What's next?
Jake von Slatt: Oh it won't fade away, you're forgetting 2015: the Steampunk Singularity, the Clockwork Rapture, the Diamond Age, man! Seriously, its really not new, this DIY ethic and the viewing of the current age through the lens of the past, Steampunk will evolve, and one day the name may change, but at the core is passion, art, and exploration and that will be around as long as we are.