I am still basking in the afterglow of my first trip to Teslacon, a wonderful annual Steampunk convention in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an immersive experience, with nearly all 1,200 guests dressing and participating for the entire time and following along with the story of the convention. People showed off their gorgeous and creative costumes, contraptions, accessories, makeup, music, and literature. I attended panel discussions on subject ranging from Victorian shaving and cosmetics to inclusion of trans-gendered, intersex, gender-queer, and other non-traditional sexual identities in the Steampunk community.
My friends at Terra Mysterium also performed a new show called The Clockwork Prince, weaving together the legends of King Arthur with the courtship of Victoria and Albert with our favorite time-traveling mage Professor Marius Mandagore as a guide. The show was delightful, as all their shows are.
Now that I have been involved with Steampunk for a couple years and have a greater sense it, I must confess that I had once had a doubt (commonly expressed by casual observers). I wondered if Steampunk is ultimately about a gorgeous aesthetic and doesn’t have a deeper meaning. One friend recently referred to Teslacon as a triumph of style over substance, and an impenetrable LARP.
With time and experience, I have grown to understand what lies deeper in Steampunk, and it resonates with a spirit of independence and creativity that I love.
Terra Mysterium and The Owen Society make a link that is explicit between the Steampunk aesthetic and its relevance. At every meeting of the The Owen Society, Professor Mandragore gives an introduction about Steampunk and the Society’s particular interpretation. We are inspired by the Victorian geniuses that came before us, but we re-tool the stories and trappings to a modern age and find something that’s an antidote to the soulless modern mechanical age.
Since I have also been thinking about my own spiritual path, I realized the great intersection of Steampunk and modern Paganism is that they allow us to create our own story to shape our lives. We are informed and inspired by the past, but we don’t need to follow “follow the book”. We don’t need to understand ourselves as Sinners and one of the Sheep of the Flock as in Christianity. We don’t need to understand ourselves as Consumers as defined by our current version of mass market capitalism.
We don’t need to slavishly follow stylistic limitations based on specific historical periods like historical re-enactors. We won’t be judged by how closely we imitate characters from a particular film, TV show or comic book. As Lord Bobbins, the guiding star of Teslacon, said “Steampunks don’t owe Lucasfilm anything, because we made our fandom.” (as quoted by Lisa Walker England)
We are the Makers. We are the Storytellers. We can dress as high priests today and rogues tomorrow. We can shape our own gender identities. We can wear ridiculous hats and jet packs. I may not sew my own clothes or weld metal gadgets (yet), but I am daring to wear a different style of clothes and act a little differently. I can make friends with a variety of unique and interesting people and go to unusual events. I am beginning to write my own story.
I have a friend who has the habit of proclaiming every few months for the past couple years that “Steampunk is dead”, usually in reaction to some silly person wanting to paste a “Steampunk” style into their music video/TV show/iPhone app and, predictably, the result looks a bit stilted and weak. He isn’t attracted by the aesthetic (which is fine) and, in truth, he’s a grumpy and rather mean-spirited person most of the time (which is less fine, but I’m hardly going change that). What he is missing is that attempts at layering Steampunk style onto mainstream products will never really be Steampunk. Mass produced brass-painted plastic ray guns aren’t Steampunk. A pop star whose music and image is composed by a committee of corporate executives to appeal to a particular demographic will never be Steampunk.
Steampunk is alive and well, my misguided friend, and I am very thankful for it!