I’ve just come home from my second trip to Steampunk at the Asylum, an annual steampunk convention held in the lovely city of Lincoln. It’s a marvellous occasion stuffed with eccentrics in the grandest British tradition: dressing up like characters from a Victorian science fiction novel, obsessing about tea and politeness, and parading round town confusing the locals with glee.
It’s also a subculture which is increasingly fascinating me as a phenomenon in its own right. I discovered the Asylum online in time to attend last year’s event, and instantly loved it simply for the costuming angle – I’m an inveterate thesp and sartorial eccentric, and have loved dressing up since I was a child. The more I discover about the culture that’s evolving out of it, though, the more I think it’s doing something genuinely unique.
The term “steampunk” was coined as an ironic take on ‘cyberpunk’ and originated as a name for an emerging literary genre in the 80s and early 90s. Over time the genre acquired all the usual trappings of a popular flight of imagination – tabletop roleplaying games, local groups of enthusiasts, costumers and prop-makers – and it now seems to be snowballing into a subculture proper.
What fascinates me is that it’s remarkably distinct from most other subcultures I’ve experienced. As a teenager I was into rock and metal and as a student in the late 1990s I was a goth; by association I’ve gained insights into cultures like the original version of punk and the many-coloured BDSM world. What strikes me most about steampunk in comparison to all these is how unlike them it is. Steampunk isn’t merely about a shared love of a genre of music – in fact, steampunk music is almost defined by its eclecticism, varying from wildly talented comic punk to Sabbath-esque classic metal to lush, folk-influenced Victorian macabre and satirical chap-hop. It’s not about hedonism in the way goth and BDSM are. My memories of the Whitby goth weekend are mostly characterised by endless hangovers, leather restraints as fashion accessories, stiletto heels getting stuck between century-old cobblestones, and once receiving a death threat from a girl in a lycra catsuit for touching her boyfriend’s hairstyle. Almost all the goths I knew were in their 20s or 30s; the older generations sported poignantly ironic “Sad Old Goth” T-shirts, available at the annual market. The attendees at this year’s Asylum ranged in age from eight to eighty and were of all shapes, sizes and races (I knew exactly one non-white goth in my entire time in the culture); there were several wheelchair and cane users present as well, and unless I miss my guess a couple of visible trans people too. I find that degree of inclusiveness wonderfully refreshing – so many other subcultures are dominated by affluent white twentysomethings and preoccupied with the ever ephemeral “cool”.
There’s the breathtaking creativity of the scene. The number of beautiful props and costumes on display was astounding, and there’s a strong vein of beautifying the functional in the aesthetic; one gent who attended Saturday’s attempt to break the world record for the largest gathering of steampunks was entertaining the queue with a beautifully steampunked portable musical machine, mounted in a leather case as gentle classical tones poured out of an array of glistening chrome funnels.
And then there’s the way the attending steampunks behave. The organisers of Asylum have a catchphrase that goes “Be splendid!” – and people do. Locals ask if you’d mind posing for a photo rather than just snapping you (usually after asking for an explanation of what on earth they’ve just walked into the middle of, bless their hearts); press photographers are strongly encouraged to come in Victorian costume and ejected if they misbehave. Seeing this, it occurs to me to wonder what the ‘punk’ in steampunk really means.
Back in the 1970s, punk was a conscious rejection of the repressive behavioural norms of the day – a bitter blow to the already crumbling hold of old-fashioned standards on society. Forty years later we live in the age of the ASBO and the reality-show celebrity, and people are wandering around in public in their pyjamas; perhaps there was a baby in the bathwater of propriety after all, and perhaps steampunks, underneath the gentle self-parody and Utopian fantasism, are also conscious of that in some way. In our quest for freedom we’ve created a world where fame is arbitrary rather than based on skill and achievement, where standards of public dress and behaviour are at an all-time low, everything’s a cheap commodity and rudeness is almost cool in its own right – so what’s punk now, in a world where everyone acts like Sid Vicious? In such an inverted reality, does it become ‘punk’ to subvert the dominant cultural norm by being more polite, more well-dressed, more creative?
Personally, I look at modern Pagans, sustainable living nuts and the many small-scale attempts to find an alternative economic model to capitalism that go on in the subcultural holes and corners of Britain, and I think that looking for the good in our own ancient history could well be a form of rebellion in a very temporal world. My flatmate and I have both acknowledged the faint unease that goes along with wearing fantastified Victorian costume – the consciousness that Britain’s age of empire was a brutal time for anyone not lucky enough to be one of Her Majesty’s own – but it was also a time of hope and innovation. Victorians thought in a way that at times completely ignored the confines of our own soggy island and the facts of the physical world as they seemed to be laid out at the time; many of their engineering creations endure to this day and have inspired generations. That spirit of determination and positive change is something I seek for throughout my life, and I certainly hope to honour the idea in whatever steampunk creations I come up with over time.
The Asylum is now in its fourth year and growing every time. Human nature loves to complain and there’s a certain degree of grousing among the “old guard” about the dilution and cheapening of the ethos (although steampunks even complain in style), but I for one am keen to learn, and look forward to the opportunity to get to know some of that old guard.
Photography: myself and Martin Strain.