Steampunk Defined: A Chat With Expert Kim Burk
When you hear the term "steampunk," what comes to mind? Clockwork? A mass of cogs and wheels? Gear and goggles? Maybe all of that with a slight Victorian slant? What about steampunk as a literary genre, then? Well, fret no more, I have the answers. Well, not me exactly, but my dear friend, Kim Burk, who just so happens to be an expert on the subject. I asked her some questions about this recently and her answers are truly enlightening.
Q. Steampunk can be so many things, but you actually did your thesis on it and worked for steampunk artist Bruce Rosenbaum – so what's your expert definition of it?
A. For those who have never heard the term at all or have no associations with it, I usually start by saying that it’s an aesthetic or contemporary subculture based on Victorian Science fiction. Then introduce the concept of retrofuturism. But even more than that, it's a look, an approach to fashion that draws on an imaginal realm that is based on the elevation of curiosity, elegance and ‘what if’ in that literary genre. That’s the abstract answer but when I mention movies like Hugo, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Wild, Wild West, and Howl's Moving Castle, people often get a clearer sense of it even though it’s hard to articulate precisely what it is.
Steampunk has been around for quite some time and was visually introduced to audiences by Disney’s release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. One of the modern literary touchstones of genre is The Difference Engine by William Gibson (though K.W. Jeter coined the term first in the novel Infernal Devices). It’s a genre that plays with the tension of opposites which has been drawn on for years in a small way. It was in the mid-aughts that I started seeing it become a prominent visual presence in craft, DIY, and maker circles. It seemed to speak directly to the very glossy, garish, mass-produced "ipodified" nature of objects at the time that was fashionable.
This is how I defined it in my thesis:
“Steampunk is an aesthetic and expressive movement based on the speculative and science fiction of the late 20th century; alternate history fantasy of “gaslight London” or any variety of speculative realms with a retrofuturist touch. Steampunking is the craft of taking modern technology affecting or re-imagining the piece with Edwardian/Victorian style mixed in with a more rugged sensibility. The culture puts curiosity, benevolence of technology, and using one's own hands and mind above all else. Since steampunk has its tinkerer roots in cyberpunk, there is sometimes a thread of dystopian, post-apocalyptic self-reliance to the aesthetic. A particular thread that is best represented in the creativity and utility of those in the Burner culture and the industrial Victoriana look.
What makes steampunk particularly fun and important to study is how diverse the range of expressions are. It's in comics, games, wearable art, industrial sculpture, literature, design, stage/performance. In this way steampunk is as much an approach as it is a 'style.' The essence of steampunk is more than sepia, gears and goggles – it is redefined and reimagined by the community through each invention or creation.”
Q. How were you first introduced to steampunk and what about it appeals to you?
A. Honestly, I was shopping online for alternative clothes and accessories and the search terms I was using seemed to bring up steampunk items. There were a ton of blogs and shops that popped up. I found that when I searched for steampunk I came across many intricate, handmade, gorgeous, cleverly designed, repurposed things, and I had to learn more. This would have been around 2007-8. I had heard the term before then, but it never made a huge impression on me. However, many of my friends who are into sci-fi and voracious readers were seeing some great books come out just around that time in the genre.
Q. The steampunk community can be a hodgepodge of sorts. What do you love most about it?
A. The way that steampunk holds the tension of opposites and creates new possibilities. It reimagines the world that was, or the one that is and presents how it could be. It does it with hope, with curiosity, with ingenuity and a blend of elegance and elbow grease.
Q. Within the steampunk world, are you more passionate about the literature, the music, or the art?
A. I’m more of a student of the subculture than a creator or contributor to the community. That said I am truly awestruck by the objects (art and fashion) that people make truly out of whole cloth and the whimsy of their imagination. The way that people aspire to decorate their home – or themselves – to emulate a future that never was is just a fascinating expression of creativity to my mind. It’s a way of manifesting beauty, positivity, and creativity that really resonates with me.
Q. What's your favorite steampunk read?
A. I’ve started more books than I’ve finished but I did like Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia. I always recommend The Difference Engine and Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter.
Q. What's your favorite steampunk band?
A. I don’t really think that steampunk is an apt label for music nor translates to a music genre as well as it does into comics, games, wearable art, industrial sculpture, literature, design, stage/performance. That said, the band/musical artist that best captures what I like about the steampunk philosophy is HUMANWINE. Holly Brewer is an impeccable musician and has created an immersive world with her music, art, design and performance.
Q. When I first explained the premise of The Vitruvian Heir to you – particularly that it was a future world that had unraveled as it is now, but then morphed into a dictatorial monarchy with an emperor who returned everything to the Victorian/Edwardian era – you remarked that it was a non-traditional setup. What about that makes The Vitruvian Heir unique from other works in the genre?
A. From the description of the plot, the book sounds like a feminist dystopian novel more in the vein of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or possibly Octavia Butler though her writing used science fiction as a mode of making social commentary. Steampunk more often focuses on the ‘future that never was’ or the possibilities in the mind of adventurers, explorers, and scientists of the late Victorian Era. Also, many steampunk novels rely quite heavily on the conflict of ‘man and machine’ or the crisis between technology and nature. There is usually fantasy, technology, adventure, and some romance. It’s less common to set up a dystopia that takes the regressive parts of Victorian culture; steampunk in its essence celebrates the progress and possibility of the time. That said, the genre is always evolving and is nothing if not inclusive.
Q. Some say the steampunk movement fluctuates in popularity and even with more recent shows like West World, it has never fully become mainstream. What do you think of this?
A. In 2020, I’m not sure what it means to be "mainstream" since we are each on our own individual frequencies curated by Youtube, Amazon, Spotify, etc. I think that steampunk is quite well known and has had a long run and will continue to be important specifically because it is elusive and slippery; it is many things to many people. The fact that I can say the word steampunk to most anyone and, with a few cultural touchstones, they know exactly what I mean, shows to me that it is a popularly understood phenomenon if not a cultural tidal wave. For me, when I saw a steampunk coloring book in Michael’s (the craft store) that was when I considered it pretty mainstream.
Q. Last question – if you had a steampunk name, what would it be?
A. I think I would actually like to be Ada Lovelace -- great name and even more exciting historical figure.