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Steampunk, steampunk everywhere

Published

What was once a recondite literary movement in the science-fiction field has blossomed into a popular-culture phenomenon, and as far as I can see it’s done so overnight. When the New York Times starts writing about “steampunk,” you know it’s attracting wider attention, and has probably already passed its peak. Written steampunk took a cyberpunk sensibility and injected it into a substrate of Victorian technology and sartorial style; it married our fascination with the brass-gears science epitomized by the Time Traveler’s machine in the 1960 movie The Time Machine with a noir-ish outsider take on 19th-century society. The extension of this into popular culture has been fun, though often silly. Some of the “steampunk” clothing appearing now just looks like retreads from The Wild, Wild West; and the application of clockwork skins to digital electronics is basically a matter of decoration.

This seems to have gotten up the nose of someone at Design Observer (that design website that I always intend to keep up with, but never do). Randy Nakamura wrote a screed about the humbug of steampunk; I noticed it when Bruce Sterling, who has some implication in the development of steampunk, quoted from it (“Design Observer Hates Steampunk”) and exclaimed, “Man, this is priceless. The backlash has begun!”

But my favorite bit, which makes this worth writing about, is a momentary fantasy that Bruce spun between quotes and comments: “Maybe Randy Nakamura would like ‘steampunk’ better if it was called ‘Eamespunk’ and involved making computers out of bent plywood.”