An inventor who goes by the name Datamancer has modified his laptop so that its popular qualities — light, thin, resistant to falls — are lost. But something even more wondrous has emerged. Datamancer’s laptop is completely encased in mahogany-stained pine, like a Victorian music box, resting on clawed brass feet. Leather patches set with handmade brass tacks serve as wrist wrests, and the keyboard consists of typewriter keys. To boot it up, you must wind a key.
If you ask Datamancer why he would bother to do such a thing, he would give you a simple answer. It’s all for the love of steampunk.
Steampunk has its roots in science fiction literature, where it describes a corner of the genre obsessed with Victoriana and the idea that the computer age evolved alongside the industrial. Steampunk stories, which started appearing with regularity in the 1980s, eschew clean and orderly visions of the future in favor of gas-lighted streets, steam engines belching toxic smoke, and dastardly villains inventing strange technologies. Dirigibles rule the air, and the upper classes employ clockwork servants to serve their meals.
In the past two years, though, steampunk has emerged in the real world, as Datamancer and a growing number of enthusiasts build steampunk objects and then share photos of them on the Internet. One of the first was the appearance last summer of a group of robots designed by the San Francisco Bay Area artist I-Wei Huang: They look like 19th-century locomotives with legs and are literally steam powered. This year alone has produced steampunk watches from Japan (bizarre assemblages of rusted brass, cracked leather, and antique watch faces) and a steampunk tree house (a steaming metal tree that houses a main room with all manner of secret compartments and drawers) at the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. There is even steampunk fashion, such as a combination dress/overalls adorned with gears and belt loops for every lady’s steampunk tools.
In their embrace of the toothy cog and the sooty pipe, this guild of steampunk hackers represents a rebellion of sorts against our iPhone moment. In all of our new technology there is nothing lasting to appreciate: Each new version is obsolescent the moment it appears. We have museums dedicated to preserving steam engines and mechanical watches. It’s hard to imagine a future museum preserving every example of Blackberry. What we want to preserve about technology also becomes a reflection of what is human about it, the spirit of invention and craftsmanship. No one would suggest that the iPhone isn’t a marvel, but there’s something vaguely alienating about a device that doesn’t allow users to replace their own batteries. And why bother? You’ll toss it with the rest when the new model appears.
“The iPhone might be sleek and well-designed within its mode, but there’s no way it can compete in luxe qualities with some Victorian equivalent,” said author Paul Di Filippo, the first to use the term “steampunk” in a title of a book, The Steampunk Trilogy. Steampunk “embodies both handicraft and mass-production elements in a rich visual vocabulary totally lacking in today’s plastic, cheap-jack gadgets.”
The term “steampunk” is a play on cyberpunk, a type of near-future science fiction where rebellious hackers use handmade tech to wage virtual warfare with corporations and governments.
These steampunk engineers are also part of a broader surge in the do-it-yourself mind-set, fueled by the sharing spirit of the Web. There is a punk ethos to the social communities of today’s Web, in which users are trying to wrest content away from the marketers and commercial media.
There is here a deep historical connection to the spirit of Victorian invention, Di Filippo says. During the Victorian era, the amateur could still compete with the professional in a number of crafts. It was a time when naturalists and other nonprofessional scientists were responsible for amassing important collections of biological specimens and for naming a number of asteroids and stars.
“The entirety of knowledge could be almost apprehended by a single individual,” says Di Filippo. “There were still frontiers. There were fewer laws and governing bodies. Who wouldn’t want all of those things back?”
The influence on steampunk literature goes as far back as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but those authors can’t really be considered steampunk because they were writing about their own era. Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, Lord Kelvin’s Machine by James P. Blaylock, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy are often cited as the central steampunk novels. In The Difference Engine, the visionary artist William Blake gives Powerpoint presentations using a kind of magnetic tile device. In a novel released this year, Jay Lake’s Mainspring, the sun revolves around the earth along a system of celestial gears.
Yet steampunk has also evolved as an aesthetic unto itself, drawing on a number of diverse references. Goth, which has its own anachronistic sensibility, borrowing heavily from Victorian styles such as corsets, offers an early glimpse of steampunk. Punk lent elements of leather and metal, as well as the DIY attitude. The film Brazil is of particular inspiration, where technology looks like junk, and the rebel fights against a technocratic authority. But one of the most important influences has to be Japanese animation, or anime, which is replete with images of mechanical robots, neo-Zeppelin starships, goggle-wearing hackers, and the melding of the techno with the organic.
Steampunk is a backlash to the sameness of design. In Victorian times, decoration was integrated with the form and the function. Individual components were beautiful.
Excerpted from Boston Globe