Airship Pirates, Zombie Butlers: Steampunk Adventure and the Perils of Punking

Helena Esser studied Anglophone Literature and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, from which she graduated with a BA thesis on retrofuturist feminism in steampunk literature and an MA thesis on female identity in WW1 memoirs. She is currently busy trying to coordinate her many research interests, which include steampunk subculture, cityscapes, cyborgs, and airship pirates, Ouida, WW1 history, Terry Pratchett, and cyberpunk. You can find her on Twitter @EsserHelena

In my series about steampunk, I have outlined the steampunk aesthetic and its inner workings, investigated why steampunks think building a house on wheels can save the future, and examined in which way popular steampunk novels can re-imagine the nineteenth century. In today’s post, I want to try and zoom in on the ‘punking’ and take a closer look at steampunk film and music in order to examine in which way the idea of ‘adventure’ inspires steampunk creations.

As we have already seen, steampunk tends to re-imagine the Victorian age as a time of romance and adventure, which might be owed to the vivid and varied cultural legacy it can draw upon: a literary that includes industrial novels, the Bildungsroman, urban Gothic, supernatural fiction, or the detective novel, a long list of paintings and artworks, inventions displayed at global exhibitions, fashion journals and society papers, expeditions, colonial wars, scientific discourse about biology, geology, or anthropology. Even these few examples illustrates why the Victorian age provides so many intersections for speculative and alternative histories, but there is also something more elusive which fuels steampunk: a perceived sense of enthusiasm about discovery. Of course this might be something we tend to read into an age that was certainly also coined by fervent discourse and complex political stances, but the fact remains that steampunk revels in a sense of wonder about a world  still has wonders to disclose, as opposed by a world mapped by satellite that (we feel) has been explored to the last corner and no longer holds any surprises.

A good example in this case is the League of S.T.E.A.M., (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management), a Californian performance art group who produces a youtube web series. As the ‘Steampunk Ghostbusters’, they investigate ghosts, goblins and vampires, curses, mummies, dinosaurs, werewolves, werewolves, zombies, and all sorts of supernatural shenanigans. It is directly evident that in doing so, the League also draws on a broader cultural history which includes pulp adventures and 21st century adventure films, such as the Indiana Jones or The Mummy franchises. Themes and tropes instinctively familiar to a contemporary audience are consciously translated back into a humorous steampunk setting. The League is certainly worth a closer look.

Founded by gentleman adventurer Crackitus Potts, the League counts among its members Lady Ameliorette Potts, Tactical Coordination Specialist, aristocratic zombie hunters, Old West inspired Lycanthrope Disposal Specialist Jasper Mooney, vampire hunters, archivists with ties to secret societies, or twin valets Thaddeus and Zeddediah, the latter of which is a domesticated zombie. Their equipment includes a Phantom Eradication Apparatus that can ‘dissolve the phantasms’ ghostly shroud, leaving a pile of ectoplasmic goo behind’, the EVP-R2, ‘a top secret project out of Edison Industries’ that detects supernatural activity, or an Undead Domestication Collar that feeds an important serum to zombie valet ‘Zed’. There is also a large caliber plunge, a vampire hunting kit, a flame thrower, a Short Range Jump Pack, and a Falsities and Anomalalies Detector that is based on the ‘research and innovations of Professor Voight and Doctor Kampff’ (an allusion to Blade Runner).

During their adventures, they encounter artifacts from ancient cultures, mummy curses, demonic possessions, voodoo, a giant kraken, or swamp creatures – folkloric or supernatural creatures that encode the world as an inherently wondrous place which the League, armed with a scientific enthusiasm as yet uncontaminated by the disenchantment of the atomic age, attempts to understand. However, as we have already seen, their adventures also allude to and presuppose an understanding of other intertexts as well. For example, in ‘Curses!’, Crackitus and friend finds out that the inscription on an ancient Scarab is a curse, not the Vulcan salute ‘live long and prosper’, and in ‘Bitter Gnomes and Gardens’, Ellie and Coyote encounter evil garden gnomes that behave like the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who. Other episodes allude to nineteenth century intertexts such as Well’s Invisible Man or Shelley’s Frankenstein’s creature, but draw equally from their portrayals in 1930s films.

This episode features Star Trek’s tribbles, a ‘How I Did It’ manual by a certain V. Frankenstein that might be an allusion to Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, and a hand in formaldehyde that must have belonged to the Tenth Doctor (as well as a beautiful steampunk laboratory). ‘Beauty and the Beasts’ shows Crackitus and Coyote trying to “earn – I mean, learn a lot from” teaching a recently unfrozen ‘cavewoman’ how to be civilized in a modern, steampunk world. This re-telling of My Fair Lady (which in turn relies on Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion) comes with a soundtrack about ‘the rain in spain’, but unlike in the musical, things do not go as planned: Initial successes in steampunk dress, etiquette and manners (no steampunk without afternoon tea), spelling, and advanced chemistry end with fire and defeat: “Sir, she stabbed me in the hand with a fork. Granted, it was the correct fork, but that’s beside the point.”

Here we see how steampunk synthesizes Victorian intertexts and popular adventure tropes, and re-projects these ideas into an alternative setting that can set up different story lines because it offers different codes of conduct, values, or technical opportunities. The League of S.T.E.A.M. understands steampunk as an opportunity for stories about curiosity, wonder, exploration and speculation that are fun precisely because they could – and frequently do – end in disaster.

The idea of danger and exploration certainly also fuels the HMS Ophelia, an airship on which the steampunk personas of Seattle-based band Abney Park sail through the skies. In their music, which is influenced by EDM, electro swing, gypsy rock or industrial, as well as on stage, Abney Park perform the story of a crew of airship pirates who travel through a fantastic, post-apocalyptic world populated by floating cities, neobedouins, industrial cities, mad scientists, and automata and a such inspired by a Victorian aesthetic. Their story is expanded in a series of novels and a roleplaying game. The band’s costumes and steampunked instruments are also part of this cross-media saga, in which the pirates, while of ambiguous morals (‘We’re the terror of the skies, but a danger to ourselves now’) frequently assist disenfranchised people. As rogues with a heart of gold, Captain Robert and friends discover the dangerous post-apocalyptic world and rebel against oppressive systems, and can therefore serve as an example of how steampunk may use adventure re-imagine ideas about freedom, rebellion, or injustice.

While both Abney Park and the League of S.T.E.A.M. are examples of good-humoured, fun steampunk adventures, they also show that tropes concerning discovery depend heavily on perspective, especially because both groups illustrate that steampunk tends to be a white, middle-class, Western-centric phenomenon. This does not mean it is not an inclusive or open-mined scene: steampunk participation is not restricted to a particular age-group, gender, or ethnicity. In addition, because of its technofantastical enthusiasm for invention and gadgetry, steampunk can easily include people with disabilities, for example with steam-powered wheelchairs. However, re-imagining the nineteenth century just seems a lot more appealing to those form whom history was ‘more fun’.

Steampunks are largely aware of this: ‘Steampunk’s romance with the past can be dangerous’, writes James Carrott, ‘It’s altogether too easy to become an unwilling accomplice in the crimes of the past. History has sharp edges.’ Re-imagining the nineteenth century, on however speculative terms, means inevitably importing implications about empire, oppression and exploitation. This means that ideas about ‘adventure’ also echo with the othering and plunder of foreign cultures, that ‘exploration’ often carried with it colonization. Imperialism, as Carrott states, ‘provided fuel for adventure, grist for glorious penny dreadful and dime novel tales, and it gloried in scientific romance.’ He calls this ‘steampunk’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness’, and asks steampunks to ‘punk responsibly’.

As a retrofuturist aesthetic, steampunk can integrate progressive and inclusive perspectives into its re-stagings – and it should seize this opportunity. As Jamee Goh explains, punking the past means ‘pushing a re-set button on that era. Can we re-set this era?’ It includes the possibility to craft alternative pasts as resistance origin myths that challenge dominant histories, because in their alternatives timelines, power is up for grabs. As Diana M. Pho states, ‘steampunk as an ideology transgresses temporalities in order to question historical parallels’ and ‘explore the complicated intersections of racial and national hybridity, fracturing any notions of a homogeneous national culture and dismantling historical narratives.’ This, as China Miéville observes, opens up possibilities for ‘queer steampunk, steampunk of colour, anti-imperialist steampunk, feminist steampunk’ – and steampunk are, as we have seen, working on feminist and, to a degree, anti-imperialist steampunk. In addition, projects like Go’s Silver Goggles or Pho’s Beyond Victoriana aim to focus on non-Western steampunk in order to ‘seek out and foster, however, a greater communication about the sociopolitical issues that pervade steampunk’ and to reflect, ‘through thought and example, how steampunk’s definition can be expanded so that it, like all forms of worthwhile creativity, can be reflective of the entire scope of the human experience.’ Recognizing that ‘steampunk provides the artistic license for people of color to transmute traumatic cultural histories onto an empowering subculture identity, and artistic/political survival strategy method that bell hooks emphazises as “speaking from the margins”’, some artists have embarked on re-imaginations centered on African and African American perspectives. These they have called ‘steamfunk’. However, in the endevaour to re-claim historical territories and re-stage Victorian adventures, as in post-colonial discourse at large, perspective is a sensitive factor: ‘I feel like these [symbols of oppression] can be re-claimed’ says Claire Hummel, ‘but it’s not necessarily my place as a privileged white woman to reclaim them.’

We can see that punking the past and the perils thereof are being discussed by many steampunks, and that a perceived Victorian sense of adventure can be mobilized to re-imagine a world that is wondrous and exciting because it holds possibilities for exploration, rebellion, heroism, but also failure. We have seen that steampunk can be a fun way of re-imagining pop culture, and that its inspirations are not limited to the Victorian age. We have, however, also seen that this good-humoured re-staging can be more appealing for people belonging to a white middle-class, and that steampunk’s idea of adventure is not always harmless. As an aesthetic and an ideology, however, steampunk also includes the opportunities to challenge and re-write dominant histories and include a multitude of perspectives. Whether to re-discover a more exciting relationship with technology, the world, or pop culture, or to subvert the ideologies accompanying Victorian ‘adventure’ – punking the past is best done responsibly.

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