One of the most interesting panels at this year's Readercon was an exploration of the steampunk design movement, as it emerged into the mainstream with May's New York Times Style article. Writer/puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal, YA fantasy novelist Holly Black, Tor editor Liz Gorinsky, and speculative fiction writer Sarah Micklem gathered to show off their steampunk creations, discuss steampunk's literary origins, share their favorite steampunk websites ... and, of course, to design a Gibson chair for the fannish masses.
As with every genre, there are purists of steampunk — those who insist that if it ain't steam and it ain't punk, it doesn't count (Catherynne Valente is, famously, one of them). Since this style reached the mainstream, however, it became something much broader. At its heart, Kowal and Gorinsky noted, steampunk represents a literary fascination with the past, a desire to bring beauty and care into a seemingly rushed and impersonal modern life. Black called it "decorating like your subgenre," being brave enough to fashion your home and possessions like the fiction of your dreams. It's about individualism and originality: By the time mass-produced, identical steampunk shirts hit Hot Topic, much of the movement's essence will be lost.
In the panelists' view, steampunk also denotes a nostalgia for the days of simple inventions. In the Victorian era, it was possible to look at a typewriter or a sewing machine and divine its purpose from its appearance. No one who still wears a cummerbund could figure out the function of an iPod that way. The exposed gears and bolts of a steampunk machine gives us the illusion that we know how it works, and that we could build one ourselves given the time. Steampunk is the old-fashioned gadgetry to the modern world's newfangled technology.
With that in mind, the panel shared their favorites of the steampunk design movement. They hailed creator Jake von Slatt of the Steampunk Workshop — rightly so, for his steampunk Stratocaster is not to be missed. Also mentioned were the blogs Steampunk Home (I want that rococo outlet multiplier) and Brass Goggles. Though it's not really steampunk design, Black couldn't resist a shout-out to Gothic Martha Stewart either; really, who could?
No steampunk panel would be complete without the revelation of secret art projects by its members. Holly Black was the first to admit to using steampunk design in the renovation of her house, and Mary Robinette Kowal achieved BoingBoing fame a few years ago for her steampunk laptop, but this was the first time anyone had seen Sarah Micklem's objet d'art. It was handmade ... from a piece of leather and two human finger bones. She wouldn't reveal their origin. She did, however, take part in the design of a "Gibson chair," named both for iconic art character the Gibson girl and cyberpunk author William Gibson.
Here are the decided-upon elements of a Gibson chair:
- made out of leather, brass, wood
- steam-powered (possibly featuring an attached "steam jet pack"?)
- steam-heated (or steam-cooled, in the summer)
- very comfortable (mahogany and velvet pads, like an unusually indulgent dentist's chair)
- featuring gears and clockwork
- revolves 360 degrees
- has attached flutter-valve for gentle vibration
- has attached "brain in a jar" for mad scientist purposes
- has attached vampire ray gun for cross-genre purposes
Go forth and create, io9ers! I can bet you someone from that panel will pay you big bucks for such a stylish seat.
Image by Sam Van Olffen.