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What is Steampunk?

Our trusty detective learns about Steampunk and why it's so popular in Salem.

It's time for another addition of You Ask...Patch Answers with Contributor Tyler Twombly.

You may have seen people dressed in clothes out of a Jules Verne novel around the City. You may have also heard the term "Steampunk" thrown around. Who are these people? Why do they dress the way they do? What is Steampunk?

Here is a report from our trusty detective:

Whether you know what “Steampunk” is or not, it is here in Salem and thriving. Steampunk can be described as a style of dress, a way of life, a genre of science-fiction or all of the above.

So-called “Steampunks” enjoy dressing in a way which harkens back to the Victorian era. Also, the vision or imagination of an alternate world history as it pertains to the evolution of technology  is extremely important to this thing called Steampunk.

Patch contributor Tyler Twombly met with three self-proclaimed Salem Steampunks to discuss what exactly Steampunk is, why it is popular in Salem and around the world.

As part of their devotion to “Steampunk," Zachary Gerome Nicastro, Isaiah Max Plovnik and Auriana Jimenes have all taken on special Steampunk personas or characters which they created. It is a form of role-playing. Zachary goes by Litton Guthrie Jackson, Isaiah calls himself Captain Edward Von Arkham (The Mad Hatter) and Auriana likes to be referred to as Else Jørgensdatter.

For the sake of clarity, this article will be referring to these particular Steampunks by their real names. Here is what they had to say.

Can you define “Steampunk” in one sentence?

Zachary Nicastro — [It is] what the past would look like if the future had happened earlier.

Isaiah Plovnick — Steampunk is what happened the first time someone with an imagination dismantled a clock. Some people say it’s when Goths discovered [the color] brown but that’s been disproven. We’re living proof of it. We were never Goths, any of us.

Auriana Jimenes — First of all, I want to say that Steampunk is impossible to define in one sentence,…but I’ll have a go…Technically, where Steampunk comes from is “Victorian era sci-fi” but that term [Victorian era sci-fi] has been used for so many other related genres that nowadays, I would say that most people use “Steampunk” as some sort of anachronistic culture that combines elements of modern society and some society from around the Victorian era.

Why, in your opinion, is Steampunk popular in Salem?

Z.N. — Because people like dressing really nicely.

I.P. — That’s part of it. It really is…I first got into it…I was actually in a play set in Victorian England and doing research. I came upon the word “Steampunk.” I looked it up, fell in love…I think I had been in love with it my entire life but now I had a word for it. I’ve always loved dressing like this [indicating the costume he is wearing]. It’s halfway between magical and science fiction…it’s a blend of art and science. It’s where these two things meet.

A.J. — One of the reasons why I think it’s so popular is that a lot of people today who enjoy the convenience of modern society also find that the way technology developed made it very impersonal and inhumane…Most Steampunks — their characters exist on an alternate timeline where technology developed differently…A lot of Steampunks look at it as putting the soul back into technology where somehow it was lost along the way.

Z.N. — Things like clockwork and steam power…they make sense because they rely on human input.

Is there some kind of rule that every Steampunk has to adopt an alternate persona? Is there some kind of tradition you all are following?

I.P. — That, I think is the most wonderful thing about Steampunk...It has no canon…The closest thing you can get to a Steampunk Canon is the works of H.G. Welles and Jules Verne.

Where can people find Steampunk things in Salem?

Z.N. – has lots of Steampunk things. They sell top hats and derbies and jewelry.

I.P. – The town [Salem] itself is very Steampunk because it is a modern thriving city, but it also has still got that wonderful old-fashioned charm…Cobblestone roads, old buildings, you know, with the plaques.

A.J. - The average Salem resident is Steampunk whether they know about Steampunk or not.

Where can people learn more about Steampunk?

I.P. - Here’s the big plug. There’s a Steampunk website called TheSteampunkEmpire.com.

Z.N. — It’s a Steampunk social networking site.

I.P. — It’s a brilliant way for you to communicate with other Steampunks in your area and across the country and around the world. I’ve got friends in Australia, South Africa and Texas.

For those interested in learning more about Steampunk and Steampunk in Salem check out TheSteamPunkEmpire.com where you can find photos and forums on the subject. You may recognize some faces as well because September 2010 was host to the Steampunk Invasion of Salem, where hundreds of Steampunks from around New England and beyond invaded the city.

Allison Christiansen February 16, 2011 at 05:17 PM
People in Salem should also be aware of the Steampunk meetups in nearby Waltham at the Charles River Museum of Industry (home of Steampunk, Form & Function. CRMI is the first museum in the country to feature an exhibit solely dedicated to the steampunk movement http://www.crmi.org/exhibits/temporary-exhibits-at-crmi/steampunk-form-and-function-an-exhibition-of-innovation-invention-gadgetry/) and the upcoming weekend event Steampunk City http://internationalsteampunkcity.com/ When: May 6-8th, 2011 Where: The whole town of Waltham, Massachusetts Cost: Free to enter the town and experience all manner of grand times! Some individual events, and the Museum festival, are available for either a separate admission, or a suggested donation. Cause: To benefit the Charles River Museum of Industry and its recovery from flood damage; and to create an unforgettably amazing weekend!
Jacquie Valatka February 17, 2011 at 02:53 PM
Jeff Bowie of the Picklepot has fantastic pieces! She is talented and a wonderful person! A visit to her store is well worth the trip!
Zachary February 17, 2011 at 07:02 PM
Well, the word punk, originating as a word for prostitute in the 1500's, developing into meaning criminal or hoodlum, as attested in 1896, and finally settling on a meaning as someone who is "countercultural" or against the norm around 1917. Punk in it's meaning as someone who doesn't fit in with what is considered normal definitely applies to steampunk.
Thomas Vallor February 17, 2011 at 09:14 PM
I mean, "punk" was about a disenfranchised working class rebelling against oppressive authority, not middle-class teenagers from the subburbs dressing in expensive clothing and role playing. Steampunk is creative and interesting, but does nothing to change society. As a subculture it is pretty masturbatory.
Liz April 28, 2011 at 03:06 PM
At the risk of incurring the wrath of many of my friends, I agree in part with Thomas. Though to be fair, it's not just middle-class teenagers - plenty of adults participate in the Steampunk aesthetic (I wouldn't go as far as to call it a movement - like Thomas said, it does nothing to [attempt to] change society, ergo why the "Punk" monkier?). In the name of objectivity, I'll refrain from voicing my personal opinion of Steampunk in general. I'd hesitate to refer to it as a culture. I also need to disagree with Zachary's logic in the interview that Steampower and Clockwork make sense because they rely on human input... Well, so does just about every other bit of technology that humans have developed. On that logic alone, no technology is any better or worse than another -- barring the introduction of other factors into the evaluation (resources used, etc. etc.).

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