Steampunk drives new science fiction genre

photo Arthur Hinds talks about costuming in the "steampunk" fashion, which combines Victorian-era clothing with steam engine-inspired gadgetry.

STEAMPUNK POP CULTUREThink you've missed out on steampunk? If you've watched any of these movies, think again:• "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1988)• "Back to the Future Part III" (1990)• "Wild Wild West" (1999)• "Sleepy Hollow" (1999)• "The League of Extra-ordinary Gentlemen" (2003)• Howl's Moving Castle" (2004)• "Steamboy" (2004)• "Van Helsing" (2004)• "The Brothers Grimm" (2005)• "Stardust" (2007)• "9" (2009)• "Sherlock Holmes"/ "Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows" (2009/2011)• "The Three Musketeers" (2011)If you've played any of the following video games, you have encountered steampunk:• "Final Fantasy VI" (1994)• "Wild Arms" (1997)• "Thief: The Dark Project"/ "Thief II: The Metal Age" (1998/2000)• "Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura" (2001)• "Dark Cloud II" (2003)• "Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends" (2003)• "Steambot Chronicles" (2005)• "Torchlight"/"Torchlight II" (2009/2012)• "Fable III" (2010)• "Dishonored" (2012)• "BioShock Infinite" (2013 -- anticipated)

One of the advantages of flying a zeppelin is that no one hears you coming.

Like the inflatable airships that frequently appear in its stories, the alternate history genre of steampunk quietly has been sneaking into more and more books, video games, movies and fan conventions in recent years.

Steampunk, which offers a reimagined take on the 19th century, has been around for decades, but the genre has been showing up in unexpected places lately.

"Every time you think steampunk has gone away, it gets stronger," said Daniel Valdez, 29, a steampunk costume artist and smart-home designer from Huntsville, Ala.

"It transcends not just age groups but cultures, too," he said. "It can fit into anyone's love of sci-fi."

On June 12, classic rock band Rush released "Clockwork Angels," a concept project that tells the story of a young man's adventures in a steampunk-inspired world. In 2010, ABC comedy-drama "Castle" aired "Punked," an episode that focused on the genre's underground popularity in New York City.

In 2004, Susanna Clarke's steampunk novel, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," about a return of magic to Victorian England, was named Time Magazine's Best Fiction Book of the Year. Clarke's novel reached the No. 3 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, on which it remained for 11 weeks.

In the last two years, steampunk fashion shows have been held everywhere from Austin, Texas, to Somerset, N.J. Exhibitions of steampunk artwork have been shown at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, U.K., and the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Mass.

A future that never happened

Steampunk borrows elements such as fantastic voyages, mad scientists and automatons from early science fiction and gothic horror authors such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mary Shelley.

The term originated in 1987 in a letter from author K.W. Jeter to Locus Magazine to describe his books, and those by Tim Powers and James Blaylock, that dealt with anachronistic technology and alternate history. Although it was a play-on-words of the sci-fi subgenre "cyberpunk," the name stuck.

Like science fiction, steampunk stories can take place in imaginary locales but most of them warp the real world of the 19th century -- usually beyond recognition.

The Civil War might never have happened, or it might have continued for decades. Clockwork robots could be expanding the British empire while escaped Afro-Caribbean slaves smuggle contraband in dirigibles. An alien invasion of London might be repelled by an army of steam-powered tanks.

Ultimately, steampunk is a chance to treat history as a playground, said Cherie Priest, an author of steampunk novels who went to school in Chattanooga, moved to Seattle and recently returned to St. Elmo.

"It's really a lot of fun," Priest said. "I tell people that really the only rule to it is that if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong."

'I know it when i see it'

HOW TO TELL IF IT'S STEAMPUNKHaving trouble deciding if something qualifies as steampunk? Here's a handy guide to some of the genre's most distinguishing features:Setting: Steampunk storylines take place in either fictionalized or alternate versions of real-world locations during a period roughly paralleling the reign of the United Kingdom's Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The social mores also reflect those of the period (colonialism, empirical expansion, class warfare).Costumes: Steampunk characters' clothing also mirrors the Victorian era, featuring frequent use of leather and metal accents. Recurring items include waistcoats, vests, dusters, trench coats, bow ties, chokers, gloves, boots, corsets, long skirts, goggles, fob watches and derby, bowler and top hats.Technology: Steampunk is based in and around the Industrial Revolution and often includes interpretations of modern devices using 19th-century parts. Common tropes include clockwork robots, steam-powered and coal-powered vehicles, airships (zeppelins or dirigibles) and the use of rudimentary electricity similar to the work of Nikola Tesla.Magic: Some steampunk stories incorporate a system of magic similar to that used in high fantasy works such as J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," but it is entirely absent in many storylines.

The downside to being a relatively young genre is that steampunk doesn't yet have an iconic work such as "Star Wars," or "The Lord of the Rings" to define itself to non-enthusiasts.

Steampunk stories often feature similar hallmarks -- characters in Victorian garb, airship pirates, 19th-century interpretations of modern technology -- but the genre is still defining itself, Priest said.

"People tend to [describe] it like the old adage about pornography that, 'I know it when I see it,' " she said, laughing. "We're working on getting our icons and myths together.

"Steampunk is still looking for archetypes in some respects."

The genre soon may receive a touchstone in a film adaptation of Priest's 2009 novel "Boneshaker" about a fictionalized zombie outbreak in Civil War-era Seattle. The novel nominated in 2010 for the Hugo Award for Best Novel and won the 2010 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

The rights to the adaptation were acquired by Cross Creek Pictures ("Black Swan") and classic U.K. horror movie house Hammer Films. The script has been penned by John H. Shepherd, a writer for HBO's "Nurse Jackie."

In 2010, producer/director J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek," "Cloverfield") acquired the rights to the steampunk graphic novel, "Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel." The book depicts the exploits of the world's first robot who -- among other things -- fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and journeyed to the South Pole.

"I hope that it's either 'Boilerplate' or 'Boneshaker' that people point at and go, 'Steampunk looks like that,'" Priest said.

In 2006, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that "King Kong" and "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson had optioned the rights to adapt Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" series to film. Novik's six novels reimagine how the Napoleonic Wars might have progressed with the addition of dragons and airships on both sides of the conflict.

A brave new world

Steampunk's fans said one of the advantages of working within a broadly defined aesthetic is that steampunk is more all-inclusive than better-established genres.

Priest is a frequent speaker and guest of honor at fan conventions around the country. In the last couple of years, new ones are cropping up all the time, including ConTemporal, in Chapel Hill, N.C., which she attended in June.

In a normal year, she said, she might attend two or three events. During the last two years, however, she has been to 12-15 steampunk-specific conventions.

"In science fiction, fantasy, horror and goth[ic] communities, generally speaking, the primary demographic is straight, white guys," she said. "Steampunk has a much broader appeal."

For years, many steampunk authors and artists based their work almost exclusively in Victorian Britain, but the genre now increasingly features stories with characters from almost any culture and demographic, Valdez said.

"Sci-fi is usually designed by a master architect, be it George Lucas or H.P. Lovecraft, someone who has created a world," he said. "Steampunk is completely different; the fans create the world.

"Everyone puts their own spin on it and it becomes an accepted part of it. If you want to do Asian- or Indian-style steampunk, it's there. It's a time period that never happened."

Like many steampunk fans, Valdez likes to costume and chose to do a 19th-century interpretation of a modern pop culture figure.

He gained notoriety for his Victorian Professor X from the "X-Men" comics, a costume that included an elaborate "steam-powered" wheelchair. In addition to a decidedly un-steampunk drink dispenser and soundsystem, the chair's extensive modifications include a bronze paint job, "wooden" control panel with golden levers and a working smokestack.

Honeymoon by zeppelin?

Next January, Valdez said he is planning to have a steampunk-themed wedding at the Chattacon fan convention, which he and his fiancee, Pamela Stone, have attended for years.

Valdez said that because both he and his bride-to-be are avid costumers they have been set on the idea of a themed wedding for a long time. And what better place to host a steampunk ceremony than at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, where steam-powered locomotives used to deposit their passengers, he asked?

"We were going to do a plain-Jane wedding because we didn't want to be cheesy with it," he said, "but steampunk is prevalent enough in pop culture right now that it is an acceptable thing even outside the convention crowd."