Steampunk, for those not in the know, is a branch of science fiction that postulates what would have happened if modern or futuristic technology had been created in the past, using the technology and materials available at that time, e.g. steam engines, zeppelins and the like. It’s become a particularly popular subset of science fiction fandom, with many fans creating steampunk-themed outfits and crafts sold online and at shows.
Priest has become one of the most popular authors of steampunk in her “Clockwork Century” series, which began in her award-winning bestseller Boneshaker, about how a massive steam-powered drill unleashes a zombie plague in Civil War-era Seattle.
Priest says that steampunk’s appeal comes from a “perfect storm of pop culture” where people embrace the sense of design and functionality in the old-fashioned technology, as opposed to the sleek, compact style found in Apple-style products. “In that school of design, everything is this sort of pristine, inscrutable box where if you don’t know where to touch it or how to react to it, it might as well be a brick,” Priest says.
“The Victorians, God bless ‘em, thought their technology should be beautiful as well as functional. And we seem to have lost that in the streamlining efforts to make everything look futuristic. I think in one regard, Steampunk is a reaction to that, a way of saying, ‘No, we don’t want something that looks like what everybody else has, that’s flat and inscrutable.’"
So are the fans wearing homemade goggles and railroad pocket watches giving the finger to the iPad?
“I’ll put it this way: If the Victorians made a giant death-ray killing machine, it would look like a giant death-ray killing machine,” Priest says. “It would fill an entire room and have gears and brass and engraving, and would be this enormous, powerful, beautiful-looking thing. If Apple made a giant death ray killing machine, it would look like a button. And I think there’s a sense that something has been lost, and steampunk’s trying to reclaim that a bit.”
Another draw of steampunk, Priest says, is the “appeal of analog.”
“As our technology becomes more and more powerful, it becomes less and less accessible,” Priest says.
“Right now, I’m talking to you on an iPhone, and I can use it to see myself from space, but God help me if I drop it in the bathtub. As technology becomes more powerful, we become more detached from it, and less and less able to repair our own tools.
“Coming from the Southeast, where I’ve seen a lot of Civil War reenactments, I’ve met reenactors who have 150-year-old guns that still work. They have tools that were built by their great-grandparents. The grid goes down—what still works? Well, it’s the analog tools. The Victorians were building tools and clothing and technology and houses, you name it, without the concept of planned obsolescence. When they built something, they made it to last. “
Priest even feels that the steampunk has a similar appeal as zombie fiction, which perhaps explains how she came up with Boneshaker’s premise.
“There’s the idea of when the zombie apocalypse comes, how do you survive? What do you do?” Priest says. “Well, you return to the analog. You get yourself a crowbar or a shotgun and you start from there, because technology doesn’t work. And this is speaking as someone who goes into panic when she has to go 10 minutes without the Internet.
“Steampunk isn’t a hardcore survivalist movement, but it is an interest in the craft and consumption of the things we buy, and learning how to make things, and taking an interest in what we buy, because so much of what we buy is made far away from where we live, and we have no idea how it’s made. It really feels like an idea whose time has come.”
And if you still don’t believe her, you can always go to ConTemporal and ask her yourself.
Priest appears at ConTemporal through Sunday, June 24. For more information, visit www.contemporal.org.