These days we’re awash in clockwork devices, gears, dirigibles, zeppelins, steam cars, dusters, goggles with many and wonderful lenses, corsets, boots with remarkable buckles and pointy-toed shoes with many buttons, fine etchings and rust, dripping metalworks and glowing gaslamps. We are living in a world designed by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Philip Pullman, with able assists from Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, and Diana Wynne Jones. In short, we have been steam-punked.
Being steampunked it a bit like falling in love: it takes everybody a little differently. In my case, it happened slowly, and I had been thoroughly punked before I realized what was happening–or that there was a word to describe it.
My steampunking began with a book my grandmother gave me before I could read. It was The Night Before Christmas. It continued with the magic of her arrival by passenger train, back in the days when the cars were green and luxurious. It deepened with Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. By the time I discovered and devoured Verne, Wells, Pullman, Gaiman, Nix, and Wynne Jones, my steampunking was complete–and I still didn’t even know there was a word for it.
I probably still wouldn’t know about it, if I hadn’t gotten hooked on cake decorating shows. There’s something about the combination of mixers, volatile tempers, collapsing ovens, fondant that won’t roll out right, Rice Krispies Treats sculptures, PVC frameworks, and the looming threat of destruction that I find irresistible. I particularly liked the bride who found her cake unsatisfactory, grabbed violently-colored frosting from another cake-sculpture-in-progress, and slapped it all over her own cake–and then demanded her cake be re-done. Who among us hasn’t yearned to do exactly that at least once?
So anyway, I’m lounging around on my couch, watching cake decorating shows and eating potato chips and M&M’s and feeding the Magic Dog little snippets of the deli turkey slices that I am using to convince myself that this is a Meal, when a couple shows up on the screen.
This is not your average couple. There is leather. There are piercings. There are tattoos. There is black eyeliner–lots of that. There are goggles with lenses and levers. There are striped pants of shiny silk. There is a bustier. There are fans. There is a marvelous pocket watch with enough dials to calculate the weight of every person in the free world. Guiltily I roll down the top of the potato chips bag and shove the open end of the M&M’s bag under my thigh, then change my mind and open them both back up, but resolve to eat slowly.
It transpires that this couple is In Love, and they want A Cake. So far this is familiar territory. I am a little sad at the triteness of the request. But then they redeem themselves. “We want a Steampunk cake,” they tell baker Christopher Garron. “We want battered antique traveling cases, and gears, and clockwork, and fans, and maybe a corset, and goggles, and…”
Well. This is promising. It is so promising, in fact, that the word to describe this style of confection escapes me. I become so lost in Christopher and Margie’s travails in producing this remarkable cake that I forget everything except for the “punk” part. But when the cake is done I take one look at it and realize that this is It. This is the Thing for which I have been searching.
And I can’t remember what it was called. Google to the rescue. The thing about Google is that you don’t have to know what you want to know for Google to tell you what you want to know, if you know what I mean. I put in something like “Victorian punk,” which is a truly odd concept, and found my way into another world.
Because here’s the thing: Steampunk isn’t just a style; it’s a whole alternative reality. Think for a moment if steam had remained our state-of-the-art power supply. Think if the world still held room for massive, rough-cast gears suitable for driving mining pumps as well as the delicate little engraved gears we see behind the glass backs of fine watches. Think if the exuberant, lush, fringed world of Victoriana were married to the Brave New World futurism of Jules Verne. Think if a time machine existed and really worked (other than the one we keep in the back room here at the doghouse and use when we run Mr. Peabody posts, of course).
It doesn’t end there. There are Steampunk clothing sites, furniture sites, book sites, fine art sites. There are Steampunk musicians, writers, artists. People, there is an alternate reality, and its name is Steampunk.
And that’s the reality in which the Magic Dog House currently exists. Why? Because I have a client who is willing to take a chance. They called asking for a book design to commemorate the travels of a large trophy cup. This trophy cup spent 40 weeks traveling around the world, visiting various offices (this is a very big client). So they needed an book, and there I was, still in my pajamas, high on sugar and MSG and only slightly mellowed out by the tryptophan from the turkey, and blissed out by the marvelous Steampunk cake even now being unveiled for the happy couple. Of course I made the obvious connection–Around the World in 80 Days, as fine a piece of Steampunk literature as ever was penned.
Somewhat to my surprise–because this is a corporate client–they agreed. So now the Dog House is hip deep in all sorts of clockwork devices, fine fabrics, and magnificant diagrams for architectural wonders. And the book is beginning to take shape. Because I’ve been designing for corporations for a long time I’m doing the smart thing and keeping the Steam Punk feel as a subtle backnote, rather than a full-blown Wellesian extravaganza. The book will be beautiful and appropriate and they’ll love it, but that’s not the end.
There is another book being Steampunked–the book I set out to write something like fifteen years ago. This book has been through three computer crashes, four computer changes, three moves, a religion change, and I don’t know what all. It was the book I started when I first got the idea of writing a book, and had no clear idea what that entailed other than putting a lot of words on paper.
So that’s how that book as been progressing–it’s a lot of words on paper. It’s partly first person, partly third person. The central character is sometimes noble and sometimes petulant and sometimes hip and sometimes archaic. The Main Man’s name keeps changing. The Main Woman is pregnant, but I’m still not certain who the baby’s father is. Sometime in 1997 the book extruded a fantasy prologue, which metastasized into the early portions of the rest of the book and developed into large, peculiar growths in unexpected places.
This is a book I write, as opposed to a book I ever plan to publish. It’s a book for playing with. And so it was that two days ago I decided to do what I have done before–cannibalize a little snippet of this mammoth epic’s plot, and play with it. This time, I wanted to set the book in a Steam Punk world. And so I did. And you know what? It’s pretty cool. The snippet of plot lends itself to that. The characters have settled in happily–or unhappily, as the case may be, but interestingly so.
The petty little bad guys have developed some ominous hidden clockworks, and are far creepier. There has been a Cataclysm, and a Terror, and now people are having to live in a world governed by increasingly draconian, semi-religious, Security Measures, all enforced from a beautiful building with iridescent domes and elaborate gold tracery. Sound familiar, except for the domes and tracery? But here’s the magic of Steampunk: there might be darkness. There might be fear, and danger. But there is also incredible beauty, and infinite possibility. Maybe that’s the true charm of the style. I hope to capture both.
But don’t wait for me: Check out these links, and plan a weekend Steampunk immersion program for yourself.