Steampunk - Words To That Effect Ep30

Ep 30: Steampunk I (Fetch Me My Fighting Trousers)

Note: This episode is Part 1 of a double episode on steampunk.

There are cultures, and subcultures, and sub, sub, sub
cultures.

There’s science fiction, there’s alternative history,
there’s steampunk.

There’s hip hop and there’s chaphop

There’s an anachronistic Victorian gentleman wearing a pith helmet with an orangutan butler, dissing a fellow chaphop artist for parodying, rather than engaging with, the genre.

What, you may quite reasonably ask, is going on?

Well, over this episode, and the next – because this is part one of a double episode – I’m going to take a really, really deep dive into the world of steampunk.

Steampunk is a lot of things: an aesthetic, a genre, a fashion, a lifestyle. And to really understand it, and to see how influential it is on mainstream popular culture and a whole host of different areas, you need to look at it from several different angles.

Steampunk - Words To That Effect Ep30

Which is why I have some very exciting guests lined up across these two episodes. In this instalment I’ll be talking to two very different professors:

Dr Rachel Bowser is Associate Professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, in the U.S. and has written extensively about steampunk.

Professor Elemental is the Victorian gentleman whose music you’ve just heard, the chap in the chaphop. He’s a hiphop musician, performer, and voice-over artist, and he provides a another, very different angle in looking at the world of steampunk.

So what, exactly, is steampunk? How has it become so popular? And why is it invariably political?

Guests

Dr Rachel Bowser is Interim Associate Provost for Strategic Initiatives, and Associate Professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, in the U.S. You can read her full bio here.

She is the co-editor of the great collection, Like Clockword: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures. You can pick up a copy on Amazon.

Steampunk Edited Collection Rachel Bowser
Rachel Bowser and Brian Croxall’s edited collection on steampunk


Professor Elemental is an award winning hip hop artist who has performed all over the world at everything from festivals to wedding parties, hip hop shows to bizarre burlesque. A regular on the worldwide convention and festival scene he has played everywhere from Canada to Cambodia.

You can find out lots more and listen to his fantastic music at his site professorelemental.com

Professor Elemental - Steampunk music

Works Mentioned

Bruce Sterling & William Gibson: The Difference Engine

Michael Moorcock: The Warlord of the Air (1971)

Wild Wild West (film, 1999)

Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (graphic novel, 1999)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (film, 2003)

Van Helsing (film, 2004)

China Mieville: Perdido St Station (2000)

The Steampunk Soundtrack

All music by Professor Elemental. Track listings (in order heard):

Fighting Trousers

Fighting Trousers

Quest for the Golden Frog

Cup of Brown Joy

I’m British

All the best!

Elixir Remix (instrumental)

Cup of Brown Joy Remix (instrumental


Looking for more science fiction? Try this episode on pulp fiction or this one on post-apocalpytic fiction

Maybe some more popular culture and literature?

If you enjoy the episode and want to find out how to support the show then click here for more information.

Support the show on Patreon (Steampunk)
Join the Patreon WTTE community!

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HeadStuff (WTTE Ep 27 Post-Apocalyptic Fiction)

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Transcripts

NOTE ON TRANSCRIPTS: I’m aware that transcripts are very useful for some listeners and, from season 3, I’ve done my best to put up full transcripts for each episode. It is, however, a very time-consuming part of an already hugely time-consuming podcast! To that end, some of the transcriptions of guest interviews are not quite word-for-word, or may have the occasional bit of shorthand. The should still always be clear, though. Thanks! Conor.

I’m Conor Reid with Words To That Effect

Instrumental… Ah, Geoffrey, what’s that you have in your hand? Pass it over. A telegram. Oh dear, it seems someone has been fighting me. Fetch me my trousers at once. No, those are my time travel trousers, those are my tea trousers. Yes, those ones, my fighting trousers.

There are cultures, and subcultures, and sub, sub, sub cultures.
There’s science fiction, there’s alternative history, there’s steampunk.
There’s hip hop and there’s chaphop
There’s an anachronistic Victorian gentleman wearing a pith helmet with an orangutan butler, dissing a fellow chaphop artist for parodying, rather than engaging with, the genre.

Dear Sir, regarding your recent foray into the rap business and the scene your portray. I don’t normally approve of war games. By harry they might be right this is hip hop not an Elvis night.
What you need to do is rap and not parody chap hop, cos that’s not right, that’s not proper,

What, you may quite reasonably ask, is going on?
Well, over this episode, and the next – because this part one of a double episode – I’m going to take a really, really deep dive into the world of steampunk.
Steampunk is a lot of things: an aesthetic, a genre, a fashion, a lifestyle. And to really understand it, and to see how influential it is on mainstream popular culture and a whole host of different areas, you need to look at it from several different angles.
Which is why I have some very exciting guests lined up across these two episodes. In this instalment I’ll be talking to two very different professors: Dr Rachel Bowser is Associate Professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, in the U.S. and has written extensively about steampunk.
Professor Elemental is the Victorian gentleman whose music you’ve just heard, the chap in the chaphop.
He’s is a hiphop musician, performer, and voiceover artist among other things, and he provides a another, very different angle in looking at the world of steampunk.
So, let’s attempt to get one thing settled at the outset. What, exactly, is steampunk?

When I have to describe it to people it’s nerds who like dressing up in a cross between science fiction and Victorian costume.

Professor Elemental

That’s it at its absolute most basic. There’s loads of angles, there’s the historical angel, fashion, the makers, sometimes people get really into the politics of it all, but basically at its very heart, particularly in Britain, diff in diff countries it’s a lovely, big inclusive fancy dress party
One of the most fun things about SP is how much it resists a nice clean def.

This is Prof Rachel Bowser – among other things she has edited a great collection of steampunk essays called Like Clockwork
It’s an artistic movement that has novels and film and video games and artwork. In other contexts it’s a maker culture, conventions, parades, steampunk aesthetic
In either case the overlapping feature is that sp is characterized by a mashing up of things that don’t seem to go together
In lit Victorian era settings combined with futuristic tech more used to seeing in sf. In maker culture in performance culture it takes the form of brass goggles like we might see on 19th cent pilot of a zeppelin modified so they have blue lights and lasers Mashing tougher or hybrid that takes markers of two different time period and blends them

Hello, righto, thank you lord buxley, I’d like to welcome you to this meeting of the gentleman’s club. In front of you you’ll find your brainomatic helmet, it’s a marvellous device which will conjure pictures of my exploits. If you’d like to attach the electrodes and then simply insert the spinal syringe, there we go, let’s begin.

This, from a Prof Elemental track Quest for the Golden Frog, is very steampunk.
The Victorian setting mashed up with technology that didn’t exist in this period.
the thing that is fundamentally sp is combining things that would otherwise not seem compatible

So, you’ve got steampunk as a type of genre – there are steampunk books and films, computer games and comics. You can see it as a subgenre of science fiction, or as something slightly separate.
But it’s also a much broader world – there is, as we’ve heard, steampunk music, there’s steampunk art and design, there are conventions, parades, and other events, where people wear elaborate and often meticulously handcrafted costumes.
There is a distinct steampunk aesthetic and it crosses into other areas too – burlesque, cosplay, circus and street performance.
And there’s a strong sense of community:
I like how broad it is, people can find diff things in it, who didn’t belong in other cliques, ppl who were proper punks, like me happy bboys never felt at home in alpha male environment of rappers, or goths. And yeah, it’s lovely.

So people know it when they see it, even if it’s not always clear what exactly the defining features are. It is, most would agree, about time and technology, if anything – a sense of a Victorian/contemporary technology-based mash up .
And where it all comes from, is also something that’s not fully agreed on. In literature, anyway, there are a few proposals:
Issue of much debate among SP community. Ill give you the highglights. A common answer for seminal text is Diff Engine set in Vic England but with widespread computerised tech – if comp not steam had been dominant form
Others want to argue that steampunk begins in 70s with Moorcock and Warlord of the Air. Others that Verne and Wells are original SP authors – moving tech thru time, combining future tech with familiar setting of 19th . There are a lot of different schools of thought on this

What’s fairly clear is that the movement was much smaller in the 80s, began to grow in the 90s, and really took off this century, particularly in the last maybe 15 years or so.

In 1999 there was that fairly awful Will Smith film Wild Wild West with an American western steampunk aesthetic. More importantly, In the same year there was the publication of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with its reimagined group of classic Victorian literary characters. That was made into a film in 2003, and dozens of films emerged with steampunk influences, like Van Helsing (with Hugh Jackman) in 2004, for example. There were numerous steampunk novels published in the first decade of this century. China Mieville’s Perdido St Station was published in 2000 with its inventive blend of fantasy and steampunk
Certainly, when I talked to Prof Elemental about his music and the creation and evolution of the Professor character, it seemed to him, too, that he entered the scene at precisely the right moment
One off Victorian variety show, it tickled me, borrowed a hat, character arrived fully formed. Things that Sounding a bit too posh or white, find your weakness and cataylise I’ll be really white and really posh.
SP took off at the same time
Like most people, he also finds it hard to pin down precisely why it took off
I have no idea – I talk to steampunk bands they all almost say the same thing, it just got popular – it arrived magically and Ive no idea what the conditions were
Whatever the precise reason, he wasn’t going to question it
Cup of Brown Joy was on front page of youtube for half and hour which was enough. Loads of gigs, found my way into it. Still be able to do hiphop, which I love, but to my tribe, incredibly nerdy – same sense of humour, cultural re ferences

[Cup of Brown Joy]

The older I get…On record he’s a distinctive character – on stage he’s a weird mix of the two of us – I like talking to Only way I know I’ve gone over the line is when my wife tells me to stop talking like prof
My sanity is hanging by a thread. I’m one mid-life crisis away from permanently wearing a pith helmet

[All the Best!]

So, back to the why? Why has the last decade or so really seen the explosion of interest in steampunk?
Explanation I find most convincing is that you see real rise of SP as tarcking with rise in tech aesthetic that is recognisalbe as the apple aesthetic where a lot of our new gadgets that we interact wit are characterized by smooth, white exterior that we are not supposed to open up, eventually don’t have any buttons, latest iphone doesn’t have a home button.
SP is much more characterized by cogs on the outside, things where you can see the parts working. Even if the cogs don’t do anything even for the look of the inside put on the surface
Ethos is very much a maker, DIY, tinkerer culture. People involved nad characters in stories are makers, ppl who make things out of the pieces available
There’s a nostalgia, when we’re holding out iphone, etc nostalgia for tehc which had a heft and weight and we could see how the parts moved together

While the name itself may have been a throwaway label given to the movement in the 80s, there is something punk about it. As well as attracting people from the fringes, there’s the centrality of autonomy and rebellion against modern technology which excludes its user. I want to see what’s inside my iPhone!
SP moniker was uttered by one author as a joke.
It was a short, tongue-in-cheek letter that author K.W. Jeter wrote to Locus Magazine in 1987, drawing a parallel with the popular cyberpunk genre.
Ppl debate whether there is anything punk about it. To me, the centrality of the DIY tinkering sensibility gets at that in a ways that I find reasionble. Its about exercising a mastery over tech and taking things apar tsnd understakding how they work and then repurposing them to diff ends
Cyberpunk great line – the street finds its own use for things. This notion – the impulse to take sth apart, work out how it works, and reassemble them into a diff thing – that’s the punk part

*
But there’s more to this too.
There’s a nostalgia, when we’re holding out iphone, etc nostalgia for tech which had a heft and weight and we could see how the parts moved together
And this idea, nostalgia, is key. Because, of course, nostalgia can be both a comfort, and a dangerous delusion: Make America Great Again. Take Back Control and make Britain just like it was in its triumphant colonial past.
Steampunk is, and has to be, political.

But, before we talk about the political, I want to take a very quick ad break.
Firstly, I wanted to remind you that if you’re a fan of the show and want to join a wonderful community of like-minded people, you can do so on Patreon. There are lots of great perks to joining up and it helps me to make even better episodes for everyone. Head to Patreon.com/wtte, or click the link on the WTTE website.
Secondly, this podcast, as you probably know, is part of the wonderful Headstuff Podcast Network, and I wanted to play you a trailer from one of our other shows, this time a show also about literature, so I think you might be interested.

{TRAILER}

Steampunk is difficult to navigate, politically. The fundamental problem is that in celebrating a very particular time – the Victorian era – you can’t really escape that era’s attitudes, which are, by today’s standards: racist, sexist, homophobic, jingoistic. You need to think very carefully about how you navigate this:
It’s a sticky subject for steampunks. A lot of the people I work with are very attentive to this. How SP narratives centre POC, women in ways they never would have been at the time. Women have more sexual economic agency
If you go to SP conventions or maker events the participants are more diverse than the general pop of academics that I see when I go to my Vic Lit conferences
But I think there’s a risk of your storyline and your symbolism in novels, films, cosplay, can make an effort of including ppl but you’re a movement that is associated with a particular period – few would dispute that it would need to look Victorian in some way – and for a lot of people that aesthetic is always going to signify in a way that is associated with a colonial, European, gender regressive paradigm.
You can’t get around it you have to name it all the time. You can never let it become too invisible.
And I think that’s the key. Create fantastic and inventive Victorian worlds, but don’t let the politics become invisible.
I was curious how Professor Elemental dealt with this, because it’s something that is evident in his music too
I do hip but but … e arly on it got labelled as chap hop – kerfuffle when Michael Gove said he likes it – ooh, chaphop, it’s hip hop but for posh twats, nightmare for me – I’m really left wing – pretending to be imperial colonial character, I love hiphop I hate the tories, it’s a mess
I try to go out of my way to inject a bit of my own politics on stage just to see off getting the wrong kind of audience – I don’t want an audience of Britain First Brexiteers coming to my show
*
After Brexit I picked up a few people – I had to say no this is not for you, this is not what this is. I’ve made a few songs in that direction too
We used to have an empire but we got a little cocky, ha ha Johnny Foreigner I’d like to see you stop me! And sure enough, we rhubarb crumbled […] I’m rather glad really, it made us more humble
This is I’m British, one of his most famous songs, a witty celebration of the great things about Britain, which doesn’t ignore the other parts. It’s not, as a few somewhat confused fans may have thought, a celebration of Britishness in the face of foreign invasion and EU oppression:
Well, at this point I’d just like to take a moment to apologise on behalf of Britain for all the things that we’ve brought to the world
Simon Cowell, for example, and eh, Jim Davidson. Fox hunting. Black pudding. Racism
But most of all, we’re all terribly, terribly sorry about Piers Morgan

Initially I didn’t give it a second thought it was a fancy dress costume – I needed to make a real effort – my music stayed fairly non-political, stage shows became more political and veered into me rambling about unions or health systems and people were saying that’s not what I signed up for
I’ve split the diff – only if I can justify it. Themes of shows – things like mental health, in keeping with the character
There are also other interesting ways in which steampunk can allow people to think through areas which are often neglected in mainstream culture
I’m a big fan of the steampunk 3 anthology edited by the Vandermeers and while It’s not possible to shake off associations with racial and gender. But SP and disability. One of my colleagues about appearance of prosthetic in SP lit
The notion of combining things and imagining combos that weren’t there seems to make it possible for people’s imaginations to be opened to possibilities of bodies with things attached, centring disabled bodies

[Elixir Instrumental]

So steampunk can be a lot of things to a lot of different people. It has to be political, it can’t avoid the specific historic time period it is grounded in. But that doesn’t mean it can’t satirize and laugh at it, that it can’t be whimsical and celebratory, while also thoughtful and inventive.
Steampunk, in its many guises, is here to stay. And in Part 2 of this double bill, I’m going to explore some more of these weird and wonderful guises.

Outro
So, that’s it for another week of Words To That Effect. Thanks so much to Professor Rachel Bowser and to Professor Elemental for talking to me. Prof Bowser’s edited collection on steampunk is called Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures and it’s available on Amazon and elsewhere. I’ll put a link on the WTTE wbesite
All the music on this episode was by Prof Elemental and there’s a huge back catalogue of his music available online. Just head to professorelemental.com or search for him on youtube where there are some great music videos to accompany the songs.
There are links to everything, pictures, full transcripts and more at wttepodcast.com.
You can follow the show on FB and Instagram @wordstothateffect and I tweet @cedreid. Use the hashtag #wttepodcast if you’re talking about the show.
And, don’t forget to check out the patreon for the rewards and bonuses and other nice things at patreon.com/wtte
So that’s it, I’ll see you in two weeks for a whole other side to steampunk

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