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Full Steam Ahead

How Seattle became the center 
of a movement based on a history that never was

Walk through Seattle’s Gas Works Park on any Saturday and you will happen upon any number of groups; armored role players, painting classes for beginners and wedding parties all use the park’s shuttered gasification plant as a backdrop. Sometimes you will find a group of people who, at first glance, look as though they are dressed for a Charles Dickens reenactment.


Photography by Andrew Waits for City Arts.

As you get closer you’ll start to notice that some of their accessories fall outside the Victorian novelist’s wheelhouse. Prop guns and other devices all are made in a style that a nineteenth-century visionary might have thought high technology would look like, as if Jules Verne’s writings have come to life. They fit in remarkably well with the early industrial ruins at the park. The spaghetti tangle of the pipes is mirrored in the intricacy of the outfits. Clearly the people wearing these costumes are unfamiliar with, or simply reject, the philosophy espoused by author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Their accessories and clothing would give the designers of the iPhone nightmares. Nothing about them is sleek or stripped down. Everything has dials, buttons and plenty of ornate decoration. Their vision of technology may not be user friendly but it is user beautiful. Chances are good that these people are Seattle Steamrats, a group of writers, artists, craftspeople and fans who hold regular gatherings at Gas Works to have picnics, take pictures and commune with one of the most visible remnants of the city’s Victorian heritage, an idol of sorts for a rising subculture known, fittingly, as steampunk. 

Gas Works Park is only one of a number of local landmarks that have helped to inspire the imaginations of groups like the Steamrats and have made Puget Sound the unofficial capital of steampunk. There is Underground Seattle, which gives a close-up view of the remains of nineteenth-century history under the sidewalks of Pioneer Square. There are two steam power plants still functioning in the city: the Seattle Steam Company, which was founded in 1893, and the Georgetown PowerPlant Museum, formerly the Georgetown Steam Plant, which opened in 1906 and hosts monthly “steam meets” for fans of Victorian technology. And then there is the historic Carroll’s clock at the Museum of History and Industry. The 1913 vintage clock, with its ornate embellishments and visible mechanisms, is symbolic of everything steampunks like about Victorian design. When the clock was vandalized and the inner mechanism stolen last Christmas, local steampunks held a day of classes, called “Steampunk University,” and an evening film festival at the museum, with all of the proceeds donated to restore the clock. The fundraiser was so successful that not only was the Carroll’s clock restored, but the museum was also able to recondition a nineteenth-century cabinet clock in its collection.


Ferdous Ahmed: giving Capitol Hill a steampunk emporium.

The influence of steampunk isn’t limited to restoring antique clocks and creating a demand for tours of steam plants. Steampunk fashion has made it into the pages of Women’s Wear Daily, the vision of Victorian high technology has influenced movies like the recent Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes, and the steampunk fan scene even made it into an episode of the television show CSI: New York.

Even local business owners are getting in on the rise of steampunk. Last month, Ferdous Ahmed opened a store in Capitol Hill filled with items that align with his Victorian sensibility. For now the store is called Capitol Hill Vaudeville, though Ahmed says he is toying with the idea of changing the name to Steamplant. (Capitol Hill Vaudeville is located at 1715 E Olive Way, one block west of Broadway between Harvard & Boylston - 206-371-3874)

Steampunk didn’t start in Seattle, but Seattle has proven to be fertile ground for its growth, as proved by the success of Steamcon, the Seattle-based steampunk convention that will follow up last year’s sold-out debut with its second outing later this month. The idea for Steamcon originated in 2008 with a small group attending Norwescon, one of the Northwest’s largest science-fiction and fantasy conventions. The group decided that there was enough demand for a steampunk-themed convention and set out to create it. By 2009 the convention had drawn national and even international attention and quickly sold out, something that is almost unheard of for the first year of a volunteer-run convention. It was a surprise even to the people who were around when the scene first started.


Abney Park front man "Captain" Robert powers steampunk.

VICK'S FORMULA

At its core, steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Whatever medium someone is working in, steampunk should always have a speculative element to it. It should be set in the Victorian era, roughly 1837 to 1901, and maybe a little into the Edwardian era. Location isn’t that important as long as the time period is right. The next part of the litmus test really should be obvious. Whatever technology is being used, it should run on steam. Clockworks or mechanical power sources work too, and even magic if you want to get a little more fantastic, but operating at about steam power level. Once you get into the industrial revolution, you’ve really moved out of steampunk. Diesel power or other historically accurate power sources don’t really fit. Finally, steampunk has a few common themes – exploration, mad science, invention, transportation and alternate histories. Of course there are also a lot of story elements that are common across the genre, things like technological anachronisms – steam-powered computers, automatons – and some more superficial decorative elements like gears, keys and aviator or welding goggles, the kinds of things you see on virtually any steampunk costume. If you’re looking at something that contains something from each of those categories, you can be pretty safe in calling it steampunk.

“I’m not sure why it caught on as well as it did here,” says Donna Prior, one of the founding members of the Steamrats and part of the convention committee for Steamcon 2010.

Prior sits at a table in a pub in North Seattle. She arrived wearing her new “steampunk adventure skirt,” a tan, kilt-like skirt with plenty of brass clips and buckles, an old-fashioned key design embossed on the front and fabric with clock faces and gears in the print between the pleats on the side. It is an outfit that, in the parlance of steampunks, has been “modded,” personally modified and customized to fit the subculture’s aesthetic.

“The Google group mailing list started in late 2007 or early 2008, and for months there wasn’t a lot of activity,” says Prior. “Then there was a gallery show in September. Probably two hundred people showed up for that, there were people spilling out onto the sidewalks in Belltown. A lot of people were dressed up. That was when a lot of us realized that we were on the mailing list with people we already knew.”

The gallery show was an exhibit at the Halogen Gallery titled Anachrotechnofetishism: Artifacts by Pioneers of American Steampunk, which featured works by Jake von Slatt, Libby Bulloff, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich and a host of other artists. Donna Prior and many others point to the show’s opening on September 12, 2008, as the real beginning of the steampunk scene in Seattle. There were certainly meetups and events before that, but the show was the seed from which the scene crystallized.  

“People ask me how we did it,” says Prior, “and I have to tell them that I honestly don’t know.”

A few weeks later, on the sidewalk outside the Conor Byrne Pub in Ballard, two women play a song on a single instrument with two sets of strings that they both play at the same time. The instrument is called a “courting dulcimer,” and the duo is called the Gloria Darlings, one of three bands that will play the venue later in the night for a show sponsored by Sepiachord, a Seattle-based online magazine that is one of the driving forces behind what founder and “Captain” Jordn Block admits is a nebulous steampunk music scene. 

“A lot of bands don’t really think of themselves as steampunk,” Block says, “even if they would have a lot of appeal to people in the scene. That’s one of the things that Sepiachord does. We find music that we think steampunks will like even if it isn’t ‘steampunk music.’ Just like industrial music was the sound of cyberpunk, Sepiachord is the sound of steampunk.”

Most of the bands that have been featured in Sepiachord did not set out to make “steampunk music.” Instead, groups like the Gloria Darlings produce music that just happens to find an audience among those in the steampunk scene, who may be attracted to the groups’ choice of instruments, their subject matter or just their style. The Dresden Dolls, Unwoman and Toy Box Trio have all fallen into that category. 

Sepiachord band Abney Park is definitely an exception, a band that vigorously and unhesitatingly defines itself as steampunk. Abney Park has been around and making music since 1997, but in 2006 the band members discovered steampunk and adopted it as their own, modding their instruments and going so far as to create a fictionalized persona for each of the members, complete with a backstory in which they are all the crew of the airship Ophelia. 

Many musicians, artists and authors, while appreciating the audience they have in the steampunk scene, shy away from fully embracing the label for themselves, whether out of a desire to avoid being pigeonholed or a lingering perception that steampunk is just a fad. There is also the problem of defining exactly what steampunk is. 

The word “steampunk” was coined almost thirty years ago by science-fiction author K. W. Jeeter to describe the stories that he, Tim Powers and James Blaylock were writing. Today, in spite of attempts to make the definition a little more concrete, works are usually defined as steampunk by the same standard that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” An online community called the Great Steampunk Debate formed for the express purpose of defining the genre, but in spite of a debate that ran from May through June of this year, there is still little agreement.


Steam only goes so far: Donna Prior gases up.

One of the strongest voices among those pushing for a firm definition of the genre is that of Diana Vick, vice chair of Steamcon and an energetic ambassador for Seattle’s steampunk community who travels around the country spreading the word.

GETTING STEAMED

Five bands the welding-goggle set loves, whether the musicians like it or not.

Blackbird Orchestra
Making music together since 2005, this Seattle-based quartet embodies darkness. With moaning guitars and lyrics about ashes, prophets and righteous sacrifice, the group leaves little room for doubt that Blackbird Orchestra is a fittingly melancholy name.

Professor Gall
Hailing from Portland, this group brings one word to mind: eccentricity. With snarling vocals and a cart’s worth of oddball instruments, including guitar, banjo, lap steel, trap kazoo, bass, ukulele, drums, saxophone, clarinet, trombone, keys, trumpet, pedal steel and accordion, the group achieves a gritty and unnerving carnival feel, as if the Mad Hatter were the ringmaster.

The Dresden Dolls
This Boston group flips unexpectedly from meandering piano coupled with soprano vocals to rushing full steam ahead with lung-pumping bitten-out words and racing trips on the keys.

Unwoman (above)
Erica Mulkey is a San Francisco cellist and singer whose music is a wonderful combination of throaty vibrato, dark cello strains and foot-tapping beats that inspire visions of gypsies dancing beneath a full moon.

Toy Box Trio
This Seattle band founded in 2007 by classical composer Harlan Glotzer boasts a sound perfectly fitted to the name, as the tinkling tune reminiscent of a jack-in-the-box permeates songs entitled “Clowns,” “Ringmaster” and “Trapeze.”

COMPILED BY JENNIFER TATE

“There is an awful lot of confusion about what steampunk is,” she says. “The genre is really getting overstretched and losing focus. A lot of artists especially are moving towards a more Mad Max, post-apocalyptic, gritty kind of look and it doesn’t fit sometimes.”

To bring some of the focus back, Vick applies what she calls her “steampunk litmus test” (See “Vick’s Formula,” page 30). Despite her influential voice, Vick’s litmus test is far from universally accepted. There are people who think that it goes much too far in limiting what should be included; others think it doesn’t go far enough. And still others think that attempting to define steampunk at all is contrary to the spirit of steampunk.

“Where is the ‘punk’ in letting other people define what you’re doing?” asks author Cherie Priest. She’s entitled to ask. Priest became the region’s most visible steampunk earlier this year after her novel Boneshaker earned nominations for both Hugo and Nebula awards and won the Locus Award for best new novel. The first in what she calls her “Clockwork Century” series, Boneshaker was quickly followed by a second book, Clementine, in June and a third, Dreadnought, which came out last month. If anybody understands the power of steampunk, it’s Priest. 

Remixing history is something Priest knows a lot about. Boneshaker is set in an alternate-history directly inspired by the steampunk aesthetic. In her novel, Seattle has been all but destroyed by a mishap with a tunneling machine – Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine – which accidentally released a mysterious toxic gas, the Blight, from inside the earth. Gas masks and goggles have become people’s way of protecting themselves.  

“Part of what I wanted to do was to build a world that explained some of the accessories you see on people’s costumes – goggles, gas masks, heavy leather gloves, things like that,” she says. “They’re pretty common, but no one had really explained why they seemed to be such a large part of the mythology.”

In spite of this goal, Priest resists efforts to put limits on the genre. Still, she knows that the steampunk movement is in need of some guidance.

“It’s true that steampunk doesn’t really have a ‘magnum opus’ to hold the genre together,” she says. “Fantasy has The Lord of the Rings, science fiction has Star Wars and Star Trek, steampunk doesn’t have anything like that. It’s been on a slow boil for the last twenty to thirty years, and now it’s really starting to get traction. The work that comes out in the next couple of years is going to be what defines the genre. If it’s good, if we get something that could be the magnum opus, steampunk will continue to be the next big thing. We also need more people to just step up and admit that what they’re doing is steampunk.”

On a Monday evening in early autumn, a curious crowd of thirty to forty Steamrats are gathered at the Wayward Café in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. And they are definitely doing steampunk. While some are wearing regular street clothes, others exhibit a personal style tending towards vintage. Still others are adorned with clock-face jewelry, brass accents and welding goggles. The conversation is casual and friendly as small groups form, break up and re-form.

One woman busily sketches what look like fashion designs for a nineteenth-century military organization. Another woman drops a large garbage bag full of fabric on the chair next to her. The sketching woman examines the fabric and the two of them dive into an elaborate conversation about how to work with the material before heading off to a quiet corner of the coffeehouse to take measurements. Groups huddle around sketchbooks and note pads, offering comments and criticism. One woman empties a small plastic bag full of old clock parts onto one of the tables and solicits advice on how to remove the shafts from the gears without damaging them.

One woman is showing off a small display case full of pins, cameos and earrings, all vintage, or at least made from materials that appear to be vintage. A few pieces are made with iridescent blue-green crescents, jewel beetle wings, their maker says. She points to a small charm resembling a squid with wings; it is the air kraken, scourge of airships everywhere. It’s hard to tell where the mythology ends and the craft begins. A woman at another table pulls out an elaborate stainless-steel mask meant to fit over her mouth and nose and attaches hoses and a dowel rod to it, turning it into a gas mask for a masquerade ball. Other attendees just sit and socialize, discussing books, movies or TV.

The truth is, most of these people don’t care about the exact definition of steampunk, nor do they seem to care if the scene catches on with the wider public. They have found an outlet for their creativity and a way, however small, to move against the excessively minimalist aesthetic of modern technology. They have fully embraced Cherie Priest’s one solid rule for steampunk – if you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

“There is a longing out there for this kind of genre,” she tells me later. “Today’s technology is inscrutable, but Victorian technology was beautiful. There is also a very strong do-it-yourself element to steampunk. Most people make their costumes themselves, or if they do buy something, they’re buying it from the person who made it. Goth had Hot Topic stores, but steampunk just has Etsy. People want to mod their world, they want to remix history and put themselves in it.” •

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