Letting off steam (punk) with Jeff VanderMeer

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

With Longitude Punk'd continuing to amuse and confuse at the Royal Observatoyr and with Clocking Off LATE less than 2 weeks away, I decided to catch up with author of The Steampunk Bible and the newly released Steampunk Users Manual, Jeff VanderMeer.

Jeff VanderMeer author photo by Kyle Cassidy 2014

KM: To mark the 300th anniversary of the passing of the 1714 Longitude Act, Royal Museums Greenwich has staged a number of exhibitions to celebrate this. Since April, Longitude Punk’d up at the Royal Observatory has told a completely different Longitude story (compared to the historical one we’re telling in Ships, Clocks & Stars). How central is this reimagining of history to the Steampunk genre?

JVdM: It’s probably the most central to the fiction, and the point of most contention. There’s a tension between writers who tell escapist stories that revise history and those who use the reimagining to critique, for example, Victorian-era inequities. Outside of that particular literary conflict, you’ll find writers who are pushing these reimaginings even farther by taking the fiction out of the sphere of the usual English or American settings or even outside of the Victorian era—taking the “steam” tech part as the gospel and, for example, using instead the Islamic science revolution of the eleventh century as a jumping off point instead.

Outside of the fiction, I feel as if the reimagining of history is not always as evident to the layperson. The average maker may indeed be engaged in such an act, but non-engineers, for example, may not recognize that that’s what they’re looking at.

For this exhibition, we had to ask our Steampunk artists to push the boundaries of steampunk a little further back in time from its usual Victorian territory to include the clockwork and brocade of the eighteenth century and the Age of Enlightenment – a variant sometimes known as ‘clockpunk’.) Is it still steampunk if there’s no steam? And does it matter?

I’m not sure it matters. Such works are still in conversation with, for lack of a better way of putting it, “Core Steampunk.” They’ve had to choose their coordinates in response to Steampunk and thus in response in part to the steam part. Would such works exist if Steampunk didn’t exist? Some of them, surely, since Steampunk fits within the wider tradition of Retrofuturism. But not all of them.

Steampunk is about finding a use for stuff that is no longer useful-finding a new role for obsolete technologies, often in alternative histories or parallel worlds. Steampunks are also a highly engaged group of people who put a lot of time and energy into what they do…the kind of audience most museums would kill for. What do you think museums can learn from Steampunk?

The curiosity and sense of play that Steampunks often exhibit is definitely a quality that museums can repurpose. I’d say the particular area to learn from is how Steampunk creations allow for an interaction with an audience that may engage that audience more fully or ask for more from the audience. In a fun way. Perhaps also the multi-media aspect. One reason that Steampunk remains vibrant is that it exists across fiction, fashion, making, jewelry, movies, etc. When one area is in a kind of down-turn, some other aspect is where the ingenuity is going on. Similarly, if, say, a museum has an exhibit about a certain era or style of art…why not brainstorm how to embody the same philosophy or impetus behind the art in some other creative area?

 How did you come to write The Steampunk Bible? How long have you been involved in the scene?

The Steampunk Bible began as a collaboration between me and Jake Von Slatt of the Steampunk Workshop. Jake realized at some point he didn’t want to do a book, and then I continued with it. I came to it as a journalist examining Steampunk from the outside, which is valuable to the subculture. I didn’t have any particular allegiances or any axes to grind. I remained interested in the scene because of it being about more than just the fiction, but continue to be someone who finds much of it interesting while not identifying as a steampunk myself.

The Steampunk Bible provides a comprehensive history to the origins of Steampunk, it’s place in literature, movies, fashion and all facets of popular culture. What was your favourite section to write?

The fiction section was important to me because unfortunately at the time I was working on it the science fiction field was focusing on very escapist Steampunk. In demonstrating that Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter and others weren’t at all escapist in their writings—the fiction that formed the basis of early Steampunk. But I must confess I got the most pleasure out of examining Steampunk films just because so many claims are made for some of the films and yet some of the movies are ridiculous or kind of cheesy. We’re still waiting for a really great Steampunk film to be made.

You have just published The Steampunk User’s Manual. What is that about and who is it for?

I looked around at all of the crafts books out there on Steampunk and the reaction to them, and I realized that a lot of people didn’t so much want to make things as to read about how to make things. So my thinking was, do a high-concept “crafts” book that has a few projects that you could *never* do on your own, and mix the practical and the whimsical. So we have basic instructions on how to start building your own 100-foot-tall moving mecha-penguin with the capacity to carry people inside of it. I highly recommend you do not make that…at home or elsewhere. But then also we have really cool things like how to make your own musical instruments out of junk—just a great series of projects. Meanwhile, we got some of Steampunks best creators to tell us how they work, where they get their inspiration from. So on some level, across a lot of different types of creativity, the Steampunk User’s Manual should help anyone jump-start their own personal approach to Steampunk, or even more generally within science fiction and fantasy. But you can also use it as a follow-up to the Steampunk Bible, a companion volume, for the casual general reader.

What item of Steampunk clothing could you not do without?

Well, that’s just it—I do not dress up in any kind of Steampunk garb. I dithered on that the first time I went to a Steampunk convention and decided not to. Which I think was wise. For me personally, it would’ve felt weird, like I was appropriating something. On the other hand, I was a guest at a Steampunk convention, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, seated next to a Steampunk writer in full regalia. I must say, even though I have a wealth of creative writing experience, not a single Steampunk writer asked me a question after the panel—they wanted advice from the person who looked most like a Steampunk! So there’s something to be said for the clothes being part of the reality of things, not just window-dressing.

On 13 November 2014, at the National Maritime Museum we are running Clocking Off Late a steampunk and clockpunk inspired evening featuring a Steampunk tour of Georgian society and an exploration of the East India Company. What advice would you give to the novice Steampunker who might be thinking about attending this event?

I’d suggest they infiltrate the party in the role of spies from some rebellious part of the empire.

Thanks Jeff!

For the full programme of activities for Clocking Off LATE and to buy tickets visit the webpage.