Because they’re cool?
With steampunk in particular there’s a desire for a coherent visual aesthetic. I think this is partly related to almost tribal desires for cultural coherence. Ironically, it’s probably similar to what punk punk was to people in the correct generation (or teddy boys for another, or mods for another). It’s just a tribal marking.
There is a problem in basing a literary aesthetic on a visual aesthetic though, which is that things that look cool don’t necessarily translate into anything that writes cool.
Having said that, I think cyberpunk (which you may or may not choose to dismiss as a ‘weird genre’) actually almost represents something closer to the world we live in. The closest hero I have, Justin Pickard, recently noted on twitter that Up in the Air (George Clooney film about living out of a suitcase and collecting air miles) is essentially cyberpunk. It’s about a blurring of boundaries between the technological and the human. It’s presenting a transhuman notion of self. It’s noting that in a huge number of weird ways, we are all already cyborgs. I’ve touched on this before, but basically, I feel fully integrated with the tools I use. My laptop, online identity and telephone are extensions of myself. Expansions that allow me to do more than I possibly could without them.
Steampunk is perhaps just an attempt to read that feeling backwards. Retconning history to try and show how these changes happened. And they were happening. Albeit not in quite such a visually striking way. An alternate history in which Babbage & Lovelace style mechanical computing could actually do what we concieve of as computing isn’t unbelievable. And perhaps it makes a point about how we choose to understand history.
We are growing up surrounded by digital natives. Kids who always understood not just how to program VCRs (in fact, they probably don’t know that) but how to post a blog, maintain a healthy social life online, research a million things at once and generally extend mentally into an enormous sphere of human interaction.
Is it not natural to try and push that feeling of backwards into a time when things looked visually arresting?
And I find it hard not to think of the removal from real life as a problematic thing, but in fact, adding distance adds perspective, and so allows you to look at things closer and without damanging yourself.
Plus we’re talking about young people here, and we’re talking about wish fulfilment. What’s wrong with a little fantasy now and then?
And the other obsessions? Slash and Fanfic for example. That’s about taking ownership of the media that we’re drip fed. It’s a punky, DIY way of taking back control of our own minds.
So writing becomes not just a way to explore life, it’s a way to create identity. Identities. This is the nature of our wired universe.
And in the long run, I don’t think it’s a problem.
It is weird.
But so’s life.
Illustration by Anna-Kaisa.