At a Faeriecon event this winter, this question came from a perplexed audience member to one of the panels of authors. Sitting in my full steampunk regalia, including a top hat, jacket with buckles, corset and full, floor sweeping skirt, I stiffened my back a bit.
But it was a fair question. The previous night the local steampunk community had been invited as special guests to a “Time Travelers Ball” at the event. And as an author of steampunk stories, I’d been invited to attend the conference. But why?
Steampunk is a literary genre taking readers by storm. The title originated a few years ago, but the stories have been around since Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It’s a curious mix of futuristic Victorian and Edwardian settings, time and space travel, intrepid inventors and mad scientists, adventurers, fantastic steam-powered machines, automata servants, hot air balloons, passenger dirigibles and mysteries galore. It’s also an aesthetic movement that includes costuming, gaming, design, music and art.
But what does it have to do with fairies, magic, dragons, and other fantasy tropes?
To begin with, there is a close tie to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the usual settings for steampunk stories, and the fairy world. The Victorians were fascinated by fairy lore and many famous writers, including Christina Rosetti and John Keats, used magical realms as subject matter. A famous photo of the Cottingley fairies in 1917, generated a stir as proof that fairies truly did exist, and is a prime example of the way a new technology i.e. photography, reinforced these ideas.
I believe this fascination with magic, fantastical creatures and the worlds of imagination was an effort by the people of the Victorian age to grapple with a quickly changing world of the Industrial Age. Technology was pushing change, but just like our world today, humans were not evolving as quickly to deal with the changes.
Fairy tales, poetry, storytelling and art that explored magical worlds was a way for the members of Victorian society to return to a simpler, more pastoral time when machines did not rule the world. The early Pre-Raphaelite Movement of the 1830’s evolved into the Arts & Crafts Movement, which focused on the beauty of hand-crafted furniture, art with medieval and fairy tale themes, (such as that of John William Waterhouse) and pottery, glass and decorative arts adorned with subjects from nature.
These Victorian aesthetic movements are not unlike the desire of the steampunk community to create, mod (modify) and decorate common items to make them beautiful. While this community embraces technology, (at least that of the Industrial Revolution) the hand-crafted design of clothing, household items and even weapons, (albeit fake ones), reflects the same appreciation for the beauty of wood, brass, silk and natural materials expressed by artisans like William Morris.
The next conjunction between steampunk and realms of fairy lies in the intricacy of world-building. For writing and storytelling, the attention to details of the imagined world for both steampunk and fantasy allows the reader to enter the magical world, whether it is populated with trolls, witches and magical folk or adventurers, inventors and automatons. There is still an element of magic, whether generated from spells or technology. In fantasy, there are few explanations of how the magic works, and in steampunk, it’s not necessary to explain how the technology works. The point for both types of literature is that the “magic” propels the story.
The desire by devotees of both fairies and fantasy and the steampunk community to recreate the world in design, costuming, art, literature and even music binds them more closely than other genres. The proliferation of “cons” that invite attendees to dress up, assume a persona and share an imaginary world, if only for a few days, creates a much closer parallel for these constituents. While it shares elements of cos-play, the focus on hands-on building, art and design seems to proliferate in the fairy and steampunk entities.
Finally, there is the focus on imaginary worlds that can be based on the real world, but go beyond the specific history. A fantasy world created with fairies, magic and fantastical creatures can be based on real medieval elements, but then moves far beyond the historical context. In the same way, the steampunk universe might use a historical backdrop of Victorian and Edwardian times, but expands the setting. These worlds may or may not include the darker, grittier aspects, but they will always stretch the imagination of the possible.
And isn’t that the point of these imaginary worlds? To allow human beings to dream, imagine and create? It is a wonderfully human characteristic to ask over and over again, “what would happen if?” It’s the thing that propels all creativity, and gives us rich, textured worlds that invite us to use our childlike innocence to simply believe.
Sibelle Stone is the pen name for award-winning author Deborah Schneider. While as Deborah she writes rip-roaring, Western romance, as Sibelle she writes about magic, witches, creepy monsters, and incredible machines. It’s like Deborah has a twin with a darker side. Both Deborah and Sibelle live in the Pacific Northwest near the edge of the Cascade Mountains. Deborah won the Molly award from the Heart of Denver Romance Writers for her book, Beneath A Silver Moon when she created Sinclair Readford, an unsinkable heroine who simply will never give up. She was a finalist in the New Historical Voice contest and won a book contract. She also won an EPIC award for best Western romance for Promise Me. She has been named a Librarian of the Year by the Romance Writers of America. Alas, poor Sibelle has not captured any awards or titles. But she remains hopeful.
Whistle Down the Wind, by Sibelle Stone, is available from these popular booksellers: