Between September 25 and 27, fans of the steampunk culture and lifestyle invaded Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the second annual Grand Canadian Steampunk Exposition.
Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction and fantasy that takes place in an alternate imagining of the Victorian era with anachronistic technology. The early stages of the industrial revolution are its key influences and much of its fictional elements are derived from steam-era technology as opposed to the typical futurism or magic employed by other science fiction and fantasy genres.
Steampunk as a social movement has gone from obscurity to a mainstream phenomenon in recent years.
“Steampunk is a combination between Victorian history and science fiction,” said Susan Spencer, founder of the Grand Canadian Steampunk Exposition. “These people imagine a world where diesel and nuclear power never took over, and electricity only took a small hold. Most are still powered with steam, yet time went forward. You will find people with cameras or iPods that look like they’re powered by steam. Even full computers!”
For example, it is more likely to see characters waging wars using airships than spaceships or using some redesigned version of a flintlock pistol than a laser gun.
The term “Steampunk” was supposedly derived as a parody of the term Cyberpunk, which referred to the high technology based breakdown of social order. In Steampunk’s case it refers to an alternate form of history in which steam powered technology remains in mainstream use even as other technologies advanced, such as the time machine used by H.G. Wells in his novel The Time Machine.
Steampunk originated as a sub genre of science fiction primarily based on literary works by authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, whose collaborative novel The Difference Engine is often considered a foundational text of the genre.
“It started with literature,” said Spencer. “It grew out of a literature genre and it developed a fandom, and in these days there are fandoms for this, that and the other. It wasn’t long until the people who were interested in fashion got into it, then you have to have someplace to go when you’re dressed up. That’s how this sort of thing got started.”
Since Steampunk’s modest start, which could be argued to have began in the Victorian era itself, it has picked up steam in recent years. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” said Spencer. “It’s very popular. There are even T.V. shows [making use of the steampunk genre] now.”
The unique blend of popular culture, science fiction and history that Steampunk offers allows fans to get in touch with their creative side. Self-expression and creativity were in abundance at the Exposition. There were plenty of examples of what someone can do with some brass and leather designs.
“What is really fantastic about the whole Steampunk movement is that it has tweaked people’s creativity so much,” said Spencer. “Yeah, you might be Mickey Mouse but you’re a Steampunk Mickey Mouse. People can be anything they want [at the expo] and they all have a Steampunk twist to them.”
Steampunk is a genre that prides itself in endless possibilities and creativity, one might wonder how it manages to maintain itself as a single entity at all.
“In Steampunk there really aren’t a lot of rules,” said Spencer, explaining this. “We’re hunter-gatherers. We pick up all the cool stuff and put it all into one.”
Spencer also conveyed a saying used by fans of Steampunk. “It’s not Steampunk to say ‘it’s not Steampunk’.” The meaning being that Steampunk doesn’t discriminate on any basis. The costumes needn’t be elaborate and the historical knowledge isn’t what’s important. The important thing is that it is enjoyed by all who choose to participate in it and it would be wrong for other fans to discourage that.
“It’s a very inclusive group of people,” said Spencer. “We see a lot of very different people here and we are very accepting. Lots of people say they would love to come but they don’t have a costume. You don’t need one. We’ll accept you in blue jeans and T-shirts, that’s not a problem, but I bet you six to the dozen that by the time you leave you’ll have at least a pair of goggles.”
It is no wonder that Steampunk has grown so popular in recent years. It seems to have something about it that appeals to people from all stages and walks of life, and it seldom turns people away.
“What’s not to love about taking something, taking it apart and making it better?,” asked Spencer.
“Making it shiny and turning it into something you can wear. For those of us who are tinkerers at heart, what could be better? If you’re a fashionista, modern styles are fine but I don’t know a single young lady who’s into fashion who doesn’t love having a long dress on. We have students, we have kids in strollers, and even people who are in their 80s and 90s here today.”
Events such as this one have begun to spring up all over the United States and the United Kingdom as of late. But Canada seems to have had a slower start. The Grand Canadian Steampunk Exposition is among the first of its kind here in Canada and it is expected that it will continue to grow subsequently each year. The group effort needed to pull off an exposition in its early stages is staggering, yet it was a success for the past two years.
“I have a very dedicated group of core volunteers and it would not have happened without them,” said Spencer. “It was a happy happenstance of Parks Canada wanting to bring new people onto [Fort George] and my staff and I who were looking for a place to do a Steampunk event. There was a gentlemen named Adam Smith, who runs Steam on Queen, which is a one day street fair in Toronto. I called him and asked if he would like to work with me on this. So, the first event was a triumvirate between the three of us.”
If you missed the chance to go to the Grand Canadian Steampunk Exposition this year, be sure to keep an eye out for news of next years event. For more information checkout the website at canadiansteampunk.com.