Jessica Brandi Lifland for USA TODAY Michael Dashow of Oakland, Calif., checks his smartphone in front of a steampunk invention that is part piano, part computer screen. Each year, the DoubleTree Inn in San Jose hosts the Clockwork Achemy convention, an event devoted to the steampunk phenomenon.
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
SAN JOSE - By day, Joel Reid is a flooring specialist at Lowe's, Amy Gibson is a secretary and James Ridgeway a commanding officer at the Navy's operational support center in Alameda, Calif. Catch them at night or on the weekends, and you might find them decked out in full Victorian regalia with a twist: bustles and ray guns, top hats and goggles, corsets and clockwork.
They're steampunks, part of an international movement that's a mashup of do-it-yourselfers, ahistorical recreationists and science fiction aficionados who are happily reliving a past that never was.
The Victorian era was "a wonderful era when people were still being surprised by the world," says T.E. MacArthur, author of The Volcano Lady, about the adventures of a "lady geologist" in the 1880s amid aerial clipper ships and submarines.
PHOTOS: The rising steampunk movement
MacArthur was among the 500 or so who gathered in San Jose recently for Clockwork Alchemy, a steampunk convention that had workshops on Victorian atomic power, the science of airships and corset making.
The three-day event included a ball, movie showings, martial arts using improbable weapons such as the Victorian cane and a telegram service courtesy of the Aetheric Message Machine Co.
Tucked into a corner office, its teletype machines, lovingly rebuilt by John Nagle of Redwood City, Calif., clattered as if in a 1930s movie. It was part art installation, part hack - in the cool, nifty tech trick sense of the word. Cards instructed guests to text to a certain number. The messages were printed out as telegrams and delivered to areas of the hotel. The faux company's motto, in the best steampunk style, was "Bringing text messaging to the 19th century."
Merging high-tech with old tech is a hallmark of steampunk. For San Jose's Gene Forrer, a radiation safety specialist with the state of California, steampunk is "the history that never was - as if Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrote documentaries, not fiction."
Attired in a pith helmet and 19th-century military leg wraps known as puttees, the 52-year-old finds steampunks "very well-mannered and polite - just a really nice group of people." Pausing to tip his hat to a passing group of ladies sporting bustles that twinkled with lights, he handed out his card identifying him as an "Intertemporal Man of Mystery."
The word steampunk itself first appeared in 1987 to describe science fiction that imagined a Victorian era in which technology took hold but the shift from steam power to electricity never happened, says Mike Perschon, an Engish lecturerer at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, who writes on steampunk. It's since become an international movement of aficionados who craft clothing, build gadgets and make music using anomalous materials and technologies. They gather at conventions to show off and trade tips.
Much of the aesthetic comes from movies such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The Wild Wild West, all of which Perschon calls "Victorian scientific romance."
The literary and aesthetic aspects came together at the turn of this century when some in the growing do-it-yourself movement started playing with Victorian themes.
Jake von Slatt of Littleton, Mass., sees it as part of an aesthetic movement that is leading people back to actually making things. A designer and tinkerer, he loves how steampunk plays with 19th-century mechanics because it's so hands-on and accessible while making full use of 21st-century technology. An example is von Slatt's home business making steampunk-ized Fender Stratocaster guitars and iPhones, "finding really elegant ways of adding original art" to these technology-heavy but beloved devices, as he puts it.
The steampunk aesthetic is showing up in popular culture. Three Rings Design, a San Francisco game company, did its offices in full steampunk décor, complete with a secret room hidden behind a bookcase. A company called ModVic in Sharon, Mass., will redo your house in neo-Jules Verne.
And to the horror of the steampunk crowd, Justin Bieber's Santa Claus is Coming To Town Christmas video last December had a strong steampunk overlay. Some were so appalled that their subculture had gone mainstream that a version of the video called Bieber Minus Bieber showed up on YouTube, removing the pop singer entirely and rebuilding the video using only its steampunk-themed elements, to a new song called Build the Robots. It's gotten more than 11,500 hits.
Hollywood is seeking out steampunk. Portland authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett recently had their book Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel optioned as a movie by producer J.J. Abrams. It features a robot that fights with Pancho Villa and travels to Antarctica.
Done correctly, steampunk is "so much more than goggles on top hats," says Lev AC Rosen, author of the steampunk novel All Men of Genius. He sees it as a response to today's unknowable technology. "Everything I own is Apple, but I have no idea how it works," he says. In steampunk, "you can feel the gears at work. It's rough, physical, tangible science. It has all the wonder that science doesn't have today."
The movement spans the globe. "Brazil is a hotbed of steampunk right now," says Kory Doyle, an organizer of the San Jose event.
There are steampunk conventions nationwide and gatherings across the country, says Diana Vick, who runs SteamCon in Seattle, one of the largest.
The steampunk music scene started with Seattle band Abney Park, which has a dark but old-timey sound and songs with lines such as "out with the new, in with the old."
Bands across the country play events such as The Jules Verne Ball of the Future in Pasadena. A steampunk music festival, Steamstock, is in the works for October.
The sense of elegance, formality and etiquette is what drew Doyle, a marriage and family therapist in San Jose, to steampunk. In the end, he says, "there is no one answer to 'What is steampunk?' All are welcome and everyone's correct."