As a subgenre, a movement, a fashion statement, steampunk has worn a dozen garments and none of them fit exactly the same. Depending on how you squint at it, or how the light strikes it, steampunk has chameleonic elements, with a reach extending to literature, music, graphic novels, comics, costuming — almost anything can be steampunk. Highly adaptable, this movement is happening all around us — even in the movies and TV shows we watch. Like a subtle alien invasion, it infiltrates the unseen corners, until finally, it reaches the mainstream.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction defines steampunk as “a modern subgenre whose [science fiction] events take place against a nineteenth-century background.” But that doesn’t really pin it down. Steampunk, unlike other subgenres of science fiction (namely cyberpunk, a genre popularized by writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, each of whom dealt in high tech near-futures and corrupt global corporations) almost prides itself on being hard to categorize. Essentially, it’s science fiction ... with a twist. Some call it retro-futurism. It’s an alternative history, which by default changes the present.
The term steampunk was coined by science fiction writer KW Jeter in 1987, found in a letter where he describes a new kind of fiction that looked to the past for visions of the future. Jeter, alongside two other California writers, James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers, each contributed work in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and which would define steampunk literature.
At that point, though, it still wasn’t considered a movement, at least not until 2008, when one of the earliest steampunk conventions, Steam Powered: The Californian Steampunk Convention, kicked off a new way for lovers of the genre to get together.
Two years later, Detroit got its own steampunk function, The World Steam Expo. It whet some appetites and got some press, but then fizzled out.
Now, Michael Wiggins, a Victorian dance teacher (an expert in waltz), and owner of The Phoenix Cafe in Hazel Park, plans to bring steampunk to the Motor City for the inaugural “Up in the Aether: The Steampunk Convention,” which will be held May 24-27. And he promises that fans of The World Steam Expo won’t be disappointed; Up in the Aether is cut from the same cloth, only slightly different.
“Literally, this convention is steampunk convention put on by the community for the community, all of it is volunteer,” says Wiggins. “We’ve got bands from all over the country to perform. The bands are big enough that I have to bring in a 400-person tent to put outside of the hotel.”
Some of the acts scheduled to perform are the power metal troupe, AUTOMATON, electro swing maestro Vourteque, Eli August and others. What’s a steampunk band sound like? Well, Wiggins notes, it can encompass … everything.
“Steampunk bands can be like the old carnivals, there is a lot of crossover with bands that have violins and traditional instruments,” Wiggins says. “There’s one band that do its [sic] as automatons, they’re like robots. A steampunk heavy metal band (Automatic). There’s a national Steampunk country band. It can cover all of the genres of music. They’ve done Steampunk versions of Walk Like an Egyptian, where they cover the old hits with old instruments.”
Steampunk newbies needn’t fear; they can find their place within the movement if they’ve got a thing for the Victorian era spliced with technology, corsets and steam-powered devices. “That’s the cool thing about the Steampunk movement, you can find a niche,” Wiggins says. “There’s the steampunk music movement, there’s the costuming, there’s the historic aspect,; and since I have the café, I bring in Steampunk bands. I recently brought one in from Italy.”
One of the centerpieces of the three-day event will be the Mr. and Ms. Steampunk competition. “With this year’s Mr. and Ms. Steampunk, we let the community choose who got nominated,” Wiggins says. “So we had no hand in doing it.”
In addition to the costumes, music and panel discussions, a chef will be on hand cooking Victorian-era recipes; there will be a cigar and scotch reception, and meet-and-greets with the guests of honor (including bestselling author Elizabeth Bear and other steampunk writers).
Don Watts, a professional mechanic, plans to attend Up in the Aether. In fact, he and his wife haven’t missed any of Wiggins’ events. He came to steampunk from a fascination with the Michigan Renaissance Festival.
“We’ve always been interested in [the] Victorian-era and the literature of Victorian time,” Watts says. “War of the Worlds, I’ve always loved that. They always think about the movie made in the ’50s. When you read it, it’s very entertaining. When you really think about it, the old TV series The Wild Wild West is considered a steampunk series. People don’t actually think about it ... that’s a Steampunk era program. You don’t really see it till you think about it. Sometimes it’s really subtle. It’s how you look at it. You can be way over the top, or it can be as simple as a tiny top hat, and you still fit into the Steampunk community.”
This all-inclusiveness is one of the attractions of the steampunk community for him. He’s especially proud of what he calls their “Steampunk Invasions,” where someone on Facebook picks a time and place for a bunch of steampunk followers to show up, fully dressed, and ready to have fun.
“There’s a lot of sharing of ideas. It’s a fun community,” Watts says. “Everybody has a good time. We’ll get together for burgers and beer. We invaded the zoo one day — had a blast with that. You can go to the Renaissance Festival for years, I think it turns into something different. We’ve gone to Greenfield Village and hung out. Someone will throw one of those out (and) you’re pretty much guaranteed 20 people are going to show up. It’s almost become a large extended family.”
Wiggins often spends time with this extended family and is the chief organizer of the events. When he isn’t teaching Victorian dance Wiggins lets his inner punk run free by building and rebuilding – or retrofitting – objects in his spare time.
“Everything in the Victorian period was larger, it was ornate,” Wiggins says. “Now, you’ve got people that are retrofitting modern technology to look Victorian. They’re redoing laptops in hardwoods and oaks; they’re stealing the keys from antique typewriters, now you have something that’s more a piece of art but it’s also functional. Everything I do, or rebuild with this repurposed, everything is found. In today’s economy, if it’s broke, I can see what I can use.”
And it doesn’t just end with the Up in the Aether convention. Wiggins hosts two steampunk events a month as a way to get more steampunks together. But with Up in the Aether, Wiggins and his supporters are hoping for a good push of steam to blast this one off.
Up in the Aether: The Steampunk Convention is scheduled for May 24-27 at the Doubletree, 5801 Southfield Fwy., Detroit. For more information, call 313-336-3340 or visit upintheaether.com.