Steampunk is really, really big here at Dragon*Con. It's just about everywhere you look. The costumes and contraptions are marked by an intricately elaborate design aesthetic and they are beautiful - goggles, gears, the romance of a time that never was.
Maybe it's because I recently watched the film adaptation of H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine," or maybe because Dragon*Con itself just has that effect, but in the midst of it all, I really do feel as though I've been transported to an alternate universe. And that's what steampunk is all about.
Imagine an alternate history where steam power is still widely used - Victorian era Britain is the favored setting - and add to that a healthy dose of sci-fi / fantasy and a whole lot of design thinking and craftsmanship.
It sounds like an oxymoron, but "retro-futurism" is a good way to picture it.
At Dragon*Con, steampunk falls into the "Alternate History" track. Activities include panels (e.g., "Applied Science of Steampunk"), concerts, a steampunk music roundtable and an exhibition of props, weapons, costumes and contraptions. Steampunkers also got to show off their costumes at the annual parade Saturday morning, as well as at the Grand Pirate & Time Travelers' Ball.
For Michael Vail and Tyler Althafer, both 24, it's about creativity and community. The two friends met freshman year of high school and have been coming to Dragon*Con together for the past nine years. For this year, the two built a big, magnificent steampunk airship that is getting a lot of attention.
Citing films like "The Golden Compass" and "Master and Commander" as sources of inspiration, Vail and Althafer created their vessel from materials including a moving skid, two-by-fours, plastic house siding and hula hoops. As a result of this project, Vail and Althafer have also started their own prop design company called Iron Zeppelin Productions.
For Vail, being part of the steampunk movement allows him to "build things that look cool." For Althafer, the appeal is "creativity. It's not copying anything else. It allows for a huge amount of individuality."
There's a pretty lively music component, too. Abney Park, a steampunk band (named after a London cemetery), has been around for fifteen years, according to founder "Captain Robert" Brown. Eight albums later, the band performs, records and tours full-time with its six members.
Back in the late nineties when they were starting out, they knew they had a "vintage futuristic" feel, but didn't stumble across the term "steampunk" until a friend's father, a science fiction writer, pointed it out to them. Then, on their tours as they began returning to the same cities, they saw more and more fans coming out dressed like themselves, and that's when they realized it was turning into a real subculture.
So what exactly does a steampunk band sound like? According to guitarist Josh Goering, it's about reflecting the idea of "a time that never was" in their music. Abney Park does it by infusing a combination of older instruments, music and cultures from around the world, as well as older styles like jazz.
This is the band's fourth appearance at Dragon*Con, and their performance Saturday night was "the biggest show I've ever played," according to Goering. "It's adventure-style storytelling. It's an escape from boring everyday life that everybody's used to."
In a funny way, steampunk is a subculture that's going mainstream: Just take the overabundance of steampunk here at Dragon*Con 2011. Also,The Guardian recently published an article including steampunk as one of Britain's next generation of subcultures. And the Simplicity Pattern Company (a popular manufacturer of sewing pattern guides) even offers a steampunk line of sewing patterns.
This year, steampunkers are attempting to break a Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of folks in steampunk costuming. They set the record last year at Dragon*Con, and by the looks of it, breaking it shouldn't be a problem.