Steampunk and Jake von Slatt: Retro Tech for the Now Generation

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The cover of Steampunk and one of Jake von Slatt's steampunk creations...

Steampunk fiction features a heady blend of influences like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and inventor-hero fiction from the American pulps of the 1800s. It typically includes some mix or mash-up of airships, mad (or, at least, heavily-invested) scientists, eccentric inventors, Victorian-era adventure, and clockwork technology of the sort that we've largely abandoned. Its godfather may well be Michael Moorcock, with his novel The Warlord of the Air, and it gained huge popularity in its first wave because of novels like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine in the 1980s and early 1990s. Other classics include Paul Di Filippo's The Steampunk Trilogy, K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, and Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates.

Now, it's returned in full force through what's being called the "steampunk subculture"--a subculture my wife Ann and I have encountered and enjoyed while editing our most recent anthology, Steampunk. The book collects iconic short stories of the subgenre by the likes of Joe Lansdale, Michael Chabon, James Blaylock, Neal Stephenson, Mary Gentle, Rachel E. Pollock, and many more. Quite purely by accident, Steampunk's release has coincided with major features on steampunk in the national press, like a recent article in the New York Times. Not only has our anthology already gone back to reprint, but we've been inundated with requests for interviews (including from the Weather Channel website!), with the anthology featured recently on the LA Times blog and on Australian national radio. (For an amusing moment or two, listen to the radio interview and wait for my major brain freeze when asked about steampunk fashion, whereupon I babble about "mechanical corsets," which prompts the interviewer to ask, "What are you wearing?")

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But the great thing about having edited this anthology is the cross-pollination. Some in the steampunk subculture--brought there by other media like comics or movies, or simply through their friends and social groups--are encountering these classic stories for the first time. Meanwhile, we're getting a crash-course in the steampunk aesthetic, which especially appeals to our tastes in art. Baroque laptops and other retro-fitted gadgetry show that functional does not have to be seamless and slick to be pleasing to the eye. Websites like Brass Goggles, Voyages Extraordinaires, The Steampunk Librarian, and Dark Roasted Blend, among others, frequently hold forth on steampunk-related subjects. There's even a Steampunk Magazine, and bands that create steampunk music, like Abney Park.

One of the best-known "steampunks" is Jake von Slatt, the driving force behind the Steampunk Workshop. He's been featured on Boing Boing and in the previously mentioned NYT article, among many others. I interviewed him recently to satisfy my own curiousity about steampunk and the surrounding subculture...

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