There are No Ray-guns in Steampunk

The Order 1886 by Ready at Dawn is set in an exemplary Steampunk world, filled with grit and smoke and the occult.

By Adrian McCauley of NebulaBooks.

As Steampunk has become a more popularized and mainstream genre, even becoming a cultural movement, something has been lost in the translation. People have jumped on the ‘cool’ aesthetic without understanding what it was. Now, the term Steampunk, is ubiquitous with three main visual symbols: gears (gears and cogs on everything!) goggles (because reasons!) and ray-guns. But the thing with Steampunk that many people are missing, is that technology is dictated through what can be achieved (realistic or not) through steam engines. There are no ray-guns in Steampunk.

Any society capable of developing the technology required to harness and control powerful sources of energy (something modern science cannot yet do) would not find itself still mining for coal to power steam engines.

I am a Steampunk fan from before it was mainstream, back when it was my little secret to share with my close friends and allies. This little known sub-genre of speculative fiction and film and games. It had dark and gritty narratives, it featured rebelling against oppressive societal control; the themes were simple and it most often, and successfully, meshed with the tropes of noir, western or Lovecraftian horror. But there were no ray-guns. Anywhere. So the question is, how did this corruption of Steampunk occur, and how did it become so mainstream so quickly?

A Brief History of Ray-guns.

The first real occurrence of a ray-gun in popular fiction was most likely the ‘Heat-Ray’ from H. G. Wells’ War of The Worlds. It’s generally not seen again until the 1920’s where, after seeing the technological development fueled by war, authors started truly becoming futurists, leading to the golden ages of science fiction.

The term ray-gun itself first appears, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, in 1917 in Victor Rousseau’s The Messiah of the Cylinder. Death-rays, blaster-rifles and ray-guns quickly became cliche by the 1940’s, and with the invention of LASERs in the 1960’s popular culture soon became obsessed with this new technology, and ray-guns were all but forgotten about, replaced with plasma rifles, laser guns and phasers.

A Brief History of Steampunk

In a postmodern context, Steampunk is considered to stem from the works of such Victorian speculative authors as Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. At the time, however, they were merely authors of what was known as children’s stories, imaginative tales of unrealistic ideas. But as the technological potential of the world was explored in these books, people came to realize that science fiction was a more mature type of story that presented many challenging ideas, in terms of science and society.

The term Steampunk first appears in 1987, as an offshoot to the then popular cyberpunk genre, but the nuances behind this ideology were quickly applied retroactively to many aesthetically or thematically similar stories, most from the fifties or sixties, and right back into the Victorian era, in which Steampunk is predominantly set in.

In the early 21st century however, the aesthetic became adopted and adapted by cosplayers, crafters and artisans, and has now spread as a mainstream popular sub-culture. In places such as Oamaru, New Zealand, it has even become a main tourist attraction, with sculptures and art installations, festivals and shops and even devoted tourist attractions, all set in the backdrop of a gritty, well preserved Victorian district of beautiful limestone buildings.

Steampunk HQ tourist attraction in Oamaru, New Zealand.

But this too, however, is an inaccurate representation of the genre – a senseless desire to attach gears and cogs to everything presides among the crafters, even adopting owl and octopus motifs without understanding what they mean or where they stem from. And everyone wears goggles – not just engineers, mechanics, steelmsiths or pilots – but the social elites and aristocracy all wear them too. They sit atop of hats at an appealing tilt of 45 degrees. Possibly to suggest rebelliousness.

Then the term started to broaden and any sculpture made from scrap metal was lumped as Steampunk, and soon artists everywhere were welding bits of old beds and bikes together. And somewhere, amidst this cultural degradation of what was once known as Steampunk, ray-guns made their way into the popular attire. But how, and why? I repeat: there are no ray-guns in Steampunk.

Significant Cultural Influences

After doing much research, and also being well-versed in Steampunk literature, games and films, there is actually very little evidence of ray-guns appearing in these media. A notable exception being the Dr Grodborts series, produced by Weta Ltd and published by Dark Horse Books. The first book in this series was published in 2008, and though a satirical mix of pulp fiction from the late 1800’s to the 1940’s, can be easily mistaken for Steampunk by the uneducated as it shares many aesthetics and has some common themes. This is the literary exception as the only evident title I can find that entered mainstream consciousness.

Steampunk Salt and Pepper shakers.

In film and TV, the biggest possible influence would be the Daleks from Dr Who. Dr Who is a series that is quite Steampunk in essence, and has many Steampunk-inspired episodes and thematic elements. Daleks, the most influential element from the Dr Who franchise, are literally sentient ray-guns. Their aesthetic is one of brass and copper, and with their art-deco curves and their protruding death-rays, they would not seem out of place inserted into a Neo-Victorian pulp fiction novel.

Star Wars: Revenge of The Sith was released in May, 2005, and as the penultimate film in the prequel trilogy, received potentially more marketing and merchandising as the franchise’s final effort to prove financial success for the prequels. 2005-2006 is the period where we see, in Google Trends, that searches for ray-guns increase. Was Return of The Sith an influential factor through cosplay and children’s costumes? There is no way of telling for sure.

Steampunk Fashion: A Brief Overview

In 2003, Vernian Process, a Steampunk-themed indie band rose to prominence, and this is the same year that fashion designer Kit Stolen (AKA Anachrөnaut) made Neo-victorian fashion go mainstream. In 2006, the first Steampunk Fashion show was held at SalonCon in Seattle, which further propelled Steampunk into a mainstream consciousness.

Inspired, many Steampunk enthusiasts manufactured their own costumes, gadgets and accessories to mimic these styles, and this visual style was also jumped upon by DIY fashion designers, and included the expected elements of cogs, leather, corsetts, goggles and ray-guns. The Steampunk subculture has grown fast as people jump upon the trending images, and this is no doubt also fired by the growth of social media platforms, in particular FaceBook, Instagram and Pinterest.

With the modding community now firmly squeezing the genre, like so much bronze-coloured Playdough, the upcycling mentality faded into the background as mass-produced opportunities were discovered. Social media and sites such as Instructables and the like, perpetuated the concept of buying cheap toy guns, with cheap-import water pistols or NERF guns being popular, and painting them and adding components. These were accessible and affordable, and their general shapes led to the organic inclusion of ray-gun elements.

Modern Steampunk Fashion – all you need is gears and cogs and some leather.

Why is Steampunk Popular?

Mainstream culture is currently going through a major revival trend. We are seeing remakes, reboots and sequels everywhere. Nostalgia is the ruling elite in pop-culture consciousness, and many different retro-futuristic themes are returning. The precursor to Steampunk, Cyberpunk is making a significant return to film lately, and with books and properties such as The UbiquiCity Project, cyberpunk and it’s derivatives are set to become as significant as Steampunk.

steampunk trends.jpg
After a sharp rise from about 2006, the interest in Steampunk, according to Google Trends, has peaked and may be experiencing a decline as the next cultural movement becomes popularized. For the enthusiasts this will result in a counter-counter culture, as it returns to it’s punk roots.

The Versatility of Steampunk is a major contributing factor to it’s success. It can be horror, western, romance, spiritual or space opera. As an aesthetic device it can be applied to essentially any story or concept. At it’s core, though, is something more personal. It is a ‘punk’ genre. It is about rebelling against the aristocracy and the societal norms. It is about going against the totalitarian or oppressive governments and fighting against social and class inequity. Steampunk is the perfect analogy for modern politics and social dynamics.

It’s stylistic nature goes well with the under 30’s crowd, and this is the main Steampunk subculture demographic. This is a generation that has grown up with plastic and veneer and mass-produced, poor quality clothing and items. This is a generation that has grown up in a consumerist, media-dominated society. What better way to rebel than to create and join a counter-culture where there is no intrusive media, everything is handmade and wars over oil don’t exist, drugs are an accepted substance and are sold as freely as bags of flour; and most importantly, you are an individual. There are no credit companies or financial institutions or insurance agencies to categorize you, label you with a number and file you away. Your lifestyle is dictated by your actions, not by the fluctuations of some invisible global market run by disillusioned billionaires.

Steampunk isn’t just an aesthetic, it’s a complex, living, breathing culture.

Ultimately, though, this punk essence has been lost as Steampunk became mainstream. And it was through this process, through this sudden commercialization of an anti-consumerist ideal, that we saw the rise of mass-produced trinkets and costumes and accessories and even ray-guns. Because these people don’t understand Steampunk. They don’t truly understand what it means, or why it is relevant to today. Capitalism has taken a counter-culture movement and made it into just one more line of products, one more brand to be exploited for profit.

And it is for this reason that I say, there are no ray-guns in Steampunk.

By Adrian McCauley. For more articles on Science Fiction and Fantasy, author interviews and SFF book reviews, check out my blog, or follow me on FaceBook. You can also see my reviews of previously unpublished SFF short stories at Tangent Online.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography:

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