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Book Review: Steampunk: The Art Of Victorian Futurism by Jay Strongman

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If the term “steampunk” evokes a vision of the past and the future colliding, that is exactly as it is intended. In Jay Strongman’s new book Steampunk: The Art Of Victorian Futurism, we are offered over 250 pieces of art that represent this relatively new movement. Many of these objects are absolutely beautiful, in a very oddly retro-futuristic mashup. The overall effect of the book is stunning.

To break it down, steampunk takes as its base the Victorian visions of the future as written by literary heroes such as Jules Verne and H.G. Welles. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine from Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is a prime example. Simply put, the dichotomy between the gorgeous machinery of the late nineteenth century coupled with technology that was pure fantasy at the time is a major component of the style.

One of the more extraordinary examples of this is The Clacker. This was created by Richard “Doc” Nagy, a.k.a. Datamancer. It is a complete PC, retrofitted to look as if it belonged in an office of the 1890s. Each keyboard key is of the antique round style we have seen on the era’s typewriters. There is a mouse which looks like a telegraph clicker, a wooden mousepad, bell-style speakers, and a monitor that looks like an apothecary cabinet. Painstakingly putting something like this together must have been an enormous labor of love, but it is something to see.

The Clacker is just one of the many highlights of this collection. While there are a number of three-dimensional objects like it, the majority of the pieces are digital artworks, paintings, and even drawings. In looking through the book, it becomes more and more difficult to actually come to a strict definition of steampunk, as the various artists combine a huge amount of elements into their work.

In the introductory chapters, Strongman mentions a large number of antecedents to what has become known as steampunk. And while the text is interesting, one can easily pick out what makes the artists tick by what they have produced. The concept of steam engines is obviously a big factor, but by no means the only one. There are beautiful renderings of zeppelins engaged in airborn battles, the aforementioned submarines, a steam-powered motorcycle, and many other types of transport.

The elements of goth have also crept into many of the artist’s works. The English Moors are a popular setting, as is Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (or ones like his), and crumbling castles and abbeys all play significant parts.

Steampunk is a window into a world of art with a vision uniquely 21st century, yet beholden to a past that never actually existed. Strongman uses the term “forgotten future” at one point, and it is this idea that seems central to the thesis. What forward-looking writers thought the future would look like 125 years ago is such a marvelous concept to build present-day artwork around. It is this type of thinking that powers (if you will) Steampunk. It is a gorgeous book, filled with imagination.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://www.markcraner.com/ Mark Craner

    Ever since I first read The Difference Engine I’ve been intrigued with tales of alternate pasts and the whole aesthetic aspect of Steampunk. I’ll definitely be checking out this tome.

  • Jason

    I can tell, Mark, because you called it a “tome.” ;)

  • Greg Barbrick

    The artwork in this “tome” or whatever you wish to call it is really something to see, in any case.