Sean Slattery puts on his goggles and starts up the engine of his Frankenstein's monster of a car, its fiberglass body imitating that of a 1929 Mercedes SSK, its chassis taken from a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle. He bought it on eBay for US $1500, and after major repairs he is now ready to add his own hack. He plans to paint the machine black with gold filigree, mount brass headlights and a slanted grille, and install a compact boiler to drive the vehicle with the fiery might of steam. Call it the Steampunk Car.
Steampunk is a burgeoning subculture that draws on the elaborate aesthetics and romantic worldview of 19thâ¿¿century England to envision how things might have looked had a few key technologies been developed further. It conjures a gaslit cityscape filled with steam-powered robots, mechanical computers, ray-gun-toting aeronauts, and monocled mad scientists.
Steampunk diehards talk and dress as if they lived in such a world. Some stay in character all the time--whether at a steampunk gathering or the supermarket. Slattery, 46, takes things a bit more casually. Most of the time he's a regular guy: a Linux system administrator, married, with two daughters. It's when he walks into his garage, crammed with metalworking tools and hunks of brass he's found at the town dump, that he becomes Jake von Slatt, proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop.
On a recent summer afternoon, he parks the Steampunk Car at his home in Littleton, Mass., and guides a visitor through the property. In the backyard sits a school bus converted into a fully equipped Victorian-style recreational vehicle. On his office desk, he keeps a brass-adorned PC ”fit for the office of Queen Victoria herself.”
”I've always been fascinated at this blend of the old and the new,” he says, ”particularly when there's an element of anachronism--something out of time.”
Steampunk has its roots in the 1980s as a type of speculative fiction, its name a tongue-in-cheek derivation from another literary subgenre, cyberpunk. But in the past few years, the movement has been ”steamrolling,” as Slattery puts it, with the emergence of steampunk fashion, music, and design.
Feeding this growth are the pipes of the Internet. If the computer hackers of the 1980s had hobbyist clubs, the steampunk community has Facebook, YouTube, and online forums like Brass Goggles, where they philosophize about their lifestyles, discuss novels like The Warlord of the Air (1971), by Michael Moorcock, and Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992), by James Blaylock, and share photos of their handmade prop weapons (”This is Chekhov, the newest darling in my personal arsenal, a rotary-dial gun”).
”It's about a society that is learning to bubble up on networks,” says sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling, coauthor with William Gibson of The Difference Engine , a 1990 novel that many steampunk fans cite as a big inspiration. ”That's the part that's really weird and new and remarkable about steampunk--not the brass, top hats, and whalebone but that it's digital and rootless and headless.”
Sean Slattery (aka Jake von Slatt) plans to convert his faux 1929 Mercedes into an anachronistic steam-powered Victorian vehicle.