The Age of Imperialism

When Victorian politics comes up in Steampunk I quite often hear guilt and sorrow in the voice speaking of the British Empire, that ‘we should not have done what we did then’ sort of malarky. As we look back with our glasses fogged with romanticism imperialism has gotten tarnished with the brush of badness.

Empire building is nothing new. The Persians, the Romans, the Turks, the Mongols, they were all expansionist and imperialist. There were those before them. People like having more and frequently look at taking what their neighbours have in order to get it. The Age of Imperialism is generally accepted as beginning around the mid 19th Century so bang in the Victorian period. Great Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and even the United States were all players.

For the sake of making this discussion the easier, let us call the Imperialistic countries Motherlands and the subject countries Children. You will see the appropriateness of these labels in short order.

The Motherlands were generally technologically, culturally and socially advanced; what we would term today the First World Countries [and they still are called so]. The subject countries were second and third world countries, areas of the world which had resources but no infrastructure to take advantage of such. India, Africa, The Islands, South America, parts of Asia… all very inhospitable places but people are people and it is wondrous where people will and can live.

It is true that Imperialism had its costs and disadvantages to the Child Countries. Lack of self government or, at best, a figurehead who listened to ‘advisors’ from the Motherland. Natives of the Child Countries were often considered as second class citizens. The ‘Haves’ were those of the Motherland and the handful of trusted Child Country’s parasites who stuck close to them while the ‘Have-Nots’ were the bulk of the population of the subject land. Resources were removed and sent to the industrial centers.

This is generally the focus of the Anti-Imperialists and the source of guilt among many in the Steampunk subculture.

But nothing is entirely negative and the world is all about balance. While the scales are not often laying at an equal and even level they do bob up and down.

The Motherlands imported and shared much with their Children. Technology, culture, medicine, education, finished products and more were imported into the subject countries. Advancements trickled down. A better style of living was made available and it is as much the fault of some classes and members of the Child Countries as the Motherlands that it was not shared equally. Economic and technological efficiency was increased. Opportunities increased in certain areas and regions.

You must remember that no form of government is truly and totally effective for all people because they involve people, and people are generally possessive, arrogant, egotistical and greedy [indeed there are exceptions but the rule is ever disappointing]. Save perhaps the few forms of government where the ruler(s) has/have sweeping powers and either choose not to use them or to do so beneficially for their people every form of government depends on its top level structure to be better than people are. The philosopher Herbert Spencer [1820 – 1903] considered that “The republican form of government is the highest form of government, but, because of this, it requires the highest form of human nature – a type nowhere at present existing.”

There always have been and always will be those considered ‘second class citizens’ and it is sad that Victorian Great Britain is spoken of with guilt because they did what others were doing but more effectively.

While we are looking at forms of government let us look at another system that was very loudly acclaimed during the Victorian period and still rumbles about in this modern age: anarchy.

While self-government is an interesting idea it is, in the main, unworkable.

The majority of anarchists don’t merely wish the current ruling body to be pulled down, they also wish their own to be put into place. This is not truly anarchy. It is merely replacement.

And in a system of self government where everyone is responsible for themselves how would social programs work? How would the poor and the hungry find assistance? How would crime, as we define it currently, be addressed? How would resources make their way into finished product? Anarchists often do not think things through completely.

There have been and currently are anarchistic communities but they have only ever operated on the small scale and have seen more than their fair share of problems.

To return to the British Empire it is possibly unlikely that her Child Countries [or those of the other Motherlands] would be as they are today without the influence from the imperialistic periods. Many third world countries have moved up into the second tier. A number offer technology, manufacturing and service that outstrips those of the first world countries. And the haves and have-nots today? Even under self rule the separation is vast and starvation and poverty is still widespread.

So please do not feel guilty when speaking of Great Britain just because she had an empire.

Now that you’ve loosened your sabres in their scabbards, next I shall discuss the various parts of the world in Steampunk with an eye towards costuming.

H.A. Higgins-Keith


Of Labels and Definitions.

Sit and have a brandy. It shall be a short visit today.
Before I start causing a ruckus and row, and before I start making your bustle rustle or your mustache stiffen, let’s take a quick look at the root of the thing, shall we?
What IS Steampunk really?
And why do we need this label?

Well, labels are handy. When you meet someone on the street or at a gather or a convention would you rather spend twenty minutes explaining what steampunk is? Or something quick and basic that will do.
This weekend past I heard a very very good little definition. In a nutshell, which granted is a small space, steampunk is: a retro-futuristic neo-victorian science fiction based romantic fantasy aesthetic.

C’est tout.

And there you have it. Nice and quick, wot? And most people will understand those terms, those words.

But when you get out of the nutshell, ah, there’s the rub. It’s a big old world with lots and lots of possibilities. And that’s where we’ll go soon.

Onward to adventure!!

H.A. Higgins-Keith

Getting to the Meat of the Matter

So what is Steampunk?

Now this is a question that is frequently asked, particularly by those new to the idea. And ’tis also a question that is frequently debated. To set a common cliche appropriately; if you ask a dozen steampunks what Steampunk is you shall get two dozen answers.

First, allow me to begin with some definitions so that we have a common ground for our discussion. All definitions are courtesy of Miriam-Webster.

Steampunk: does not appear in the dictionary. Yet. Give it a few years.

Aesthetic: (noun) – a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight. A pleasing appearance or effect.

Genre: (noun) – a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.

Subculture: (noun) An ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society.

So which is the Steampunk movement? It would appear that it is all three. And that is the beauty of Steampunk, that it is and can be many things to many people. does have a definition of Steampunk: (noun) –

1. a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world.
2. a subculture inspired by this literary and film subgenre: the fashions and gadgets of steampunk.
A rather bare-bones sort of definition leaving lots of room for interpretation. Wikipedia calls Steampunk “a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and speculative fiction… (which) involves a setting where steam power is still widely used… that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy..
According to Steampunk is “a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.” continues with a more succinct definition of the culture as a ” lifestyle choice, wherein the participants embrace deliberate anachronism and quasi-anachronism as seen in steampunk fiction. Often characterized by modifying one’s electronic gadgets to make them look a century out-of-date.” And ’tis well worth reading as there are some very tongue in cheek and nearly insulting definitions added further down, including the infamous and incorrect “when goths found brown.”

Before I begin with my own futile effort to offer some poor form of definition I recommend that you take a few minutes to read the following articles that I have enjoyed and that i respect for their attempt at defining such a nebulous thing as Steampunk:

So. Steampunk, what? I shall leave you to refine your own definitions as there is no real way to go wrong as long as you keep a few things in mind:

– Steam technology, the Victorian period and all that, historically speaking.
– Retro futurism. What would tomorrow have looked like from yesterday?
– The Devil is in the Details & Form Before Function.
Now, only a few more bits to dig into and we can call it a day. Perhaps even a mildly successful one.

Let us examine the word itself. Steampunk. ‘Tis made from Steam and Punk. Now, the first part of this term is the most agreed on.

The ‘Steam’ refers to the time period and the technology. Simple, is it not? This is the easy half.
The ‘Punk’. I will admit that this part sees frequent arguments, particularly from the young and those others who were not involved in the punk movement of the 70s. And yes, I do understand that KW Jeter initially meant the moniker as a joke. Those who discuss this particular segment are looking for the political rebellion that they feel the punk subculture was strictly focused on but it was much more than that and it differed depending on which country and even which city you were a punk in. Yes, dear reader, I was a punk back in the day so, having been a member of that subculture, perhaps I speak with a little more knowledge than those who look back on it without complete understanding.
First of all, the Punk movement was as much a social rebellion as it was a political one and in many instances the social commentary and anger was much, much stronger. While the Steampunk social rebellion is much more quiet and, dare I say, polite, it is no less passionate. Steampunk is a rebellion against the high-tech, impersonal, mass production, plastic, disposable, internet-society of the modern era. While the subculture utilizes the world wide web for communication and information transfer more emphasis is placed on face time, on meeting out in the real world where there are things like weather and sunshine, moonlight and architecture and people. Necessary modern technology is ‘prettied up’ or hidden, covered over in a Victorian veneer or tucked away in a pocket. Members of the movement pay heed to politeness and respect. Surely it is a romanticized ideal but in such are the ghosts of the past and the echoes of the future.
Secondly, much like the punk subculture before it, Steampunk has a very, very strong DIY ethos. Makers play an illustrious role and their creations and modifications are discussed and adored by those who do not have such refined and competent skills. Surely there are marketplaces both online and off where crafters offer their creations for sale and many haunt such places with credit card in hand but the bulk of the aesthetic is still built individually and by small groups. All levels of skill are appreciated and creators are complimented simply on the attempt.

Finally, to wrap this little exploration of definition up, I would like to point out the three main approaches to the Steampunk world. Again this is the glory of the movement: individuality. There is no one single definition or approach, but rather handsful of different paths all of which are accepted and celebrated.

a) A proper Victorian approach. ‘Tis the late 19th Century but with a technological twist. The imaginings of Jules Verne and similar authors are the reality rather than the romantic fantasy. Airships crowd the skies over Queen Victoria’s empire. Brave explorers adventure in the deep jungles armed with electrical guns and eugenically enhanced pack beasts. Velocipedes clutter the streets. This appears, currently, to be the most popular of the three ‘basic’ world-concepts.
b) The Post-apocalyptic Approach. Whether the earth has run out of petroleum, a plastic eating bacteria has reduced our level of technology or a meteor strike has knocked civilization back a century or three this idea is almost as popular both in fiction and presentation. The Aftermath scenario is very attractive as it permits one to build many things out of ‘recycled’ modern technology.
C) The Divergent History Approach. I find this one most attractive though it is the least enjoyed outside of Alternate History circles. It is indeed August of 2011 but the world found another path shortly after the industrial revolution. Petroleum is used for other things, and the modern world is not so plastic and petrol. Change has moved much more slowly in many aspects of life while growing in leaps and bounds in other places. This is the conceptualization that I personally prefer.
The Steampunk world can also be a place of high science and technology or it can include elements of fantasy. Mix to your personal taste.

Thank you, good reader, for taking the time to make it this far. I acknowledge that in this modern world of sound-bites and short attention spans I am and will continue to be wordy.

When next I write I shall look at the peoples and cultures of a Steampunk world and the advantages of Imperialism, which I am sure will cause much the gnashing of teeth and disagreement among my readers.

Until then.


H.A. Higgins-Keith

The Adventurer At Home

Well, come in and have yourself a seat. Grab a cuppa while you’re at it, though this will be a short little bit.

Welcome to my snug little online home, tucked in amongst the cogs and pipes of the internet. This will look more and more appropriate as it builds but for now I’m starting off fairly simple. Simple is easy, after all.

What will you find here? Things Steampunk. Thoughts, discussions, ideas, pictures and all sorts of clutter to decorate this little space which is mine. Steampunk is the latest thing, though I must agree it is more an aesthetic than it is a genre [and I’m quoting a fine gentleman here who I may quote further in the future – there may be many quotes from those better at speaking than your humble host]. Movies, books, music, clothing… ah, the clothing. I shall focus on the gentleman’s wardrobe and leave that of the fairer gender to those better able to speak of it. Reviews, events… it shall all be accumulated here where it can be looked at from time to time.

But for now? I shall leave you with my welcome and my appreciation that you are reading my words. I look forward to speaking with you in the nearness of the future.


H.A. Higgins-Keith