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Author Topic: William Gibson's thoughts on Steampunk  (Read 15246 times)
Sinjun
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« on: June 06, 2008, 12:12:55 am »

Monday night, William Gibson was at a bookstore in Seattle doing a reading from his book Spook Country, and of course a Q&A and signing afterward. This is the 4th or 5th time I've been to a Gibson signing, as I am a huge fan, and the man is incredibly intelligent and a fascinating speaker.

A couple of questions into the Q&A, I raised my hand. On being acknowledged, I asked:
"Given that you co-wrote The Difference Engine, which helped kick off and popularize the Steampunk genre and the term 'Steampunk', what do you think of the recent surge in its popularity, and people dressing steampunk and such?"

Mr. Gibson rolled his eyes and chuckled, and gave a somewhat bemused response that I shall try to quote as best my memory can:

"You know, that's another case of someone applying a term to my writing...it happened with 'cyberpunk' too, I never called my work 'cyberpunk', and 'steampunk' isn't a term I would have applied to my writing either. But it became this kind of Pantone chip*...a societal Pantone chip, like 'cyberpunk' did, you know? You could watch a video online, and say, 'that's kind of cyberpunk' or say 'those pants are just too cyberpunk' and people will know what you mean. It happened to 'steampunk' too." He shrugged.

"I don't know...Bruce and I wrote this book years ago, and now people are making bronze** filligree covered laptops!" He kind of waved his arms and laughed.

"I like the aesthetic...it's cool. My one complaint is, they make these things look all shiny and new...I think they should look...distressed. Age them! There are dozens of techniques for artificially aging things that any disreputable antiques dealer could teach you. You know, carry the pieces around in your pocket with all your change and stuff for a week or two. Make it look like it was made in 1880. That's what I think - if there are any Steampunk Makers out there - make it look old!"

Then he moved on to the next question. Hopefully my personal hero won't mind me quoting him here.  Smiley

* I had no idea what a "Pantone chip" was. I understood what he meant by context, but I had never heard the term. As best I can tell, it is a reference to color swatches, like for paint matching, which was apparently invented and patented by Pantone Inc.

** Yes, he said "bronze," not "brass"...I think he's awesome, so I will forgive him that.
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« Reply #1 on: June 06, 2008, 12:15:38 am »

I like both the old and more new-ish look on steampunk creations.  I feel brass gives it an old-fashioned look anyway, though perhaps I lean slightly toward the aesthetic of devices which would have looked good in the nineteenth century and don't look as if they were actually made then, and just happen to be around still.  I don't know--I just don't think that's a major issue of steampunk design. 
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Sinjun
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« Reply #2 on: June 06, 2008, 12:19:01 am »

I like both the old and more new-ish look on steampunk creations.  I feel brass gives it an old-fashioned look anyway, though perhaps I lean slightly toward the aesthetic of devices which would have looked good in the nineteenth century and don't look as if they were actually made then, and just happen to be around still.  I don't know--I just don't think that's a major issue of steampunk design. 


Make no mistake, I am not saying it is an issue...I'm just throwing out there (for general interest) what one of the progenitors (rather accidentally, apparently) of "steampunk" said about it. Smiley

The Difference Engine is noted by many as the first reference they heard to "steampunk".
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S.Sprocket
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« Reply #3 on: June 06, 2008, 12:46:25 am »

well I think from his point of view he sees it as something from back then, existing until now. 


the way a lot of us see it, is more a renaissance,  something from now. styled after something from back then.


I think it's just a matter of perspective.
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« Reply #4 on: June 06, 2008, 12:58:22 am »

I'm just impressed he used "Pantone Chip" - I have to use those every day. Now I feel even more special. Smiley

Thanks for sharing your recollection of the signing with us.
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« Reply #5 on: June 07, 2008, 12:01:20 am »

Thank you very much for sharing that.

I've steampunked a few things about my person, my house, and my toys, but the computer is relatively new and I haven't done much of that sort of thing with it yet.  I'm leaning, though, more toward SPing a case for my laptop but leaving the machine as is, because I do carry it around a lot and weight becomes a factor.

But I'm thinking more leather with brass fittings.  Definitely, I'll try to make it look a bit distressed - I think Mr. Gibson has a point.
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« Reply #6 on: June 07, 2008, 11:56:14 am »

I think it's a matter of perspective.
Do you imagine yourself being part of a 19th century that never was? Then, I think it would be okay, if your inventions look new-ish, because they are!
Do you imagine yourself being part of our time now and "finding" an artefact from the past? Then, the distressed look would work.

Third category would of course be the "I live 19th century but own this Gun since 20 years, so it looks like it has been through a lot" a kind of mixture of both.

regards

Toji
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« Reply #7 on: June 07, 2008, 12:11:55 pm »

I think it's a matter of perspective.
Do you imagine yourself being part of a 19th century that never was? Then, I think it would be okay, if your inventions look new-ish, because they are!
Do you imagine yourself being part of our time now and "finding" an artefact from the past? Then, the distressed look would work.

Third category would of course be the "I live 19th century but own this Gun since 20 years, so it looks like it has been through a lot" a kind of mixture of both.

regards

Toji

I agree and was contemplating saying something similar until I saw that I had been beaten to it Smiley
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« Reply #8 on: June 07, 2008, 12:48:23 pm »

I look at it more as, "What if we still used the same materials and had the same general sense of style 100 years later?" Styles mutate, even as they maintain their same general appearance and feel. As inventors tinker with the materials and equipment they have at their disposal, new uses for those items become apparent, and improvements are made. To top that off, I just like the warmth and character of materials like wood and brass. They have so much more aesthetic appeal than plastics.

The clothing of the Victorian and Edwardian era was, in general, elegant. It was *OK* to be a dandy. In fact, it was expected that any man of even moderate means (and woman of moderate means at that) be concerned with their appearance and bearing. People liked to look *good* and revered good manners, something that is sorely lacking in today's society.
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« Reply #9 on: June 07, 2008, 01:26:55 pm »

A Pantone chip is not just any paint chip. It is THE industry standard paint chip. They also get to invent all of the bizarre color names.

He is saying that the term steampunk is being applied retroactively to his work. 

Sinjun, Thanks for sharing your conversation with one of my favorite authors.
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« Reply #10 on: June 07, 2008, 04:33:25 pm »

Sinjun, you lucky dog. That would have been awesome. I'm so jealous, I wish I could have been there Cry
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« Reply #11 on: June 08, 2008, 07:52:27 pm »

As to the "should it look old and distressed or new and shiny" question, there's another possibility: It's an original from 1891, but it looks new because I stole it via time machine.  Of course, that raises the question of how battered a time machine should look...
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« Reply #12 on: June 08, 2008, 09:50:17 pm »

Of course, that raises the question of how battered a time machine should look...

That depends - do time machines age?
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« Reply #13 on: June 08, 2008, 10:39:00 pm »

The secret is to paint a picture of your time machine and leave it in the attic, then all the abuse of age is tranfered to the image. The good thing is that you don't have to do it yet.

Am I the only person here who's never read any Gibson?

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« Reply #14 on: June 09, 2008, 12:17:10 am »

The secret is to paint a picture of your time machine and leave it in the attic, then all the abuse of age is tranfered to the image. The good thing is that you don't have to do it yet.

Dr. Q.

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« Reply #15 on: June 09, 2008, 12:36:50 am »

To repeat what everyone else has said, thanks for sharing.

For my own thoughts: It's great that such a pioneering (for us) author likes the aesthetic that he had such a hand in creating. I agree with him on the subject of old-looking versus new-looking for the most part. Almost everything looks better once it's been a bit battered.
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« Reply #16 on: June 10, 2008, 08:54:35 pm »

I like that he seemed partially annoyed and yet totally with it at the same time. Grin
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« Reply #17 on: June 12, 2008, 12:52:04 am »

"I like the aesthetic...it's cool. My one complaint is, they make these things look all shiny and new...I think they should look...distressed. Age them! There are dozens of techniques for artificially aging things that any disreputable antiques dealer could teach you. You know, carry the pieces around in your pocket with all your change and stuff for a week or two. Make it look like it was made in 1880. That's what I think - if there are any Steampunk Makers out there - make it look old!"

Got it, will do.
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« Reply #18 on: June 17, 2008, 03:06:13 pm »

My two shillings worth:

Look at all the beautifully preserved historical objects and machinery in museums or private collections. From hand mirrors to steam tractors and trains, they look NEW. They looked new and were very much purposefully shiny and gilded when new, then a long series of people lovingly preserved them in near new condition. Sometimes a worn part might be replaced, especially in the case of machinery, so that in fact the parts of a given object may vary in age but the goal has been to keep it like new both in terms of working order and appearance.

There is a concept called "Beausage", a combination of beauty and usage referring to the natural, slow longterm wear or patina that can develop on a given point of contact. A key, knob, corner, a leather seat or handle. Whether the material be brass, wood or leather.
Even in this case it is not the intent of the manufacturer and often the end user for the wear to purposefully be there- it is a natural consequence and in fact can develop from the very act of polishing an item for a century. I'm guessing this is the sort of wear Mr. Gibson would prefer.

I have yet to see the artificially aged item that looks this way. It's an old trick of fakery and is a way to spot fakes for a reason- it doesn't look right. New looks like both new and well preserved old. Fake doesn't look like old, it looks fake. A mistake I've seen fairly often is to age the area or even the whole item too much- as if it was dropped whole into a swamp. All the common ready made faking craft supplies achieve the dropped-in-a-swamp effect.

In a very real way patina, rust etc certainly does not show loving use but neglect.

The easiest way to make your craftwork look like a well looked after museum piece is to leave it looking as new as when you made it. With a slight bit of work you can age a corner with a few light scuffs then polish again as someone would. But the single best way is to let it happen naturally from actually using your item for a few decades.

Perhaps someone a hundred years from now will cherish a certain brass keyboard complete with naturally worn keys from actual use. But an artifically aged item will be appreciated a hundred years later in the same way it was when it was new- a poor substitute.
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