Steampunk is gleefully irreverent. What started in the late '80s as a term for a subgenre of cyberpunk science fiction is gaining traction as a full-blown subculture with its own aesthetic, technology and fantasies.
The best part? It's history without the cumbersome burden of reality.
"It's totally inaccurate!" said Kerry Dobbins, throwing up her hands with abandon. She's a member of Steam Century, a local steampunk group that hosts mystery games and other events. This weekend they're presenting an interactive mystery, "The Hunt for the Silk Brotherhood," at Geek.kon, the annual science fiction, anime and gaming convention in Madison.
The steampunk alternate reality is based in the Victorian era (although not necessarily in the Western hemisphere) and in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, when steam was a main power source.
From there it blooms with futuristic speculation. In the steampunk novel "The Difference Engine," for example, sci-fi writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling created a Victorian England that invented the computer, powered by steam and programmed by punch cards, generations ahead of schedule.
Since forming a couple of years ago, Steam Century has developed a world with a "what if?" scenario in which the colonists lost the American Revolution, and Great Britain lost the French and Indian War and never gained Canada as a colony.
Thus, on the Steam Century map, Wisconsin is not a sleepy state known for its universities and cows but "a hotbed of international intrigue" involving British colonists, Native American nations and the French.
But as much as they manipulate actual history, steampunkers go to great pains to ensure their version of history is as believable as possible. All of this sparks pretty heady history nerd arguments on blogs. It also breeds creativity and some of the coolest costumes this side of Halloween.
A couple of weeks ago, Steam Century threw a "Darke Carnivale" at the Inferno Nightclub that brought together elements of their fantasy world: music, a fashion show, fortune tellers, sword swallowers and, of course, a mystery game that sent participants hunting for clues to a "lost heir" with a diamond-shaped birthmark.
Revelers interpreted the steampunk style widely. Cara Brinkley, a nonprofit employee from Milwaukee, came wearing a military-themed dress with old trench coat buttons, an army surplus gas mask bag and hair falls from a Renaissance festival. She enjoys putting a twist on costuming for "history that didn't happen."
One woman made her own bustle with wire from a hardware store. Another fashioned an old back brace into a makeshift corset. Men incorporated pocket watches, a sleeve of armor, monocles, swords and various mechanics into their outfits (one even tucked a real volt meter into his vest).
The steampunk aesthetic is catching on quickly. For one thing, it's mutable. It can be gothy, have a dash of '80s New Wave attitude or bring in other anachronistic elements.
Raven Albrecht started carrying steampunk clothing earlier this year at her costume shop Ravenworks, located in Westgate Mall between TJ Maxx and Wisconsin Active Sportswear. She hadn't heard of it until customers started requesting it.
"Once they showed it to me, I was fascinated. It's very prim and proper, but down and dirty at the same time," she said. Men in particular like the rich velvet, satin and brocade fabrics and sumptuous designs, she added. They're "dashing and debonair," not plain like modern men's fashion.
A retired cop who worked for the United Nations in Bosnia, Croatia and Haiti, Albrecht "couldn't sew a button" three years ago. She got a crash course in sewing when she volunteered to make a bunch of cloaks for religious ceremonies at a local church. Now Ravenworks is a main stopping place in Madison for people interested in steampunk and other historical wear.
She's eager to put walk-in customers into a full steampunk outfit - just so they can get the feel of it. For a 2009 woman, for instance, it's a strange new sensation to have a heavy hoop skirt swishing back and forth at the ankle.
But the appeal of steampunk goes beyond aesthetics and fashion. It resonates today because it explores a similar era to the early 21st century. Both now and during the Industrial Revolution, people were grappling with overwhelmingly fast technological changes.
"A lot of questions that we're facing today are the same," said Dobbins. "Who's in charge, the technology or the human?"
Plus, the simpler mechanics of the Victorian Era present a fun challenge for people who like to tinker.
"Right now, our technology is so rarified. If you drop and break your iPod, you're done. You're buying another iPod," she said. A steampunk world opens up new options: What would a steam-powered computer look like? How would a Victorian space shuttle work?
Similar questions are behind the work of Alex Kensington, a traveling sword swallower and phrenologist who performed at Darke Carnivale. He found out about phrenology, the pseudoscience of "reading" the shape of the skull to determine personality and morality, when he started collecting rare medical books and "how to" pamphlets of the early 1800s.
Phrenology was the common biologically manifested yardstick of character back then, he said. Fathers got their future sons-in-law tested. Employers tested potential employees. Ironically, he said, phrenology is likely no more accurate a judge of character than the "strange metrics of ludicrous credibility" we're using today, like generic pre-employment screenings conducted over the phone.
"Steampunk questions technology," he said. "Who says (old technologies) are obsolete? Are they obsolete for valid reasons?"
These kinds of questions also intrigue Dobbins, a Ph.D candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although she and the other members of Steam Century are most interested in storytelling. Next year in their mystery games, the group will likely explore a dystopian reality by playing around with the "supervillains" of the Industrial Revolution.
Like the mystery they'll present this weekend at Geek.kon, the games are "really intuitive" and freeform, not prepackaged for consumption like Murder Mystery Theater.
"The best players are kids," she said, since adults tend to overthink the evidence and spin conspiracy theories. Still, Steam Century games are geared for ages 14 and over (with a permission slip required for anyone under 18).
Dobbins' cat Diesel, a majestic longhair who often joins her at Steam Century meetings, is a common cast member in the mysteries (he wore a clue around his neck during a recent game). But in the steampunk alt-reality, he goes by "Edward."
"We couldn't explain 'diesel' in that world," she said.
IF YOU GO
What: Steam Century at Geek.kon
Where: Sheraton Madison Hotel,
706 John Nolen Drive
When: Friday, Oct 23, 6 p.m.: Steampunk Fashion Show; Saturday, Oct. 24, 10 a.m.: Mystery game "The Hunt for the Silk Brotherhood" opens (runs all day Saturday and Sunday at the conference)
Cost: one-time fee of $10 for both days of the mystery (plus entrance fee to Geek.kon - $25 for three-day badge, $10 for Friday and Sunday badges, $15 for Saturday badge)