Missouri Artists Unleash the Power of Steampunk

High adventure in imaginary worlds of gaslight and gears: welcome to steampunk! This Victorian-flavored blend of science fiction and history is inspiring visual and performing artists, filmmakers, and writers all around our state. Missouri even has a new all-steampunk festival on Labor Day Weeken, the Big River Steampunk Festival in the 19th-century streets of downtown Hannibal. We talk with artists to explore steampunk’s appeal and how, as Big River creator Lisa Marks says, “when you see the potential of what you can do under the umbrella of steampunk, there’s no limit.”

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 A medium-sized airship crested over another vessel heading straight for the Sparrowhawk. Its gaudy bright colors made it stand out from the steel-gray German Zeppelins. The captain said to Genevieve, “Prepare to dive. Straight down and then roll to the left. If you do it right we’ll miss all the action above us. If not, we die a fiery death. Having fun yet?” Genevieve smiled. “Awaiting your orders, captain.”

The gun ports on the large Zeppelin opened along its entire length. “Now! Alexander, full throttle.”

Thus the valiant crew of the airship Sparrowhawk wings into battle against a flying armada of fiends bent on taking over their world. It’s Europe in 1881. The scene might have been written by Jules Verne. But it was written by St. Louisan Brad R. Cook, in his 2014 young-adult novel Iron Horsemen.

The swashbuckling story boasts not only authentic 19th-century technology like Gatling guns but fantastical inventions like a venomous mechanical snake. “I mix the glories of the Victorian Age with possibilities they never knew,” said Brad. Which makes Brad one of the many Missouri artists who are being inspired by a blend of history, science fiction, and fantasy known as “steampunk.”

In the worlds of steampunk, the great motive power of technology is steam, just as it was for the engines that drove the actual Industrial Revolution. But that steam is powering inventions that did not exist until long after the Victorians, like computers, or have never existed at all, like ray guns. As a result, said steampunk scholar Rachel Cochran, “time is fractured, and the story isn’t quite the one you knew.” No matter what the contraptions are, aesthetically they will look like something the real Victorians would have loved.

Writers, theatrical performers, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, and visual artists all around Missouri are creating works that dwell in Victorian pasts that never were or in Victorian-flavored futures. Missouri even has a new festival entirely devoted to steampunk. This Labor Day Weekend, September 5-7, the 2nd annual Big River Steampunk Festival will fill downtown Hannibal with entertainment, artisans, how-to workshops, and special events including an 1870s baseball tournament and ghost tours of the city’s Victorian mansions.

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Written by Barbara MacRobie from the Missouri Arts Council. 

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