TIME: So, first question. What is steampunk?
James H. Carrott: It’s about taking the things that we have around us, the past, the technology, the objects and the ideas that we have around us, and messing with them, turning them on their heads, twisting them around and telling new stories with them. Steampunk in particular focuses on a 19th-century past. The ideas underneath it don’t necessarily have to, but it really comes down to this idea of being able to play with our stories, giving us license to break the warranty on our textbooks as well as breaking the warranty on our devices.
Brian David Johnson: For me steampunk is a subculture. It’s about fashion and books and comic books and movies and even spills over in to politics and tech. It’s people taking the technology of today and putting it into Victorian times and playing around with the past.
But people think it’s little hats and goggles. How do you recognize it in an entertainment setting?
JHC: It started out as a literary movement. The first steampunk book [The 21 Balloons by William Pène du Bois] was written in 1947, a technological science fiction set in a specific historical past. The idea that science is inevitable progress came into question and people started looking backwards. But this explosion in the cultural trappings of steampunk really comes out of the mid 2000s. The goggles and top hats are like the tie-dyed t-shirt from the ’60s. They’re the symbols that this is catching on in mainstream culture. It’s easy to say ‘That’s just the image and not the substance’ but that’s also how culture changes. Image kind of is substance. Other people take a look at that and it maybe makes them think about the past. And, when they do that, things start to shift slightly.
BDJ: It means it’s making its way into popular culture. Really anything can be steampunk, from books to movies to fashion to music to politics. When you see a Justin Bieber video that has steampunk in it or you see America’s Next Top Model do a whole thing on steampunk, it means that our culture is searching for new ways of thinking about the relationship with technology.