Nikola Tesla has a posse.
The father of alternating current, the induction motor and, quite possibly, the death ray is the most finely realized specimen of mad science who’s ever had the courtesy to leap out of the pages of the pulps and into real life. He also stands, alongside Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as the spiritual totem of Steampunk, the genre that marries science fiction to Victorian convention. It’s kind of a reimagining of the whiz-bang Jet Age spirit of adventure and scientific can-do through the lens of Industrial Revolution technology.
In other words, trade your jet packs and ray guns for airships and, er, older-looking ray guns.
Even in Las Vegas, where the oldest buildings sometimes feel like they were built in the far-gone days when Smash Mouth was still popular, Steampunk has gained traction—just like it has in small pockets around the country. Here’s apocryphal proof: The recent appearance of packaged Steampunk Halloween costumes at Halloween Mart (6230 S. Decatur Blvd.) signals the genre’s entrance into mainstream culture, or something like that. (If you’re curious, “Sir Steampunk,” “Steampunk Sweetie,” and a Steampunk “Gentleman,” “General” and “Showgirl” will run you about 60 bucks.)
“We have a lot of history in Nevada, but definitely Las Vegas is more the Atomic Age,” says local Steampunker Amanda Bond. “I think for a lot of people, they want to go back a little further.”
Go back they did on Oct. 15, when a collection of about 20 members of the Las Vegas Steampunk Tea Society ignored the heat and dressed in period finery—wool waistcoats, corsets, boots and hats—to meet at a the Nevada State Railroad Museum. The day’s outing: a 45-minute train ride in Boulder City on a Pullman coach from 1911. They came with homemade pinhole cameras and aviator goggles and, in one case, an iPad housed in wood and labeled an “Infinite Purpose Access Device.”
It’s hard to say for whom the event was a bigger treat—enthusiasts who loitered around the open-air car, or the leisure passengers who bombarded Steampunkers with requests for photographs. Although the only people who took more pictures of all the sheriffs, villains and assistant mad scientists were the sheriffs, villains and assistant mad scientists themselves.
When they’re not riding historically significant rails, local Steampunkers can find a home the last Sunday of every month at the Artisan for the Steampunk Soirée. “We kind of fell right into the Artisan. The inside of the lounge looks like Victorian times,” says Society member Josh Morrow—who goes by Professor Morrow when the cravat and walking stick come out. “They give us a DJ at the Artisan, too, DJ Spidersilk, I believe under Lady Scarlett there.”
And yes, Steampunk has its own soundtrack, sort of. Its music can be as varied and inchoate as the culture itself, ranging from electro swing and the tribal fusion of Beats Antique to the dedicated Steampunk outfit The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, which released a single on wax cylinder in August. The London band got its name from a phrase attributed to Victorian-era serial killer, Jack the Ripper.
Steampunk was first explored as a subgenre of science-fiction books in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s even a little-known Vegas tie to its birth. Former Las Vegan K.W. Jeter wrote some of the earliest books in the genre: a sequel to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, Morlock Night (DAW, 1979), and Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy (St. Martin’s, 1987). He’s even credited with coining the term in 1987. The subculture has exploded in the last five or so years, with more and more fans donning the clothes, crafting alternate personas and heading out on the sci-fi/comic book/gaming convention circuits. In fact, sci-fi publishers Angry Robot reprinted Infernal Devices and Morlock Night in April to meet renewed demand.
Like their counterparts in medieval, Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactment, Steampunk exists at the intersection of people who enjoy history and people who like playing dress-up. The most common answer to the question of “Why do you do this?” was a simple “I like the clothes.” Steampunk, therefore I am.
In addition to the train ride, members of the Las Vegas Steampunk Tea Society were planning a trip to a Civil War re-enactment where Morrow said they’d be tolerated by their more historically minded brethren. But, of course, the Steampunkers wouldn’t be participating in the low-tech camp life that marks those events.
Nevada has flirted with the aesthetic before. The ill-fated Triumph at the Hilton was reimagined, briefly, as a Steampunk magic show before it was abandoned altogether. Up north, there’s usually a contingent of fans at Burning Man. But for local artist Heather Hermann, who specializes in Steampunk costume design and has exhibited her paintings of what she calls “Deco Tech” at Sin City Gallery in the Arts Factory, it’s hopefully a path to a career. She’s trying to get some of her designs featured in movies.
Hermann sees the local scene as still in its infancy “The Steampunk community out here in general is actually quite small,” she says, estimating it at no more than 800 in the Valley, and maybe 150 of them dedicated enough to routinely turn out to events. The Los Angeles community is more established, however, with clubs such as the Edison championing period aesthetics in décor, cocktails and dance.
“There is becoming more of a larger following now because there are more people coming in from California,” Hermann says. “It’s hard to stay what exactly Steampunk is within itself because there are so many different genres of it. A lot of the people I see out here, I really wouldn’t consider them to be Steampunk. I would call them Gaslamp Romancers. Those are people who dress up like people from the 18th century but really don’t play too heavily to the whole technological aspects.
“I think it’s going to take some time, but there’s definitely going to be a movement incorporating more of the vintage culture. That’s what I’m really into and trying to advocate, especially with my artwork, is showing people it’s still there. Parts of it have been lost over time, but it’s still there.” What then, do you do for Halloween when you spend your average weekend in May making sure your top hat and great coat fit just so? “There are a few individual parties planned,” says Society member Professor Morrow. “We might do a picnic.”