Full Steam Ahead: The first annual Steampunk symposium

Our room aboard the HMS Queen Mary had portholes that actually opened and a bed the size of Sussex. The bath taps offered hot water, cold water, hot saltwater, and cold saltwater. The saltwater taps are disconnected, but we had no time to wonder about the advantages of a hot, salty bath. We were already late for our first event at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium, and I’d been sent to cover the event for Morkan’s Horse.

The schedule for the full four days was listed on a map the size of a cigar box. Only the names and locations of events were listed, and the cryptic titles were often misleading: The Invention Competition turned out to be a homemade card game (we finished last), the Steam-Powered Giraffe was a fairly awesome pantomime band, and the OMG Adults Only—well, we’ll get to that one.

That first day, I dragged Nick to the Fencing Lesson, which turned out to be a lesson in fencing. Fencing is a sport of nuance, grace, and courtesy—and I am happy to report that I kicked Nick’s ass. The instructor showed us how to walk forwards and backwards, lunge, and block, and then strapped us into jackets and masks.

While we fought, foolhardy passersby crowded past on the narrow walkway. I sweated profusely in a borrowed suit and tried to parry and thrust, while our instructor yelled helpful things like, “Why did you do that?” and “That’s your boyfriend. You probably shouldn’t hit him there.”

Our instructor had been fencing since she was 12 and used the word ‘swashbuckling’ more than necessary. She worked the Renaissance Faire circuit—which turned out to be common among the Symposium performers—but she preferred Steampunk, since it allowed a more historically flexible dress code. At Renaissance Faires she had to wear a “bodice with my boobs sticking out.” She lifted herself up on her toes and leered down at my chest. “There’s only so often you want to have guys doing this.”

Steampunk Villains was a Q&A session with nine people dressed as villains—but no one in the audience was allowed to ask a Q. The Qs were all pre-written and pretty easy to A. Among the panel was a Southern Belle, a Taxidermist, an Alchemist, a Pyrotechnic, a Dentist, and a few people who just had prop bombs strapped all over their outfits. Among the harder-hitting Qs were “What is your favorite word?” and “What turns you on?” (In case you’re wondering—favorite words: no, yes, extraordinary, kafuffle, nuclear, booze, play, and win. Turn ons: screams, money, cursing, libel, explosions, raw materials, and being nowhere near the other panelists).

Each villain had his or her own fake accent and constantly talked over the others. The dialogue was construction-grade pine, and the acting mostly involved eye rolling and turning dramatically away from one another. It was like watching a third-grade Halloween pageant: they were clearly having a lot of fun up there, so we, like wincing parents, stuck with it to the end and clapped with more enthusiasm than we felt.

When they were done, I approached the Moderator and flashed my official Morkan’s Horse Press Credential (Nick made it at Kinkos) and asked him why there were twice as many female villains as male. I held my digital voice recorder under his chin and waited.

I was hoping to hear something about the female empowerment Steampunk allows in its inclusive revision of history. I wanted to hear about pluralism and the upending of gender roles. The Moderator blinked at me a few times. “Basically,” he said, “I have more women in my group than men.”

Before I could ask a follow-up, the villainous Taxidermist pulled me aside to introduce me to her stuffed toy hamster, Hammy. (She spelled the name into my voice recorder in case I needed it for my article.)

I might have been taking this whole journalist thing a little too seriously. This, after all, was a shipload of people who liked to dress up and carry stuffed toys. Maybe I could lighten up.

In the Murder Mystery, Poor Prof. Farnsworthington was murdered in his study at the exact moment his prized Clockwork Ruby (which could render steam power useless) was stolen. Few clues were left behind: the door was locked, he was stabbed repeatedly in the legs, grape-shaped indents were found in the dirt outside his study window, and about 10 people passionately hated him.

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Before I could ask a follow-up, the villainous Taxidermist pulled me aside to introduce me to her stuffed toy hamster, Hammy. (She spelled the name into my voice recorder in case I needed it for my article.)

The suspects were mainly Villains from the previous event, and they spent most of the three-hours wandering the room, loudly proclaiming their hatred for Farnsworthington. They stood there with a 1,000-yard stare until those nearby either asked a question or felt awkward enough to leave.

It eventually became obvious that the Spiritualist who held leopard hunts inside his house had bought a number of tiny bronze robots from the Saloon Girl, and programmed them to kill Farnsworthington. We had no idea who stole the ruby, though, so we scribbled down the first name that came to mind and left.

Street Magic was held at one of the ship’s smaller venues. About a dozen people drank Amethyst Mist cocktails, while Dino Staats performed close-up feats of prestidigitation. His assistant Corryn had hair like brake lights in a rainstorm and was doing a surly teenager shtick. She would roll her eyes and drag her feet when Dino required her assistance. She also tossed back Amethyst Mists with the rest of us.

Dino showed us an American coin and a Chinese coin in a small, plastic booklet. He chose a volunteer and placed the American coin on the back of her hand. He slowly lowered the plastic booklet on top of the coin. When he lifted the booklet, the two coins had magically switched places. The volunteer laughed hysterically and made a bigger deal than anyone else in the room, despite the fact she was the only one not drinking.

I stirred my Amethyst Mist so the dry ice bubbled up clouds of smoke.

The Masquerade Ball was billed as the highlight of the evening. Nick and I grabbed a few more Amethyst Mists and found two seats at one of the tables near the dance floor. Unwoman played her cello on stage, while a lone barefoot woman in a cherry-red dress salsa danced.

Next up were three middle-aged belly dancers. They spun in slow circles, gently swaying their hips. During their two songs, I couldn’t help but feel good (though the Amethyst Mists may have had something to do with it). Here, after all, were three women—all probably empty-nest moms—but in this Steampunk world they were alluring sirens of dance.

The band, when it finally arrived, played metal, leaving a crowd of people in Victorian garb trying to figure out how to head-bang without breaking their goggles. Most gave up after the first song and sat back down, leaving a lot of room for the two go-go dancers in gold tops and black booty shorts who had arrived with the band.

While the band was on break, techno music started up over the PA system, and everyone hit the dance floor. But all too soon the Belly Dancers returned, and halfway through their second song Nick and I gave up and left.

Our last event of the evening was OMG Adults Only. I thought it would be some kind of racy skit, a good note to end the evening on. It turned out to be a woman reading (from her iPad) a segment of her “steamy” romance novel.

The audience comprised of Nick, me, and five strangers.

The author wore a short bustled dress and a choker. Her plot involved a married woman’s affair with a mechanic who designed a giant steam-powered adult toy. After being satisfied with this machine, the married woman leaves her husband and the mechanic and steals the machine’s design. The next scene has the woman teaching another woman how to use her new and improved version. It turned out the second woman’s husband was watching the entire time.

I was amazed how the author fit in autoeroticism, lesbianism and voyeurism (and quite a few other isms) into 30 minutes of reading.

But the awkward part was that the author really got into her reading. I mean, really got into it. The dialogue was punctuated with heaving breathing and orgasmic screams. I spent the half hour studying my bootlaces and trying not to notice what anyone else was doing. When she finished, no one seemed sure whether to applaud or slip her a few singles. 

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast served scrambled eggs and croissants. Archbishop Cody Goodfellow took the stage gingerly, since any misstep could have jostled off the string of paper tentacles wrapped loosely around his neck. A plastic octopus was glued to the front of his miter. Three attendants in black-hooded robes followed solemnly behind.

The sermon, read by the Archbishop’s from his iPhone, was about tolerance, but it mostly kept reminding us that we were “all just food bags.”

“One human’s god is another human’s garden gnome,” he said. “But when you found the one true garden gnome, the reflection in the mirror starts to look like a stranger challenging you to a teeth-brushing contest.”

Spontaneous bursts of “I’a!” rang through the crowd. “I see the darkness!”

Holding up his hand for silence, the Archbishop smirked slightly and continued. “For we know that the day will come when the great one will rise from his non-Euclidian crypt to crush the works of hateful humanity and snap its collective sanity like the dried belt in a cheap vacuum cleaner. Leaving the continents of the Earth burned and blackened and devoid of all bi-pedal life-forms and all the impudent infidel preachers who mocked our seemingly absurd modes of worship will be forced into same-sex domestic partnerships with the unspeakably fabulous spawn of the great abyss.” He paused thoughtfully and bowed his head. “Cthulhu, hasten that horrible day.” He looked back up at the audience. “Why if there were any humans today, I would tell them, ‘Enjoy the buffet, brother. I tolerate you.’”

He ended by reciting new lyrics to John Lennon’s, “Imagine.” His version invited us to imagine smoldering ruins, scorched earth, and a universe devoid of humans. As he read, choir members swayed their tentacles on PVC pipes. A man in a Cthulhu mask stood in the middle.

The Archbishop gave us a final benediction. “Try to enjoy your remaining moments.”

After church Nick and I happened upon the Raptor Show. The falconer, Kevin Gaines, wore a black top hat fronted by a white-feathered facemask. His assistant wore a raven mask.

We missed most of the show, and arrived just in time to meet Igor, the pesky but lovable Black Vulture. Gaines explained that Igor was essentially autistic. Though intelligent, he did not adapt well to change. Igor was trained to light on his perch, but since the perch now had a paper banner on it, the bird wouldn’t go near it. Instead, he spent his time hopping around and harassing those of us sitting on the deck. “Just try to look alive,” Gaines suggested.

Igor took to bullying the assistant; a man he knew would have food. He threw himself against the man’s shins, clawing him and nipping any part of his body he could reach.

When it was time for Igor to exit the stage, he remained obdurate. Gaines had to drop a chunk a raw chicken on the deck and wait for Igor to approach the bait. When he got within reach, Gaines grabbed him and slung him back into the cage.

After the show, Gaines told me about performing before a large group of kindergarteners. One of his hawks was circling when its instincts kicked in. It set upon a swan that was floating in the lake behind them, minding its own business. A mid-air dogfight ensued, feathers flying in every direction. The pair eventually spiraled down into the lake, and the swan dove beneath the surface. The hawk finally made it back to land amid thunderous applause. Gaines received enthusiastic letters from the children afterwards. A few included Crayola renderings of the epic battle.

Between educational jobs, Gaines uses his hawks for environmentally friendly bird abatement. Typically chemicals are used to keep bothersome pigeons and starlings from nesting in sensitive areas. But the chemicals, which are designed to irritate the birds’ feet, are toxic and remain on the site long after the birds have moved on. Gaines instead uses his hawks to scare the droppings out of unwanted birds, so they move elsewhere. At one of his recent jobs, for a warehouse overrun with pigeons, it took four days for Gaines and his birds to move the flock five blocks over, onto a banana emporium. (He didn’t mention what the banana people thought of this.)

Next, we made our way to Steam-Powered Toaster. It turned out to be a PowerPoint lecture, the two main points of which were (1) that if James Watt had not been such a dick, steam-powered technology would have advanced much farther, and (2) when some form of power comes into existence, men feel the need to strap it to a lawnmower. (He showed us a picture of a lawnmower attached to a giant copper boiler. “I said it could be done—I didn’t say it was legal.”)

Our lecturer outlined a few major historical advancements of steam-power. In 1770, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered three-wheel tractor, which he immediately crashed into a wall because he’d neglected to create a way to steer it. In 1897, Charles Algernon Parsons put his steam turbine into the ship, Turbinia. Wanting witnesses, Parsons showed up at the Navy Review for Queen Victoria. He blew past all other ships, which displeased Her Majesty. She ordered that he be caught, but none of her ships could get close.

There was, however, no steam-powered toaster. When asked about it, the lecturer said, “It’s implied.” I have no idea what he meant.

The vendors at the Steampunk Symposium mostly sold jewelry or clothing, like feathery hats and gear-covered boots. Almost everything was bronze.

The man at the Got-Steam booth, who sold the most bitching goggles on the planet, was ridiculously upbeat. He once went to a Sci-Fi convention where the guest of honor was Buzz Aldrin. The former astronaut loved the goggles and bought a pair to wear riding his motorcycle. “If the goggles are good enough for Buzz Aldrin,” the Got-Steam man said, “they are good enough for us.” Sadly, I didn’t have the kind of money it takes to rock the style of a hog-riding astronaut.

At one vender’s booth we encountered the Queen and her entourage. The Queen’s mother tried to set Nick up with one of the princesses. I was too surprised to protest, but the Queen forced her mother to apologize for trying to marry my boyfriend off right in front of me. Nick told them his family was from Russia, and the Court got very excited. The Princess, it was decided, should travel there if all the men were as handsome as Nick. 

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Nobody wants to be the kill-joy who wanders the Faire-grounds wearing Abercrombie and yakking into her iPhone, but some of these people inhabit their fantasy personae in ways that seem borderline psychotic.

Before I could drag Nick away, the Queen eyed me imperiously and asked if I was of royal blood. I froze. What courtly etiquette applies to a “Queen”—even if she is, say, a licensed dental hygienist from Torrance wearing a crown she got from Costume Castle?

This is the thing that always terrified me about Renaissance Faires: I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to take things. There’s an implicit expectation that we all buy-in. Nobody wants to be the kill-joy who wanders the Faire-grounds wearing Abercrombie and yakking into her iPhone, but some of these people inhabit their fantasy personae in ways that seem borderline psychotic. I’m just never sure how far I’m expected—or willing—to go. I knew this queen couldn’t behead me or send me to the stocks, but there was a fairly high probability that she could yell at me and make me cry in public, which is almost as bad.

I shook my head, without making eye contact.

“Good,” she said and waved us off.

Still shaky from my encounter with the Queen, Nick and I headed to Magic and Science, a lecture by magician Dino Staats, historical conjurer Danny Schreiber, and writer David Lee Summers. The roundtable was about how magicians have used science to create illusions.

Schreiber brought a model of a Wimshurst Influence Machine, an early electrostatic generator, which he built himself. The machine, a mass of metal with crossbars and two rotating discs, generates high voltages that sparks the gap between two metal spheres. To demonstrate its power, Schreiber introduced a piece of paper to the contraption. Dino produced a piece of flash paper from a little box he carried in his pocket (a habit I soon plan on adopting). Schreiber clamped the paper to the end of a foot-long metal pole. He gently lowered the paper to the crackling electricity. It burst into a ball of blinding white flame.

Dino then demonstrated his own version of ‘The Block Head,’ a trick that involves hammering a foreign metal object up into one’s nostril. The stunt is typically done with a nail, but Dino used a 3.5mm crochet hook. He shoved the small blue needle into his nose. When it would go no deeper, he pulled a small ball peen hammer from a leather pouch and hammered the hook farther in.

His eyes watered, and his nose twitched. “If it looks like this hurts,” he said, in a voice that was (unsurprisingly) nasal, “it’s because it does.” When the hook was deep enough in, he explained that pulling it out was perilous because he had no way of knowing which way the hook was facing. Slowly twisting the hook, he gingerly inched it out.

He laughed at our worried expressions. This was not magic; it was science. Inside the human head is a large nasal cavity that perfectly fits a nail-shaped object. It was just a matter of anatomy. “Making people think you’re in danger,” he said, “that’s the real trick. 

Schreiber then explained the idea of “change blindness”: our minds can’t take in everything. They shut out everything that is not our focus. He held up a coin then bounced his hand up and down, as if he were going to toss it in the air.

“If you’re expecting it here…” His hand jerked up as he threw the coin.

I looked above his head, but all I saw was wallpaper.

He smiled and showed the coin still in his hand. “…You’re not looking anywhere else.”

While science has been used to advance illusions, the opposite has also been true. At one time nitrous oxide—commonly known as “laughing gas”—was pumped into theaters and circus tents to make audiences responsive and happy during performances. Horace Wells witnessed the gas’ effect and began experimenting with it as a way to make dentistry less painful. He thus became a pioneer in the field of anesthesiology.

After the Magic and Science lecture, Nick and I went to see the parts of the Raptor Show we had missed. We finally got to watch Gaines’ owls and falcon in action. A little boy kept imitating the owls by slipping his hands into his pockets and lifting the sides of his jacket. He made strange cawing sounds while repeatedly belly flopping against his parents.

When we got to the familiar part of the show, I was amazed at the way Gaines could repeat the exact same jokes with the exact same, apparently genuine, glee—especially considering he had seven shows scheduled that weekend.

Our last shipboard event was Victorian Parlor Magic, where Dino did close-up magic at a table. The room was nearly empty. After two straight days of Steampunking, a lot of our peers had abandoned ship.

Dino had been performing magic about nine years, when it hit him that he needed to catch the Steampunk wave. (I’m not really sure how (magic?) but by the end of the weekend, I had accumulated six of his business cards.) Dino, I think, gave me the best definition of Steampunk I heard that weekend. He told me about Charles Babbage and his “Difference Engine,” a mechanical calculator he designed in the 1820s, but never built. Around 1990, the London Science Museum built two versions of “Difference Engine No. 2” based on Babbage’s blueprints. These brass contraptions of gears and rods and rollers actually worked.

So, astonishingly, England could have built a rudimentary computer more than a century before it would eventually appear. “If England had gotten the computer that soon,” Dino said. “What would be different in the world?” 

For Dino, that imagined different world is what Steampunk is all about. It’s a world where visionaries are kings, where invention is sacred, and where the steam-powered imagination sparks the gap between Babbage’s workshop and the MacBook keyboard I’m typing on.

HEATHER BUCHANAN  studied writing at Chapman University with Steampunk pioneer James P Blaylock. She reports that Nick's wounds are healing nicely.