As many as 1,200 people are expected in Cincinnati this weekend to celebrate steampunk. That’s a science fiction genre that celebrates a future that never was. Enthusiasts are part of a growing community that is not unlike other fandoms.
On the first Saturday of April, members of the local steampunk club are meeting above a bar in Covington. The first man to arrive is wearing an elaborately decorated waistcoat and a frilly poet’s shirt. He sports a handlebar mustache, a pocketwatch, and a cane. Others aren’t far behind. There are women in corsets and men in top hats. Almost everyone in costume has goggles.
This is the monthly meeting of the League of Cincinnati Steampunks, which is producing the International Steampunk Symposium in Eastgate this weekend. Steampunk is a type of retro futurism. Think of a world as created by Jules Verne. The genre encompasses books, movies, cartoons, artwork, fashion, and music.
The guy in the waistcoat who was the first to arrive? His real name is Daren Reeves.
“In the steampunk community, I am known as Jacque D’Cle. I am a Frenchman,” he says.
His character is a proper gentleman from the middle of the 18th century who has accidentally time-traveled.
The back story and costume are just part of the appeal. Reeves likes being with other fans. “When you get amongst a lot of other people that have... at least mostly similar backgrounds, it gives you a self-confidence boost. So that when you go out into a bar, and you’re dressed in a top hat or a nice vest but you really look sharp, you feel good about yourself.”
On the first floor of the bar, University of Kentucky fans have gathered to watch the Wildcats men's basketball team on TV. Like the steampunkers going to their party, the basketball fans are wearing their own uniforms: blue and white sweatshirts and other team apparel. Reeves says passing through, he got a mix of reactions. "People just say 'that's great', 'I like your mustache.' Some people seem kind of indifferent about it. I've been laughed at, you know. But ultimately, at the end of the day, I feel good about myself and the way that I look," he says. "And the compliments and nice comments way outweigh the little bit of negative that I have gotten."
On this evening, only about half the people in attendance at the steampunk salon are in costume. This doesn't bother Reeves either. “There have been people coming to events like this for a few years, (and they) never dress up. That’s okay. We’re a very welcoming, accepting group. We just want you to come and have fun and get to socialize.”
Aloysius Fox says he was drawn to the genre because he had always liked fashions influenced by Victorian England. But, for him too, it’s about more than just clothing.
“I already knew about steampunk as a literary genre, but then to learn about steampunk as a community, that was when I was like ‘okay, these are my people. These are the people I need to hang out with.’”
Fox says steampunk has been growing in popularity among sci-fi fans. “Nobody owns steampunk. Steampunk is what you make it. And that’s something I think people really like about it. Because there aren’t really rules. Everything’s kind of flexible to what your imagination is.”
In October 2008, Fox found a handful of like-minded people around Cincinnati and founded what would eventually become the Pandora Society, a loose collection of science fiction fans with a heavy steampunk influence. They put on annual conventions and other events throughout the year, including a monthly salon.
At steampunk events, Joyce Leonard goes by Tiki Von Synthe. The name comes from her days in roller derby. She likes dressing up and hanging out with other people who like costumes.
“You might think we’re weirdos, but when they start making paint swatches for steampunks at Home Depot, you know that it’s creeping into the mainstream.”
That move closer to the mainstream makes her fiancee - steampunk name: Abe Synthe - a little uncomfortable.
During the week, he’s Vince Whitlatch. “I got into it... two and a half years ago. That may have been a peak as far as creativity or something. Although the groups keep getting bigger and bigger. But I’m worried that if it gets too big, it’ll lose its… I don’t know.”
He's afraid the community will become a little too conservative for his tastes.
Aloysius Fox says, for years, steampunkers have been debating whether its growing popularity will water it down. But he compares the fandom to Renaissance festivals. “Nobody worries about Renaissance festivals becoming too popular and going away. It’s the same degree of playfulness that you will find at a Renaissance festival except for we have latched on to a different era.”
The International Steampunk Symposium is April 24-26 at the Eastgate Holiday Inn.