Steampunk puts sci-fi spin on history

Much like Old Sacramento, this mining boom town is the kind of place where 19th-century attire – from cowboy hats and western ties to Victorian era bustles and parasols – is never out of style. But on Saturday, the usual re-enactors, who strive for historic accuracy, were joined by a group whose costumes relied as much on imagination as on history.

The occasion was the Third Annual Victorian Steampunk Ball, and more than 350 enthusiasts were on hand. “Steampunk” is a science-fiction genre born from a re-imagining of the Victorian era. Events combine corsets, top hats and other period costuming with displays of faux, steam-powered contraptions that no 19th-century inventor ever created – like the giant mechanical spider featured in the 1999 movie “Wild Wild West.”

With historic storefronts and undulating wooden boardwalks as the backdrop, a highlight of the event was a parade down the city’s main drag. Some 200 people and two cars decked out to look like fantastic steam-powered vehicles took part in the promenade. Spectators, many unsure what they were seeing, snapped photos.

The group then boarded the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s two-car train tour, easily outnumbering the handful of tourists dressed in standard summer uniform of our day: T-shirts and shorts. The Steampunk Ball grew out of the Sacramento Steampunk Society’s 2010 visit to Virginia City to ride the train – which led local civic leaders to invite them back.

After the tour, the day continued with a craft fair, followed by a “medicine” variety show and was capped by the ball and a performance from the San Francisco-based cellist Unwoman. While the event is planned by the Reno-based High Desert Steam, the Sacramento group remains a big part of the event.

Many of the attendees said they discovered steampunk after years of participating in more rigid historical societies, Renaissance fairs or pirate events. Victorian England may be the launching point for steampunk, but throw in the sci-fi element and a willingness to explore the darker elements of the period and the possibilities are nearly limitless.

“It gives you a whole lot of creativity,” said Jennifer Brown, one of the leaders of the Sacramento Steampunk Society. “You can go in any direction to have fun with it.”

Dustin Thelen of Reno said Virginia City’s historic flavor is perfect for the Steampunk Ball.

“We’re taking a historic look and we’re throwing a modern spin on it with technology that never existed,” said Thelen, who wore a gas mask he said was to protect him from an out-of-control Industrial Revolution.

Many, such as Capt. Archer “Lucky” Peddycord, adopt a character or persona, complete with a distinct accent. Peddycord would not step out of his British accent long enough to formally identify himself. With a beer stein anchored in his hand, he talked of hailing from London, of owning a time-traveling vessel and of making a home (in current time) in San Francisco. He also volunteers his service, in exchange for beer, to combat the “extramundane.” (Translation: He’ll come talk about steampunk.)

“Most people have a character and design their clothes around that. I’m a bit of the opposite, I decide what I want to wear (and adopt a persona),” said Brown, who spent 10 years doing Renaissance fairs before jumping into the steampunk movement.

The term steampunk was coined in the 1980s, but elements of this alternate-history style filled with fantastic steam-powered technologies date back to 1927. Steampunk clubs have been a more recent phenomenon and, as columnist Adrian Hamilton writes in the London-based The Independent, steampunk has “created a whole world of sci-fi out of the imagery of the 19th century and spawned comics, fashion and even music in its wake.”

Ann VanderMeer, a Tallahassee-based author who edits a series of steampunk literary almanacs, said that since 2008 steampunk has gone viral, with elements seeping into the general culture.

“When you start seeing steampunk clothing in the Sears catalog you know it’s gone mainstream,” said VanderMeer, whose upcoming book is titled “Time Travelers Almanac.” “Now there are steampunk conventions all over the world.”

One undeniable star of Saturday’s Virginia City event was the Nautilus, a land-roving “submarine” inspired by novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The biofuel “art car,” which pumped out a steady stream of electronic music, was complete with a working, high-definition periscope and a water-shooting harpoon gun. Throughout the day and into the evening, groups of tourists would wander over, re-hinge their jaw and ask to take pictures – the steampunkers gladly obliged.

One local firefighter phoned a friend, but struggled to describe what he was seeing. He urged the person on the other end of the call to come see it for themselves.

While the cast of players included the young and old, all were young in spirit.

“We all have a bit of kid left in us. We all want to have Halloween more than once a year,” Brown said.

The movement, enthusiasts said, runs counter to the general dressing down of American society.

“From a fashion standpoint, I think steampunk is the antidote to people dressing down,” Thelen said. “This is a time when people got dressed up to walk down the street.”