Steampunk World’s Fair @ Embassy Suites/Radisson

PISCATAWAY, NJ—The Steampunk World’s Fair was held the weekend of May 17 in Piscataway, NJ, and drew a crowd of participants large enough to fill two adjacent hotels—Embassy Suites and the Radisson—and any number of surrounding motels in the area. Steampunk, whether or not it remains under the mainstream radar, is huge. It is huge in the following it attracts and huge in the level of zeal of its fans. It is also almost boundless in the concepts and interests it encompasses.

Steampunk, for those who have yet to become familiar with the term, is an elaborate branch of geekdom that derives its main inspiration from the unfulfilled science fiction of the past. The writings of Jules Verne (1828–1905) are seminal, with recurring themes drawn from Journey To The Center Of The Earth, Around The World In Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Thus, airships, blimps and balloons, as well as diving gear, giant squids and octopi, have a revered place in the aesthetic of steampunk.

The retro-futuristic angle of steampunk owes a great deal to H.G. Wells (1866–1946), whose book The Time Machine introduces the concept of time travel, putting that notion at the disposal of steampunks who imagine an escape both backwards into the 19th century and forwards into the distant future of technology.

The event took place at those two adjacent hotels, with the large, paved space in between them serving as a “midway,” on which were hoisted large tents for vendors and exhibitors called The Goblin Market, as well as huge performance and gathering spaces. Merchandise stands hawked incredibly creative artworks, personal adornments and home or office furnishings, which featured the signature style of steampunk, namely faux antique, and improbably engineered contraptions with elaborate mechanisms featuring gears and sprockets, such as ray guns, submarines, airships and deep-sea creatures. Likewise, the street level suites in both hotels were filled with vendors selling such steampunk necessities as walking sticks, corsets, top hats and brass-accented jewelry.

Events took place day and night, including a fashion show wherein convention-goers who chose to do so could display their often wildly individualistic yet always thematic costumes, attired like characters in an R-rated version of Willy Wonka-meets-Game Of Thrones. There were burlesque shows with unconventionally large female and uninhibited male strippers; fire jugglers; a workshop on Bartitsu (walking stick self-defense); ballroom dancing lessons, etc.

There was an absinthe tasting event hosted by goth celebrity Voltaire, whose wit remained dry despite swigs of rum between samples of the absinthe, and who performed his sarcastically worded anti-folk favorites solo at a midnight show accompanying himself on a guitar. Music was everywhere, interesting and genre-bending. Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band captured an outdoor audience with their rambunctious blend of brass, wind, string, accordion and drum performance, featuring an occasional lapse into acrobatics by vagabond-attired but highly accomplished musicians. A totally fascinating show was put on by San Diego-based combo Steam Powered Giraffe, a bizarre musical group that accompanied their very interesting and listenable songs with robotic affectations, wearing metal-face make-up and performing comic routines in a manner reminiscent of the Blue Man Group. An electric cellist performed on the main stage and offered 17 hours of her music for sale on a USB storage device. A beautiful female vocalist from the duo Frenchy And The Punk was accompanied by a young man who set new standards for mastery of the guitar.

Just as this account barely scratches the surface of musical acts at the fair, the rest of this review comes nowhere near cataloging the imaginative and exhausting diversity of events and ongoing exhibits at kiosks, tables and concession stands or the assortment of individuals just wandering the grounds displaying their outlandish costume or hand-manufactured thingamajig.

It is impossible to set the boundaries of steampunk at this time. The movement includes so many tributaries including historical reenactment, eccentric musical styles, costumery, 19th century literature, sci-fi, fantasy and interests ranging from the low-tech, high design age of steam to Victorian parlor games that it is beyond the scope of this report or any attempt to tie it all together. It is easier to compare steampunk to the general category of geek interests—devotion to comic books, anime, computer games, role-playing, etc.—than to define it in its entirety. In fact, I observed evidence that there were elements of overlap among these various subcultures. Its adherents are generally intellectual, intensely and obsessively committed devotees who are unwilling to settle for plain, vanilla reality, so instead avail themselves of this alternate world with all its fantasy identities, aesthetics, ideology and mutual self-acceptance.

Bravo to the organizer, Jeff Mach, and all the performers, participants and exhibitors for putting this all together for the Steampunk World’s Fair 2013!