In Our Own Backyard

That monk walking towards me looks a little suspicious. Perhaps it’s that guy with a top hat and weird gun strolling next to him with a waxed mustache and carefully sculpted beard. Like a page ripped from ComicCon, the Steampunk World’s Fair draws people from all across the east coast (perhaps even further afield) to Piscataway, New Jersey, or some venue near Rutgers, every spring. In a world where work routinely stifles creativity, a weekend of subculture is about as good as it gets. As a veteran of over two decades of Society of Biblical Literature meetings, I’m used to large conferences. Only this is much more fun. The Steampunk World’s Fair draws some 4,000 people, most of them baroquely costumed, to a sleepy corner of an overly developed industrial corridor, courtesy of Jeff Mach and Widdershins LLC. I met Jeff Mach at Steampunk City last October. A natural promoter, he has a way of getting events noticed.

Steampunk is more than a literary genre. It has become an eclectic mix of the technical and supernatural, the scientific and the absinthe-laced dreams of fantasy. An element of H. P. Lovecraft fandom is clearly present at the World’s Fair, as is an interest in Victorian spiritualism. Indeed, it would not be difficult to concoct a religion out of this heady brew. Like most human cultures, there is no pure form here. Vendors will be glad to accept your money, but true artists put great effort into unique pieces of creativity and style. I’m here, not feeling entirely safe surrounded by such strangeness, wondering if this isn’t a natural outgrowth of what happens when a technically oriented society too long denies its emotional subtext.

Role-playing is catharsis. Many of us spend our days feeling relatively powerless in a capitalistic system that is overwhelming and stifling. Thomas Piketty meanwhile suggests that extreme economic inequality leads to a breakdown of a system that favors too few. Although restraining himself from the economic implications, Frans de Waal notes the same phenomenon among primates that we insist on calling lower than ourselves. Bread and circuses, we know, only kept imperial Rome going for so long before it collapsed under the weight of inherited greed. Under great pressure, the people will play. This feels a bit heavy for the Steampunk World’s Fair, however. I can’t recall the last time I saw robots rubbing elbows with bearded, cross-dressing nuns, and nobody thought any of this was out of the ordinary. Or maybe it’s just the absinthe-flavored truffles talking. I know where I will be, in any case, come next May.

A typical sight.

A typical sight.

The Tell-Tale Telegraph

Steampunk CityThere’s a guy next to me with a robotic arm. Women with lace umbrellas and aviator googles walk by on the arms of Victorian gentlemen with walking sticks. A couple have an effervescing water-cooled device on their backpacks. I must be in Steampunk City. The forecast had predicted rain, but it is a beautiful October day in Speedwell, New Jersey. Steampunk City, an event dreamed up by Jeff Mach to make money for local museums, draws in a good crowd of the garishly bedecked, causing my wife and me to feel desperately underdressed. I’ve read my share of steampunk fiction, and I am really thrilled to see so many people taking an interest in such a literary event. I did wonder, however, what demonology had to do with it. Kevin Meares of Delaware Valley Demonology Research is giving a talk on demons, and it’s interesting to notice how the light laughter of customers from the booths outside wafts through the door where stories of possession are being told.

It is difficult to listen to Mr. Meares and believe that he hasn’t seen some pretty strange things. A practicing demonologist rather than the armchair variety, he has accompanied priests on exorcisms and is utterly convinced of the reality of the entities. When asked where demons come from, he relies on the Bible and Bible lore. Either they are fallen angels, remnants of a prior creation (thus the discrepancy between Genesis 1 and 2), or the offspring of the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Whatever they are, he has seen them in the dark, and people have died because of their activity. Being somewhat of a skeptic, I still find myself a little creeped out, kind of wishing I was outside with the laughing, costumed fiction readers.

Steampunk is often about alternate realities. A world where technology developed in the fog of steam rather than the neat circuitry of electricity. Speedwell, ironically, (and probably intentionally) is where the telegraph was invented and first demonstrated. It is a key site in the Industrial Revolution, the development that made the modern world what it is with smart phones, air-light laptops, and iCloud. I’m in the basement of an historic building having my rational worldview threatened by stories of demons. Although I’m wearing my nonplused face, I know that things will be different in the middle of the night. I’ve got brass gears in my pockets and supernatural entities in my head. I’ve met a watch maker outside who translates Aramaic manuscripts. What hath God wrought indeed, Mr. Morse? Yes, I’m in an alternate universe, and I may decide not to come back to the work-a-day one after all.