I made a typo once on twitter while making fun of steampunk. Then I realized I made a typo, but I did not correct it. Because I was not writing about steampunk anymore. In fact, I never was writing about steampunk. It has always been all about the stempunk.
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Critics will often argue that Stempunk, the hot new genre that is sweeping the High Concept world off their feet and into their vegetable gardens, is an ephemeral construction of a few green fetishists. They claim that the only unifying traits of Stempunk as a literary movement is that it is supported by nerds who long only for an excuse to dress in aprons, carry shears and elaborate watering cans everywhere, and who believe the government and Monsanto have a conspiratorial vendetta against non-GMO produce. It is for these Philistines that I write this article, to define the Stempunk genre, down to its very roots, and for my fellow stempunks to follow these guidelines and bear wonderful artistic fruit.
The Traits of Stempunk
We can divide Stempunk into two main subgenres. The first and most common is High Stempunk. High Stempunk is the pure expression of the wondrous nature of plants and plant-derived products within a fantastic and adventurous story. It does not concern itself with realism or politics, only with telling an entertaining and wondrous tale.
Hard Stempunk on the other hand is known for its factually correct (or, at the most stretched, science fictional) exploration of plants as well as its exploration of the politics, such as class and race, revolving around the gathering or usage of plants, either for their chemical properties or their procurement as food, in a given time period, through the medium of fiction. Some stories may share traits of both, utilizing fantasy settings to explore cultural problems – with plants. For Stempunk to be a genre we must find unifying traits within the various Stempunk works and the broader Stempunk community. To that end I have assembled the following list.
•Plants: Of course, the very nucleus of Stempunk is the admiration of plants and the wonderful things they can do for humanity. Be they stories about agriculture, or about plants exhibiting supernatural properties, Stempunk revolves mainly around the use of plants to change and drive culture. If Magellan had been a floratheurge, and raised a shield of acanthus plants to deflect the blows of the Philipino people he sought to conquer, how would the world have changed? These alternate history scenarios, as well as the mere use of strange and wondrous plants, is central to Stempunk.
•Chemistry: An important subtrope of Stempunk is Chemistry. Through Chemistry, realistic or not, the Stempunk protagonist often makes delicious dishes and powerful concoctions that help him or her solve the problems of the story. Both High and Hard Stempunk stories delve deep into the properties of certain plants, that make them necessary within the Stempunk plotline. Chemistry helps to buttress our expression of the delightful nature of plants.
•Aesthetics: Stempunk often features a “farmpunk” aesthetic, of sturdy aprons, galoshes, hard gloves, and a handy utility belt of various farming implements and seed pockets. Creativity is naturally rewarded – I myself have done Stempunk cosplay outfitted with a super-soaker AR-15 equipped with a custom scope, flashlight and water balloon launcher as my watering can, as well as my trusty shovel. I was cosplaying as an herbologist-meets-U.S. Army Ranger for Flowercon 2010. The upside of stempunk cosplay is that none of your tools are illegal, and you can participate in the hobby fairly cheaply. Just try to use polymer or metal watering cans, and good, real shovels and hoes, plastic stuff is embarrassing.
Those who argue that Stempunk enjoys no classical representation are overlooking a number of Proto-Stempunk works that I have identified through my training as an undergraduate of English Literature. While these authors did not write intending to produce the works that would eventually lead to Stempunk, their influence is nonetheless felt, and I feel that my fellow stempunks will approve of my inclusion of the following works into our canon.
•Homer’s Odyssey: In the Odyssey, the Lotus tree has strange effects that cause people to forget their homes and become idle. While blissful, this can be dangerous. Ascribing a magical effect to a plant, and looking at its effects on a culture, is basically the blueprint for Stempunk, and it is as old as myth itself!
•Greek Mythology: In general there is so much stempunk in Greek Mythology. The Sparti for example – they were sown in the ground by Dragon’s teeth, from which bloomed dozens of warriors who became the first noble houses of Thebes.
•Jack And The Beanstalk: The magic beans are perhaps the one of the most iconic uses of Stempunk technology and even Stempunk ethos in literature. Jack’s mother discards his magic beans and they grow into an enormous beanstalk, and everything occurring after that is irrelevant. The magic beans and their value over other trade goods represents the Stempunk’s undying commitment to the bounties of nature and their limitless potential.
•John Carter of Mars: Specifically, the Plant Men. Though they are grotesque and vicious creatures, we must remember that Stempunk can be used for evil too, and it is fair to explore this theme.
•War of the Worlds: In War of the Worlds, red plants grow in the Alien’s wake.
•All Literature Ever Made: Jesus christ look at all these trees. Look at them.
Of course, Stempunk would be nothing without its contingent of contemporary works. Though I have already proven that Stempunk has a rich history and cultural precedents, I now endeavor to show that it exists and is constantly flowering, bearing its literary fruit in all kinds of media, both traditional and new.
•Little Shop of Horrors: This story of a carnivorous plant that grows ever more powerful and voracious might seem controversial to Stempunks, but I am not such a purist that I cannot also see a dark side to Stempunk, and be willing to explore its implications within art. Not all plants are worth admiring!
•Harry Potter: The Harry Potter series’ Herbology class is an excellent use of stempunk genre tropes. Neville Longbottom’s commitment to mandrakes should be an inspiration to us all. Harry and friends tangle with magical plants and use them for potions or their inherent properties. A Plant plays a key role in the third book! J.K. Rowling’s masterful weaving of Stempunk tropes in the Herbology class should be a guide to writers of High Stempunk.
•Rune Factory: In the Rune Factory video game, the protagonist tends a farm while also interacting with various beautiful girls, whose affections he can try to win, mostly with gifts. He also kicks monsters around with farming implements. His farm exhibits certain magical qualities, such as placating the spirits of nature, and there are various potent vegetable-based concoctions he can produce in order to improve his character stats and regain health. The Stempunk style of dress, including farming apron and various weaponized tools, can be seen in marvelous display here. If you ever cosplay as a Rune Factory character I daresay you are effectively a Stempunk. Especially if you cosplay Selphy. Selphy is great.
•Tenchi Muyo: The Empire of Jirai uses some of the most creative Stempunk technology I have ever seen. From wooden stempunk robots, to life-giving biotechnological trees, to tree-spaceships, Tenchi Muyo is a must-watch animated Stempunk epic. Except Galaxy Police, Tenchi In Tokyo and the Pretty Sammy stuff, those sucked.
•Codex Dendron: My own upcoming work of Stempunk, perhaps the only extant pure example of High Stempunk, where the the story revolves around the properties and usage of numerous magical plants. Once it has been published or serialized, you should definitely read it for inspiration, stempunks.
The Future IS Stempunk
As I try my best to make Codex Dendron a reality, you too should begin your own Stempunk projects, donate to my Stempunk fund, dress in your favorite stempunk attire, and engage the massive Stempunk community by suggesting your favorite Stempunk works! Stempunk can only get bigger from here, my fellow stempunks. It can only grow further, dig its roots deeper into culture and ultimately flourish into a truly verdant cultural phenomenon!