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Science fiction gets steamy

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What happens when you mix the aesthetic appeal of 1800s Victorian England, scientifically advanced, steam- and gear-powered inventions and the type of alternate historical realities explored in popular culture through movies like “Wild Wild West”?

You get steampunk: an inventive, rule-bending subgenre of science fiction that has found a growing niche in Sacramento.

The term steampunk stemmed from literature like H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine,” published in 1895, and Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, according to members of the Sacramento Steampunk Society.These early steampunk works, which feature elements of time travel, whimsically inventive, steam-powered inventions and Victorian-inspired costuming a la Captain Nemo, explore the limits of human potential while offering alternatives to the documented course of history.

Steampunks engage in “cosplay,” or costume play, and often craft their own handmade, theoretically steam-powered gadgets.

The fashion for this genre includes floor-length bell-shaped skirts, petticoats and bodices for women, and calf-length coats, vests, low-collared linen shirts, trousers and top hats for men.

Both sexes sport pilot goggles, steam-powered guns and hand-soldered jewelry crafted from clock gears, watch parts and vintage hardware.

Denise Farinsky recently attended a Second Saturday steampunk event at the Brick Alley Gallery dressed as a “steampunk fairy,” complete with movable wings made from coat hangers and nylon, a revolver laser gun, goggles and a precariously perched black ostrich-plume hat.

Farinsky constructed her outfit from things she found in her closet, accessories from Evangeline’s in Old Sacramento and steampunk jewelry purchased from artists on Etsy. She received a handmade “mechanical steam spider” from another artist at the event, which completed her ensemble.

Farinsky said she has always been intrigued by steampunk elements in fiction by Jules Verne and movies like “Hellboy,” “Back to the Future Part III” and “The Young Sherlock Holmes” but never know that there was a name for it until her cousin clued her in to the genre of  steampunk.

Aside from dressing the part, Farinsky participates in the movement through her original, steampunk-themed watercolor paintings, the most recent of which, titled “Night Vision,” depicts a Victorian woman with cascading ringlet curls, sporting a wristwatch-adorned top hat and an elaborately embroidered gear-themed eye patch.

Steampunk for Farinsky is a way of re-imagining present-day technology through a Victorian lens.

“I try to imagine what it would have been like for a Victorian to invent the computer, laser gun, iPhone, etc. using steam technology,” she said.Society member Andy Pischalnikoff, a state worker who also teaches classes in new media, said the all-ages Sacramento steampunk group meets about once a month to show off their costuming, share knowledge, craft steampunk props and socialize.

Pischalnikoff cited the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft as a popular theme of costume groups, noting that Lovecraft’s monsters in particular serve as wells of inspiration for the steampunk crowd.

Drawn to the artistic side of steampunk, Pischalnikoff has been photographing Steampunk-popular events like Burning Man, a seven-day festival in the Nevada desert, for six years.

He said he heard about Steampunk through social networking, but that he and his wife, who is a professional costumer, had been dressing for the Dickens Fair, a Victorian costume party held in the Bay Area, for years, making the jump to steampunk fashion an easy one.

Pischalnikoff said the current recession has brought the Sacramento Steampunk Society closer, as hard times make it more important than ever to be industrious and resourceful.Recently, the League of Copper Villains, a Sacramento group with interest in several genres of cosplay, including steampunk, held an event where participants had the opportunity to apply the steampunk aesthetic to old Nerf and squirt guns, first priming them black and then “weathering” them with paint in steampunk-appropriate colors like brass, copper and gold.

Pischalnikoff said a “trademark” of the group is that all of its scheduled events are either free or very affordable, ensuring that cost is never a deterrent.

Sacramento artist and society member Jacob Jerde has applied steampunk ideals to the art of model-building, inventing and sketching steam-powered vehicles and then hand-crafting their miniature replicas.

Jerde, who has been working with models since he was 8 years old, said that each vehicle he creates has a story behind it, like the steam-powered motorbike he dreamt up, which is able to traverse land, sea and air and is the primary mode of transportation for a bounty hunter on a mission to subvert evil forces.Aside from designing steam-powered transportation, Jerde also participates in steampunk cosplay, which, for him, is a chance to tap into his imagination in a limitless way.

“It is basically a civilized way of being a kid again,” he said.

Jerde said the “punk” in steampunk comes from the type of do-it-yourself, no-rules attitude that punks of the 1970s championed. He said creating an alternate reality, where things like a steam-powered motorcycle are possible, is an effort in “rebelling from the norm.”

“I want to have my own identity, to wear what I want, when I want,” Jerde said.

Jerde’s mission is to bring steampunk model-building, an art that he says only a few in the area practice, to the gallery sphere, a move he thinks would be well received.

“People gravitate toward the romance of steampunk,” he said.

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