This story, like many good stories, begins in a bar.
Will Reid and Nick Tiemeyer were hanging out at The Pub in Lexington when they noticed Melissa Williams' Star Wars jacket.
Soon bar chatter turned beyond Star Wars to other shared interests.
The next thing you know, they are sailing about the faux skies in a fantastic stolen, steam-powered pirate ship called the Miss Appropriate that was tethered to an enormous hot-air balloon. Reid's in a kilt, Williams has a sword, and Tiemeyer has a jaunty if slightly weather-beaten cap because, of course, he's the ship's pilot.
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That's their collective steampunk story.
Never heard of steampunk or a flying pirate/zeppelin as a mode of transportation? Well, you can see examples of the growing subculture at the Saturday's steampunk-themed Night Circus Gala, which benefits the Lexington Public Library Foundation.
Here's a primer.
G.D. Falksen, a steampunk author and historian who is attending the gala, describes it in just three simple words: "Victorian. Science. Fiction."
But if it were that simple, what need would there be for crews, journals, websites, costume makers, galas and all manner of things that contribute to staking out a corner of pop culture?
Falksen says steampunk represents parts of the culture of the Victorian era (1837 to 1901), but in the imagined steampunk world, the airs and affectations of Victorian culture are merged with fantasy technology based in what was cutting edge for the day: mechanization and steam power.
It is unlike other subcultures that require emergence into an already created alternative world — think Star Trek or Harry Potter.
Steampunk is appealing, Reid says, because you are not limited by an existing frame; your imagination is the only limit.
The self-described real-life "tinker," who is wearing a leather vest he fashioned himself, calls steampunk "the ultimate D.I.Y."
Each of the crew of the Miss Appropriate has developed a full-on alter ego with back stories, and all are assigned jobs on the ship. True to Falksen's description of a typical fan of the genre, all are "very well educated and well spoken."
The Lexington crew members clearly enjoy their rogue adventures, but they're serious about developing their characters and stories.
When asked to describe his alter ego, Devin Spencer first says he had "recently changed my story of origin, so it has created some problems." But Spence, a baker at Panera Bread, ultimately settles on Malachi, or "M," a fixer who has the connections to get the things the band needs during its travels.
The alter ego of Charlotte Valdez, a graphic designer by trade, is B.U.N.I.E., a mute, mechanized, steam-powered life form that is crucial to the operation of the airship. (B.U.N.I.E. stands for "Beta Unit Nominally Intelligent Entity.")
Dressed in a faux fur-trimmed costume, complete with bloomers, she can tell you how the design of her dress relates to a man's vest and how the vest evolved from the Renaissance moving forward.
A detailed working knowledge of history is part of the steampunk allure for Tiemeyer, who gleaned inspiration for his pilot costume from World War II. He and his father have long been collectors of artifacts from that era.
The fact that he could stretch the typical steampunk time frame a bit to incorporate his character, Nikodemas Exeter Rhodes, is appealing, he said. The freedom to roam beyond established parameters is not only accepted but embraced in steampunk, he said.
"In steampunk, they don't tell you that you can't do something," he said.
It's the theater that keeps Williams entranced with her character, Talia Allred. A barista by day, Williams revels much of the rest of the time in the flair and pageantry of being a sword-wielding ship's captain. Hers is the most elaborate costume among the Miss Appropriate crew and includes a handmade corset that took 50 hours to construct. There's also a handmade bustle that she's glad to show to new acquaintances, although "it is more of a second-date kind of thing," she said.
Falksen, who will experience Kentucky's Victorian-era wonders for the first time during his visit, said some people date the emergence of the steampunk movement to the 1999 movie Wild, Wild West featuring Will Smith and a giant metal, steam-powered arachnid. He said the subculture began before that as an artist movement with fantastical works that had one foot in the real past and one in an imagined future. That art spread through the Internet. Interest in the movement as a whole exploded, he said, after a steampunk fashion spread in The New York Times in 2008 featuring, incidentally, one G.D. Falksen among others.
Now, steampunkery is, ahem, full-steam ahead.
Falksen said every generation has a need to rebel against the generation before. Steampunk, with its roots in the formality and classic dress of a bygone age, is a revolt against the "cult of the casual," in which dressing up means refraining from wearing your SpongeBob jammies to the grocery, he said.
Williams, aka the captain, said it was the empowerment of self-reliance that drew her to steampunk.
"If you dislike how something is, or you are displeased with how something works, do not just sit there and complain. Instead, shut up, get up, and use the tools and skills at your disposal to change it," she said.
How people celebrate their passion for steampunk varies. Some have mostly virtual contact, swapping stories and developing characters through online social media. Some groups have monthly get-togethers where everyone stays in character, acting out scenarios. Reid speculates that a wildly wealthy steampunk fan somewhere probably is working on a functional flying steam-powered ship.
In Lexington, the love of costumes and characters and the occasional adult beverage is currently the limit. But that could evolve into something else as steampunk draws new interest and the movement expands — particularly with this weekend's gala.
All are welcome, Williams said: "We'll have a spot for you."
If you captain an imaginary ship, there's always room for more.
If you want to know more about steampunk:
Steampunkmagazine.com. Name kind of says it all.
http://Steampunkworkshop.com. Steampunk-inspired artwork.
Thesteampunkempire.com. Facebook for steampunk.
Lexington group: Thesteampunkempire.com/group/diabolicalsteammachineofthebluegrass
Falksen's Steampunk 101: GDFalksen.com/Steampunk
IF YOU GO
'The Night Circus' Gala
What: Steampunk-themed ball to benefit Lexington Public Library Foundation, with Erin Morgenstern, top right, author of The Night Circus, and steampunk author and historian G.D. Falksen, right.
When: 7 p.m. April 20
Where: The Red Mile's Round Barn, 1200 Red Mile Rd.
Tickets: $20; $50 for book signing and autograph
Learn more: (859) 231-5557, Lexpublib.org/foundation