MIND MELD: Why Has Steampunk Persisted For So Long?

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Steampunk. It keeps going and going and going… So we asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Why has steampunk persisted for so long?

Here’s what they said…

Jeff VanderMeer
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer grew up in the Fiji Islands and has had books published in over 20 countries. His books, including the bestselling City of Saints & Madmen, have made the year’s best lists of The Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He reviews books for, among others, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as being a regular columnist for the Omnivoracious book blog. Current projects include the short story collection The Third Bear, the UK publication of his noir fantasy novel Finch (Atlantic), The Steampunk Bible (Abrams; with S.J. Chambers) and the forthcoming anthologies, co-edited with his wife Ann, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic) and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins). He maintains a blog at jeffvandermeer.com and serves as assistant director to the teen SF/F writing camp Shared Worlds.

To answer this question requires some context, and an understanding of my position: I have documented and studied Steampunk, but I don’t write it that often and I don’t self-identify as a steampunk. This is by way of saying, my view is an overview from outside looking in, and trying to get at the whole of it…

Much of what we see about Steampunk is in the form of received ideas–someone reads something about it and then blogs, or they’ve read a couple of books, and maybe not the best ones, and they’ve got a sense of what the subgenre is and isn’t from a small sample. It’s an easy target because the term itself may conjure up for some escapism and perhaps a false romanticism for a bygone age. But Steampunk is more complicated than that. One of its precursors, H.G. Wells, was a socialist and wrote anti-Imperial novels and socially aware novels as well. Another precursor, Michael Moorcock, wrote his Nomads of the Air series specifically as a comment on the ills of Empire. Jumping forward to the creation of the term by K.W. Jeter in 1987, you have Jeter’s own Infernal Devices, which satirizes and comments on the Victorian era right there at the start–it isn’t a lovesong to Victoriana.


The pulse then gets thready for awhile despite the adrenaline rush of books by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Messrs Gibson & Sterling, which means that in part Steampunk has survived so long because it’s been on life-support from time to time. It rises from the dead due to steampunk fashion and music in the 1990s and some Steampunk aesthetic expressed in movies and comics. Then the maker movement fashions a heart for it through creation of actual steampunk-inspired machines, which feeds back into all of the rest of the subculture. In addition, SteamPunk Magazine, properly anarchist and Green in focus, provides a bleeding edge for the field to aspire to politically–a soul, so to speak. In this environment of growing pop culture appeal meshed with political/social interest, Steampunk becomes popular in part because it contains multitudes. (Consider by contrast cyberpunk, whose most recent contribution to the world were the badly-made sweaters of the Matrix movies.)

The subculture reanimates the impulse to create Steampunk fiction, the fiction energizes the subculture, and websites like Beyond Victoriana plot a course for Steampunk that include a response to Imperialism and other issues from the point of view of the colonized, creating agency and discourse through new channels. Adding further relevance and ideas, Steampunk enclaves in Brazil, France, and elsewhere become visible to US/UK audiences through the internet, fostering further cross-pollination within the subgenre. And all of this creates an atmosphere for publishers in which the term “steampunk” sells books. Whenever a term can sell books, it naturally creates fragmentation, contamination, and mutation of the term in question, which is why thinking of Steampunk as a kind of umbrella or an aesthetic rather than a movement is more useful. (This naturally has created some friction between gatekeepers and those who hold radically different ideas of what Steampunk is in their heads, but some amount of head-butting during transition periods is inevitable.)

Fragmentation, contamination, and mutation are not necessarily bad things. In the case of Steampunk, the popularity of the term will mean that fluffy, escapist books are published, but also that much stranger, more literary, more diverse books are published as well–and Trojan Horses: books that look fluffy and escapist but are anything but. Steampunk is rapidly creating a safe haven for very, very interesting material that might not otherwise enter the world through commercial publishers, or even through indie publishers–not to mention the amazing amount of short fiction, which runs the usual gamut from crap to amazing. It is creating a space for progressive alt-histories that are acts of reclamation. There is feminist Steampunk, international Steampunk, multicultural Steampunk in ever growing numbers. And as ever, the fact that it is spread out through fashion, music, making, fiction, and so much more makes it much easier for something like Steampunk to last even longer. It isn’t the bleeding edge in terms of innovation in fiction by any means, but it is in general practical, more and more progressive, durable, and beautiful.

Damien G. Walter
Damien G. Walter is a writer of weird and speculative fiction. His stories have been published in Electric Velocipede, Serendipity, Transmission, Pulp.net, The Drabblecast and many other magazines as well as broadcast on BBC Radio. In 2005 he was shortlisted for the Douglas Coupland short fiction contest, and more recently won a grant from Arts Council England to work on his first novel. He blogs for Guardian Unlimited. He is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy workshop at UC San Diego.

Steampunk at this point is primarily a costume sub-culture, not dissimilar from Rennaisance faires or medieval war re-creationsists. Those things are a lot of fun…I think a lot of the steampunk costumes look fabulous. Although I’m less than enthusiastic about the use of cogs. A cog is part of a mechanism or it is nothing. Sticking a cog on a hat, or a gun or…worst of all, a computer of somekind, does not make it steampunk. Anymore than sticking circuit boards all over things makes them cyberpunk. If you MAKE the computer out of cogs, then that is steampunk and I will be suitably impressed.

Where steampunk crops up in literature now it is largely as one of dozens of cool settings that speculative fiction stories employ…a diferent set of stage props but otherwise the same old story. I might quibble a bit with American authors appropriating British imperial history, and I could point out that the British empire was a deeply oppresive and exploitative political entity not just for foreigners but also for the vast majority of the domestic population, and that treating it as a nice set of toys to tell a story with is, from my rather humble and lowly origins in the British class system, ever so slighty offensive. But actually I don’t think these crticisms would be fair…most steampunk is written with a sense of fun and disposability, and as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously it’s often a fun and disposable read.

Joe R. Lansdale
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of over thirty novels, several short story collections, essays, plays, screenplays and teleplays for Batman the Animated Series. His latest novel is Vanilla Ride from Knopf. The Urban Fantasy Anthology, co-edited with Peter S. Beagle, hits bookstores on August 15, 2011.

I don’t think Steampunk itself matters so much as the story itself, and if it’s a good story, people will want to read it. It could be any kind of story. I don’t consider myself a Steampunk writer, which is not to say I’m anti-Steampunk, but that I just write stories. I wasn’t even aware the stuff I was writing was Steampunk, as it was just the story I wanted to tell and I told it. If people want to be put in that box, or placed under that label, I get it. I just don’t want to be. The only label I like is The Lansdale Label.

Gail Carriger
Author of the Parasol Protectorate series: Soulless (Oct. 2009), Changeless (March 2010), Blameless (September 2010), and Heartless (June 2011). Ms. Carriger began writing in order to cope with being raised in obscurity by an expatriate Brit and an incurable curmudgeon. She escaped small town life and inadvertently acquired several degrees in Higher Learning. Ms. Carriger then traveled the historic cities of Europe, subsisting entirely on biscuits secreted in her handbag. She now resides in the Colonies, surrounded by fantastic shoes, where she insists on tea imported directly from London. She is fond of teeny tiny hats and tropical fruit. She specializes in comedies of manners set in Victorian London full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea drinking. This journal chronicles her forays into the publishing industry as a writer and reviewer, as well as addressing outside interests in fashion, art, and science. She attempts to post at least three times a week, but may not when traveling foreign climes in hot pursuit of more Higher Learning and tropical fruit. She is now tired of referring to herself in the third person.

I have many theories on this. Part of the appeal, I think, has to do with our own sense of chaos and impending doom. This often causes people to look back and seek out a time that was feels more ridged and controlled, full of polite manners and structured forms of address. It’s a way of escaping into formality. I think that is a large part of steampunk’s charm.

Steampunk is also special as a movement because it isn’t entirely literary – these days it has ties to the green movement, the maker community, historical reenactment societies, musicians, artists, and the fashion world. I believe any aesthetic component lends to escapist appeal. With our economy in chaos, steampunk offers up an alternative lifestyle of sedate civilized behavior and beautiful dress.

I suppose I believe steampunk has persisted because it has evolved to being more than just a literary movement. All great ideas eventually become larger than the sum of their parts, if we are lucky, steampunk will continue to do so.

Genevieve Valentine
Genevieve Valentine’s short fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic Arts, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed, and Apex, and in the anthologies Teeth, Federations, The Living Dead 2, Running with the Pack, and more. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is available now from Prime. You can learn more about it at the Circus Tresaulti website. Her nonfiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Weird Tales, and she is the co-author of Geek Wisdom (out in Summer 2011 from Quirk Books). Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.

I think there are a few things at work here. Firstly, steampunk presents a backdrop of accelerated or fantastical tech as a means of exploring and subverting many of the tenets of Victorian society; this is most noticeable in 20th century steampunk onward, but can also be seen in the steampunk of the day (Jules Verne had some amazingly snarky turns of phrase). Secondly, within this context, the idea of a rebellious few going up against a powerful system makes for good stories no matter what they’re flying. Third, every time steampunk trends, costuming nerds everywhere are totally vindicated.

6 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Why Has Steampunk Persisted For So Long?”

  1. Looking at these comments, I think the general consensus is that Steampunk touches a lot of things that are just kind of cool.  

    All those things you thought were cool when you were a kid, all those wacky inventions people came up with to solve things like manned flight before they figured out the optimal solution (look at WW1 / WW2 planes) – Steampunk has all that.

  2. Some of it has to do with that Steampunk offers somewhat of a Golden Age of SF feel, but also Orson Scott Card said that we find most interesting those things that are a balance between strange vs. familiar.  I think that is why androids are so popular in SF.  The elements of Steampunk are familiar but in the era from which they came.  Juxtaposed into modern era brings in that strangeness that piques our interest.

  3. I think of Steam Punk like I think of Rockabilly or Goth – it’s a subculture with a very specific image and some people are very serious about it, others just whip out on Halloween.

    As for the literary side of it, again, some people are into it and understand that it is more than cogs while others don’t – at least not yet.

    I wonder if one day Steam Punk will become popular enough to be aped by something else and more or less usurped by it, like how Emo ousted Goth as the weird gloomy stage teenagers go through. For people like me who were Goth in high school and continued to be so well into adulthood, being called Emo is an insult.

    Wil Hot Topic start selling goggles and cables and brass plates????

     

  4. Gail wrote:

    Part of the appeal, I think, has to do with our own sense of chaos and impending doom. This often causes people to look back and seek out a time that was feels more ridged and controlled, full of polite manners and structured forms of address. It’s a way of escaping into formality. I think that is a large part of steampunk’s charm.

     

    I think Gail has her finger on the answer. Steampunk is popular for the same reason that fantasy is popular.  The chaos, impending doom, and the “Crapsack world” we seem to be hurtling toward.  Steampunk obviates all that, replacing them with other, imaginary concerns and a unified worldview that is not the one we’re facing.

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