Steampunk in San Jose

My favorite panel at World Fantasy Convention was “Why Steampunk Now?” A great subject. I mean, don’t ya kind of wonder what brought on this huge enthusiasm for 19th century technology, a reimagined British Empire, top hats and goggles? A fad, a band wagon, an aesthetic  — but why now?

The following does not pretend to summarize the erudite points of this panel, so I’ll just cherry pick from comments among  panelists Liz Gorinsky, Ann VanderMeer, (editor with Jeff VanderMeer of Steampunk) Nisi Shawl, Michael Swanwick. After my initial reaction, of “boy am I dumb that I had no clue,” the fearsomely smart panelists debated about why now. Some of the conjectures circled around what Steampunk is reacting against: e.g, a reaction against technology, a return to good technology, where you can actually understand it; the appeal to the techies among us of getting your hands on “the machine” instead of the distance imposed by gooey interfaces –goodness, starting to get brainy already–also the stylish and edgy aspects (ah, I thought, I get it, it’s the clothes!) but no, Steampunk, I learn, is anti-style, anti smooth and perfect; what the literature is really saying is more populist: “anyone can do this; I, or my neighbor, can tinker and get the job done.” Oh, I think, crestfallen at my plans for cool goggles. Then there is the idea that Steampunk is a reaction against staid and pretentious and it’s about time we just had fun with hot air balloons. Ah ha, I think, so Steampunk is optimistic (thank you Michael, I think I needed a lift.) But no, Ann VanderMeer reminded us of the other, darker, perspectives and Liz Gorinsky smartly said that the dark side is the story of those who technology is hurting. Then, just as I was sobering to the meat of the discussion, Nisi Shawl suggested that it is a reaction against racial diversity. After all, the age glorified (the British Empire) is based on bloated lies. Now I am really sobering up. Wishing that I hadn’t put a zeppelin in Bright of the Sky . . .

And yet I came away with a sense that the aesthetic and the literature have things in common with a greener world and a better approach to technology. I am looking forward to Jeff VanderMeer’s upcoming The Steampunk Bible for more erudition–and fun.

8 Responses

  1. threeoutside says:

    Thanks for the cool report – and don’t you think it’s ALL those things, at once? I’m not any kind of expert, no way, shape or form, but I’ve always liked the trappings, as they showed up, occasionally, in this tv show or that movie or book – but it does seem to have coalesced in recent years, to a movment or aesthetic. I love it. But as for the British Empire/white man’s style idea – seems to me I’ve seen a goodly number of black, urban rappers and (I know even less about this than about steampunk so I beg forgiveness ahead of time) they’re wearing steampunk outfits, even having their photo shoots with steampunk backgrounds, etc. So maybe just because the Cons don’t have a lot of different peoples doing steampunk, doesn’t mean it’s not spreading to the larger populace.

    As for why the clothing and accessories (I do love them goggles!) are so hot right now, well, are we all just about fed up with plastic crap from China? Are we ready to appreciate clothing styles that are timeless, and wear forever, and make you look really sharp? And gadgets and instruments that aren’t made of plastic, too – I LOVE those fine-tooled brass scientific instruments from olden times. Maybe we’re ready for the objects in our lives to be *worth* something again.

    Just a thought.

  2. Kay says:

    Interesting if the aesthetic has an appeal to diverse groups, but the point remains interesting that in the stories, the literature, people of color are missing or their presence is a gloss, with no attempt at context. I haven’t read enough of it to know if that is so.

    There may be crucial differences between the literature and the part that is aesthetic and lifestyle.

    And as you say, objects Worth something, not mass-produced. Yes, that came up. You shoulda been there!

  3. threeoutside says:

    “You shoulda been there!”

    *sigh* If only.

    And maybe writers will start to be more inlcusive – gosh, I think as a reader it’d be way more interesting to get a lot of different cultures into the stories. If you’re going to make up worlds, why not see how “teh steampunk” influences different peoples…I’m not sure what I’m saying but maybe the roots of steampunk being in Victorian England have started out with that superior, imperial mindset – but it can be changed!

  4. paulgenesse says:

    I loved the panel

    Kay, great post on the Why Steampunk Now? panel. It was my favorite of the convention as well. I really needed to hear what they said, as I was asked to write a steampunk story for a DAW anthology and needed to hear their expert opinions. I am totally going to write a racially aware story. The thoughts from Nisi Shawl have heavily influenced the direction my story is going to take.

    Thanks again for the great post.

    Paul Genesse
    Author of The Dragon Hunters

  5. Kay says:

    Race and Steampunk

    The challenge would be to put the racial diversity into a well-imagined milieu where there is not just tokenism, but a re-imagining of the economic/geo-political context that makes it possible to have, say, a black member of parliament or whatever power grouping.
    Interesting questions, aren’t they?

  6. Kay says:

    Re: I loved the panel

    Thanks, Paul. Look forward to reading your story.
    Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are worthwhile to check out on the Steampunk subject. I’m not sure they see the racial issue in the same terms. This could be a really fascinating topic to dig into more deeply. It’s kin to the long-standing discussion of feminism in science fiction, and even more complicated.

  7. threeoutside says:

    Re: Race and Steampunk

    Yes really interesting.

    I wonder if anyone’s done an alternative story where, when the Europeans met all these (much more ancient, by the way) civilizations, they responded and treated them AS civilizations, equal cultures, etc. That would be such a nice daydream. A sunny What If, as opposed to the usual Dark What If…

  8. paulgenesse says:

    Hi Kay,

    After the panel on steampunk I rushed to the dealers’ room (at World Fantasy) and bought a copy of Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s Steampunk anthology from Tachyon press. Ann and Jeff arrived a moment later and signed it for me. I’ve read the preface and introduction, which is fascinating and since I’m home from my book tour, I can now read the stories. Some very heavy hitters are included in the book and I can’t wait. I’m going to read the first story right now . . . and consider how I’m going to use my own story to explore the issue of feminism and race.

    Paul Genesse
    Author of The Dragon Hunters

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