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.