A History of Steampunk, Part 6: Conclusions

In Part 5, I did the chit and chat about Steampunk’s rise through the 90’s and early 00’s, and it’s evolution from genre of speculative fiction into the beginnings of a ‘scene’. Now, I’m going to wrap this monster up with a brief discussion about the SP ‘movement’, and the latest and arguably most popular works of modern Steampunk fiction. And then I’ll shut the HELL UP about Steampunk for a while.

By the mid 00’s, Steampunk was big enough to generate its own gravitational pull on the interwebs, dragging aficionados into newsgroups, mail lists and the infant blogosphere. In 2007, we saw the creation of the Steampunk Forum; an offshoot of the Brass Goggles blog and an SP wiki called the Aether Emporium. What began as a collection of likeminded community members soon devolved into a  now legendary debate over the ‘meaning’ of Steampunk – basically, old school ‘purists’ vs newschool ‘creators’ such as Jake von Slatt and the (mind-blowingly talented) Datamancer, who wanted to incorporate the DIY and Punk aesthetics into SP.

Terribly simplified, this is ultimately the crux of the colourful (and often venomous and personal) debate waged on the SP Forum: Putting the ‘punk’ into Steampunk. What was formerly a genre of speculative fiction had metamorphosed. Where once Steampunk had been ‘punk’ in name only, now a veritable legion of community members (mostly from the rivethead, goth-industrial and DIY recruits from the early 2000’s) were applying the term ‘punk’ retroactively to the entire scene. The ‘oldschool’ (largely sci-fi and RPG fans) objected. Lines were drawn. Egos were bruised. Batches of bathtub basement napalm were brewed.

When the smoke cleared, as is the case with most Pelennor Plains scale flame wars, there was no clear winner or According the Hoyle definition. However, the newschool Steampunks continued to do their thing, regardless of Her Majesty’s refusal to declare a victor in the great debate. Steampunk began to appear regularly in mainstream publications like Wired, Spin, and even the New York Times and Forbes. As the public became more and more aware of Steampunk, these newschool SP’ers were the most visual, active and vocal members of the community. And thus, public perception of what Steampunk ‘meant’ was shaped by them, and not the sci-fi/rpg’sters. The newschool won, simply by doing rather than talking.

Of course, as soon as SP began hitting the headlines, critics began queuing to take a bite. Bruce Sterling (co-author of the Difference Engine) stood amongst them, citing the NYT article as evidence of the “death of Steampunk”, as if the movement/genre/whateveryoucallit’s recognition by the dreaded ‘mainstream’ was some kind of harbinger of its dooooom. These prognostications were met with counter-claims that SP had already been co-opted by the SP newschool, and had ceased to be what Sterling helped create years before. Furthermore, other sectors of the nerdsphere began to openly criticise elements of the Steampunk community as being self-important, egotistical and masturbatory. Published manifestos, such as the following from the Catastrophone Orchestra in ‘Steampunk Magazine’ may not have helped improve this perception:

“We stand on the shaky shoulders of opium-addicts, aesthete dandies, inventors of perpetual motion machines, mutineers, hucksters, gamblers, explorers, madmen and bluestockings. We laugh at experts and consult moth-eaten tomes of forgotten possibilities. We sneer at utopias while awaiting the new ruins to reveal themselves. We are a community of mechanical magicians enchanted by the real world and beholden to the mystery of possibility. We do not have the luxury of niceties or the possession of politeness; we are rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow. Our corsets are stitched with safety pins and our top hats hide vicious mohawks. We are fashion’s jackals running wild in the tailor shop.”

Hollywood continued to plough SP’s treasure vaults, with Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen being treated to a grade-A prison-sexing, along with Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (again, met with much stern-facery by the Christian right-wing), and Christopher Nolan’s Oscar nominated The Prestige, starring David “You remind me of the babe” Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Steampunk began appearing in video games (Thief, Ultima, Elder Scolls, Tomb Raider, the Final Fantasy series, and most notably, the Steampunk-inspired Gnomes of Gnomeregan in the ‘12million+ subscribers and counting’ behemoth that is World of Warcrackcraft). Musicians such as Abney Park, Vernian Process and Doctor Steel also began proudly proclaiming allegiance to the SP flag, and comics such as Gotham by Gaslight (from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola) and the increasingly popular Girl Genius continued the tradition in the world of ‘graphic novels’. Steampunk fashion became a regular sight at conventions, music festivals and nightclubs.

In the place where it all began, novels, Steampunk rose to grander heights. Scott Westerfeld’s WW1 alternate history Leviathan became a NYT bestseller. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker from the Clockwork Century series was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, and won the Locus award. Other writers such Mark Hodder, Caitlin Kittredge and Cassandra Clare continue the tradition, meeting with great success. The rate at which Steampunk continues to be published and consumed shows no sign of abating just yet.

So, what comes next?

Pessimists would say that, like any subculture, Steampunk will fall into stagnation and decline after its discovery by the mainstream – that the formula will become established after the initial bout of exploration and creativity, the visionaries will abandon it for something new, leaving it to scene-sters and the ‘too stubborn to quit’ crowd, until SP eventually becomes a parody of itself. More optimistic aficionados will point to the fact that modern SP was itself an evolution of the Scientific Romances and goth/rivethead/industrial scene, and insist that it will simply evolve again. How this will effect the original birthplace (and many would still say heart) of Steampunk – speculative fiction – remains a mystery.

For my part, I’m aboard the evolution train. (plugplugplug! choo!choo!)

So, if there is a conclusion to be drawn at the end of this extraordinarily rambling history, in the works of Verne or Gibson or Moore or Westerfeld, I think it is this: Good fiction defies the limitations set by precedent, codification and expectation. Fiction’s only true limit is imagination.

Aaaaaand, that’s it, we’re done. Don’t forget to tip your waitress, and thanks for reading. 🙂

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About Misterkristoff

New York Times and Internationally Bestselling SciFi/Fantasy author, and master of drunken karaoke-fu. View all posts by Misterkristoff

10 responses to “A History of Steampunk, Part 6: Conclusions

  • Dave

    Thanks for the awesome Steampunk primer / redux J. 🙂
    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Windup Girl as a steampunk work (even though it doesn’t fit the normal definitions of the genre).

    • misterkristoff

      I loved the Wind-Up Girl, but I’m not sure it’s SP at all. I’ve seen people bandy about those odd terms like ‘Biopunk’ in reference to it, which I guess kinda makes sense if you’re one of those people who need to put a label on EVERYTHING.

      It’s basically dark-future dystopian. Dark sci-fi, ala Bladerunner. People would’ve called tW-UG Cyberpunk 20 years ago, but Cyberpunk is completely un-hip now, so nobody dares use it to reference a good book. So they make up shit like Biopunk instead (which again, makes sense, in that the tech is based on genetic manipulation in tW-UG, but yeah, too many labels imo)

  • The Bay Area Brit

    Loved all six parts of your SteamPunk voyage. I have also come to realize that a lot of my favorite childhood films have SP threads which link them. Not least of all, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which in its writing combined the unlikely couple of Ian Fleming with Roald Dahl.

  • Phillip

    Is it possible that “Steampunk” is “All hat; No cows”? That there is no there there? That it is about as deep as an ashtray. Harsh! However, I didn’t read anything that would lead me to believe anything else.

    • Misterkristoff

      Absolutely. Mike Perschon over at Steampunk Scholar (a very smart chap who actually did his thesis on SP) wrote a really interesting piece about how Steampunk is actually just an aesthetic. That the visual stylings (goggles and corsets and all that jazz) are the only common thread you can find between various well-known “Steampunk” works, and that there’s really nothing more to it than that.

      I like this conclusion. A lot. Some people seem to try quite desperately to ascribe some greater “meaning” to steampunk – to build it into something far more than it is. I write the stuff, and I’m not reaaaaally buying that. The depth you’re going to find in any SP novel is there because the author injected it, not out of any inherent depth or meaning in the genre itself.

      • Phillip

        Thank you for your reply. For about the last five hours I have been feeling guilty of being a “fun hater”. Not everything has to have deep meaning or a higher purpose. I myself am not very (at all) comfortable with dress up, so it would stand to reason that the effort that goes into the accouterments of “Steampunk” would not suit me. It looks like they are expensive and above all; uncomfortable. I should remember that there are plenty of things we humans do that are categorized as “fun for its’ own sake”. The Pope may hate this, but that is his job!

      • Misterkristoff

        I agree, not everything needs to have higher purpose. Some people spend an enormous amount of time on SP and the scene, so it’s totally cool if they try to give it something more. I’m all down for that. but Mike makes some very compelling arguments and I’m totally in his camp on this one.

        And i’m not sure you need to be into the cosplay angle to enjoy SP. I don’t own a frock coat of goggles or anything, and I still find the fun in the SP scene.

        Damn Popes.

  • judisue

    Thoroughly enjoyable six-piece series. Thank you.

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