Note from Ay-leen: Due to further shifts in the schedule, this week’s post will be my con report for BEA. And tune in next week for Sandrine Thomas’ new article. In the meantime, I shall be investigating steampunk at its Source in London. Wish me luck!
Some online commentors declared that when steampunk hit the New York Times Style Section, steampunk was dead. If that were the case, then the publishing industry has been beating a dead horse (or, perhaps, joining the “sell out” bandwagon as those same nay-sayers maintain). Nevertheless, with steampunk’s growing recognition as a subgenre (and cemented in March in relevance to US reading audiences when the Library of Congress created a “steampunk” fiction category), publishers and booksellers everywhere are intrigued by what, exactly, is steampunk and why, exactly, is it becoming one of the hottest trends in publishing today. During Book Expo America, the largest book fair event in North America that was held a couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to scope out a few steampunk-related events that served to educate the average reader about the growing hype surrounding steampunk.
Events were happening even before the Javits Center opened its doors to the public. On the Tuesday before, the School Library Journal hosted a Day of Dialogue that opened up with “Steampunkery: Why are today’s teens embracing 19th-century technologies?” (click for full video of the entire panel). Hosted by author and idea man Cory Doctorow, this panel featured authors Scott Westerfeld (Leviathan) and Cherie Priest (Boneshaker) and steampunk “fangirl” Karen Grenke, the library manager for the New York Public Library. Though I couldn’t attend, below are some observations I had about the panel.
Factoid to be Known: Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride inspired both SW and CP when they were children. Cherie commented that her father used to joke about when she was six, how she wanted to live in a submarine, but, of course, what Cherie wanted was much more than that. This reminded me of Cory Gross’ articulate post about how Disney has always been steampunk.
CP: Steampunk’s definition in a nutshell: “Steampunk is a style of books, movies, video games, comic books informed by the sci-fi of the 19th century.” This jives a bit with what Mike Perschon had proposed; I find it interesting that steampunk’s definition triggers two lines of thought, which may or may not overlap within a person’s definition: 1) what it is, and 2) how people use it. The way Cherie defines it and how she thinks it should be used are two different things entirely then.
KG: “Form that you can live in as completely as you want to and can make it your own as much as you want to. The sense of rebellion to it is extremely attractive to kids.” And attractive to many people, I might add. That was one of the roots of punk after all: the active co-opting of the “rebellious” identities–particularly from marginalized and poor, working class peoples–by more privileged groups. Culture Studies Professor Daniel S. Traber analyzed this concept in “L.A.’s ‘White Minority’: Punk and the Contradictions of Self-Marginalization”.
And Cory Doctorow says the best stuff. Ever. My emphasis in bold.
CD: “[Steampunk is] inherently a 21st-century thing where we are able to individually self-produce without factories. On one hand we can do knowledge sharing where Scott can go online and google steampunk, you see a million recipes for making stuff…And there is the lie of steampunk–that underneath steampunk there are the biggest factories the world has ever seen because everything that goes into a steampunk remake comes out of a giant factory in south China, right? On one hand, we’re celebrating the great artistic freedom of the West and what arises from it is the greatest migration in human history and tens of thousands of children chained to machines on the other side of the planet, firing one container ship full of Nerf toys and Happy meal items per second… so this is the amazing thing and cool thing and contradictory thing about steampunk that makes it a crunchy and chewy thing.”
SW’s entire presentation about illustrated books in the Victorian era is a must-see segment in this panel. The best quote from that: “You know when you were six, seven or eight years old and someone gave you a book you were supposed to like, and you looked at a book that had no illustrations and said, ‘Hey, this sucks‘ and were told ‘Oh, that’s good, that’s so you could use your imagination‘? It turns out they were lying.” He is just a hilarious man in general; I’ve seen him speak several times and it’s always great.
CP: And her final note about steampunk: “If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong.” So say we all.
On Wednesday of the fair, BEA also hosted a Steampunk Author’s Stage, moderated by Tor Associate Editor Liz Gorinsky and featuring Cherie Priest, Catherynne Valente (Hugo-nominated author, known for the novel Palimpsest and and the steampunk works “The Anachronists Cookbook” and the essay “Blowing Off Steam“), and Felix Gilman (British author, known for Gears of the City and the upcoming novel The Half-Made World). I had the opportunity to attend this panel. My rough notes/transcript is below. Less actual quotes, though I tried to fit them in where I could.
Question: How do you define steampunk?
CP: A style that is informed by the sci-fi of the 19th century, but this is not a binary. Things aren’t either/or.
CV: The anxiety of the Victorian age. But I also see a strong costume /aesthetic component to it.
FG: Reimagining of alternative futures. A collection of tropes. “The idea of that very last moment where people thought that they were on the edge of the future”
Question: How did you first hear of steampunk? Do you consider yourself a part of it?
CP: Heard of it as the idea that technology can and should be beautiful. It also, in her experience, has a dark fantasy element to it. Likes to think she is part of the scene.
CV: Had taken part in the Victorian reenactment scene; was involved with SalonCon. Feels like she is on the periphery of the steampunk scene; likes to be the critical observer of steampunk.
FG: Had read a lot of Jules Verne and Michael Moorcock before they were considered steampunk. Has a thing for Oscar Wilde in college. Does not consider himself part of the community, but likes moving through it.
LG: Observes that it’s a common theme for participants of steampunk to fall in love with it before they knew there was a word for it.
Question: Why is steampunk becoming popular now?
CP: Reaction to cyberpunk’s fear of impending technology. Reference to the slimmed-down mold of modern design. Like with the iPod; if it breaks, it becomes a brick. You can’t fix it, you don’t know how it works. There is a sentiment that technology is getting away from us. This reaction is parallel to the same feeling in the Victorian era–that we are on the edge of Something Big. But also, steampunk tells you that if the grid gives away tomorrow (like in a post-apocalyptic sense), you can still rebuild. You can still survive.
CV: Ditto with CP. Also, the Victorian aesthetic changes the sleek to something warm and comforting. Steampunk is very much about our own anxiety over technology. Compares it to Ren Faires and SCA, where historical reenactment is very important, but with steampunk, you can do anything you want. Observes that American steampunk and British steampunk are quite different–at least, they are used in different ways culturally.
(Note: I think what Cat Valente means is that it appears that the British use steampunk as a way to acknowledge their own history, while Americans tend to romanticise/fetishize the concept of Britishness and being Victorian.)
FG: “British steampunk isn’t steampunk; it’s our actual lives!”
“In the Victorian era, the natural world was disappearing, replaced by technology, and that was what people are confronting. Steampunk is a fictional movement of nostalgia where technology is seen as organic and not alien.” Wonders to what extent does social nostalgia play in as well–where people are also responding to changes in the social order today.
CP: There is also the rise of environmentalism, DIY, finding new uses for old things. Thinks that steampunk confronts the social order turned on its head.
CV: There is also a political reaction where society is working through its feelings toward the past American government, which had been more conservative–religiously and socially–and they find parallels of the previous Bush administration in the Victorian Era.
Question: How do the authors use the central conceits of steampunk in their fiction?
CP: Related the story about how in a forum five years ago, she came upon some British steampunks commenting how sad it was for Americans to try and do steampunk, because after all, nothing was happening in America in the 19th century. So she went off and decides for her final book in her contract, to write about steampunk set in America, placing all the tropes of steampunk as systematic part of the world setting.
CV: Palimpsest is more gearpunk than steam. Mentions her article “Blowing Off Steam” is more of an early criticism of steampunk– that it if had the word punk in it, it has to use aspects of the punk movement. In terms of the political issues of steampunk, she fears that people are siding with the more “aristocratic” side. Also observed that in the evolution of steampunk, there seems to be a “mainstream” steampunk and a “fringe” steampunk developing.
FG: Is outraged at those forum people for saying that Americans can’t do steampunk. “I think steampunk really has its roots in America too, and this is coming from an actual British person.” Doesn’t see his book as steampunk but considers it a “fellow traveler” to the subgenre.
Question: Is there any progress about making steampunk serious literature?
CV: Doesn’t feel like that The Great Steampunk Novel hasn’t been written yet. Fears it being only a trend. Bothers her to see that people are being conforming; she goes to a steampunk convention and sees a sea of brown. Right now, people are writing steampunk as something cute or overly-clever, but it has a tremendous wellspring that hasn’t been tapped yet. That is the next step in the media world, to see if steampunk will become more than a 21st-century joke.
CP: Hope to be able to do so with her work, especially when dealing with the issues that arose during the American Civil War. Believes also that steampunk has value in letting people explore their own histories, that whatever your family/ people/ nation did 100 years ago is worth talking about and exploring.
CV: “That’s what I mean about honesty–steampunk needs to deal with more than just how awesome airships are.”
FG: Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is his personal steampunk novel. Believes you can get a lot of mileage by using steampunk to question things rather than the “kitchen sink” steam, which is not terribly substantial but amusing for awhile.
LG: There are all sorts of areas that steampunk has not covered yet that people are getting excited about now: genderplay, class expansion, ableism, are some suggestions of topics that steampunk can address very well.
CV: Some of us are ready for Steampunk 201, but some people are just getting into it. There is a disconnect with what creators are ready to present and what the audience is ready to accept.
And, finally, the big steampunk book at BEA? Quirk Books’ Android Karenina of course! I got to grab a signed copy at the stand and want to give a shout out to Steven and Tiffany for being their lovely selves at the booth.