Houston’s SFF convention, ApolloCon, just seems to get even better every year. It unfolded in all its glory this past weekend. I had a grand good time and so did most everybody else! One of the great strengths of ApolloCon is programming, with interesting topics that haven’t been done to death at other conventions; panelists who bring energy and fresh perspective to the topic; and lively interest and insights from the audience.
This year my favorite panel was one I moderated: STEAM HEAT – the key literary and visual elements of Steampunk and why it’s so popular. We came up with a v-e-r-y interesting roster of elements that make up this subgenre.
- Victorian-era technology, particularly steam power. Machinery that is understandable unlike the black box high tech of today. Nifty real-life example: a hand-sized mechanical calculator invented in the 20th century and known as the pepper-grinder calculator.
- A sense of a world of frontiers such that a person can sail or fly or ride away into limitless adventure – without need of immense governmental or industrial infrastructure.
- Rebellion against society, which is where the “punk” comes in. Fortunately the palette of characters and motives is a lot wider than the hacker subculture of the predecessor genre Cyberpunk. Instead of inhabiting a seamy social sub-basement, Steampunk characters can rebel by taking off into the wild yonder. Once they get there they might go native. Or just be citizens of the wild frontier of land, sea or air.
- Repressed sexuality, especially female sexuality – but you can invent transgressive women who bend or break the social mores, which is another part of the “punk.”
- A sense of humor that can get wild and uproarious. Another nice contrast with bleak, sardonic Cyberpunk.
- Beauty. The ornamentation of people and machines; an aesthetic of ornamentation. The inspiration for this element is genuinely Victorian. Most people don’t realize it nowadays, but steam engines used to be brilliantly colorful. (See the replica steam engines at Golden Spike National Historic Site )
- Costumers love Steampunk, the quirkiness of top hats, goggles, lace and faux fur. Steampunk has been called the playground of Goths who discovered brown… but astute costumers have realized that our sense of the Victorian era as brown comes from sepia photographs. Vivid dyes were discovered in the Victorian era. Flashy fabrics got real fashionable, and people didn’t always mind if their attire clashed.
- And then there are the delights of formal manners. Anything goes doesn’t go very far in satisfying the human penchant for ritual.
- Magic is a definite possibility. Even magics, plural. Romance ditto. Or erotica, putting the steam in Steampunk. Mystery is a natural element to combine with Steampunk. And one strong strand of Steampunk is science fiction – Victorian science fiction, whether in this world/universe or another. Steampunk has sticky, irregular edges – perfect for blending with other genres.
- A nifty element that bubbled up during the back-and-forth between panelists and audience: the opportunity to play off history’s failures of imagination. After the Hindenberg burned, airships took a back seat. When Mercury Redstone rockets started flinging astronauts into space, the technology of aerospace planes got a hard shove toward the dustbin of history. Then there’s how roads usurped the rails in American transportation….
With all this going for it – more than I had realized, and I’ve been paying attention, because my new dark western fantasy novel shares some elements with Steampunk – no wonder there’s so much energy vortexing around Steampunk. Austin’s SFF convention, ArmadilloCon, at the end of August, has a Steampunk theme this year. ArmadilloCon has a fine history of differentiating between a flash of fools’ gold in the sf-literary pan and trends that will amount to something.
Science fiction as a genre is not doing so good lately. Sales are down, agents and editors are looking for something (or anything) else, and global society is so future-shocked that many people just want to stop the world and get off. Meanwhile Steampunk is coming on strong. Maybe the way back to the future is by way of the past.