Ever since I began promoting and educating people about steampunk, I have had to explain it to folks of diverse backgrounds. Early on I came to the conclusion that the giant mechanical spider from the movie Wild Wild West was our poster child.
If they knew nothing at all about science fiction, Jules Verne, or H. G. Wells, they almost invariably knew about that blessed spider. Dr. Loveless with his diabolical machines and Artemus Gordon with all his wild invention were part of the human gestalt now. Steampunk was firmly represented in their minds as a wonderful giant mechanical spider. No other movie was as universally steampunk. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is decidedly dieselpunk, and City of Ember is really too technologically advanced. Van Helsing is close, but it is so cheesy that we hesitate to own it. So Wild Wild West it is.
Another really good example of steampunk is the little remembered television show Legend, starring Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver from…MacGyver) as a novelist who ends up fighting crime and John De Lancie (Q from the various Star Trek series) as the mad scientist who assists him with outlandish inventions. Or the third Back to the Future movie, with Doc Brown’s mad science and time travel; the original Wild Wild West television show; or even the occasional episode of Brisco County, Jr. Aside from The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, these are probably the most steampunk shows ever to air on television.
Then I began to hear that there was controversy over whether steampunk was steampunk if it was based outside of Victorian London. I immediately thought “Of course it is! The Victorian era took place everywhere!” With my poster child, the spider, originating in early America, I already had a huge motive to feel deeply that steampunk was global. From a specific time period, yes, but anywhere in the world during the reign of steam—and, of course, Queen Victoria. For that matter, anywhere within that basic technological time period, since it could also take place in an alternate universe. Were they saying that there couldn’t be completely made up worlds that were entirely steampunk?
I felt strongly enough that steampunk must be global that I decided to make the theme of the second iteration of Steamcon, the convention I chair, be “weird weird west.” I did some searching and didn’t come up with a lot of books that were science fictional. Kurt R. A. Giambastiani has a series beginning with The Year the Cloud Fell. It is definitely weird west steampunk, with airships and General Custer. Zeppelins West by Joe Lansdale was a weird western steampunk tale, populated by many of the famous folk of the old west, but it was not a great book and a bit too gross for my taste. Cherie Priest’s new novel Dreadnought was rumored to be weird west, but its release date was too far off from the conceptual stages of the con. It’s definitely on my reading list, though. There simply weren’t many books on the topic yet, but I still felt that steampunk à la weird west was going to be popular.
After we announced that the Weird West would be our focus, Captain Robert of Abney Park approached me about the theme saying that he had a feeling it might be the next big thing. Happily, his band Abney Park will be playing at Steamcon II, as will our theme appropriate band, Ghoultown. Gamers will be excited to learn that our games guest of honor is Shane Hensley, who wrote the popular RPG Deadlands which is also very in keeping with the theme. And we are also introducing Riverboat Gambler Night this year. There will of course be panels about how the two genres intersect. I think it will be very entertaining. Giant mechanical spiders aside, there seems to be a need for more steampunk in the weird west, but I foresee some fun stories in the future: robotic sharpshooters, airship stagecoaches, roughriders on mechanical steeds, and mystical shamans populating the wild frontier in a past that never was.
Diana Vick is the vice chair and co-founder of Steamcon, and has been writing and speaking about steampunk for a few years now at conventions and elsewhere. When not expounding on steampunk, she is an illustrator and costumer.