Oct 21 2010 12:20pm

The Weird Weird West

Diana Vick, weird weird west theme for Steamcon IIEver 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?

Weird weird west theme for Steamcon II

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.

This article is part of Steampunk Fortnight: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Mike Perschon
1. Mike_Perschon
I'd add Al Ewing's "El Sombra," Felix Gilman's "Half-Made World" (which is brilliant, despite its darkness), and Mike Resnick's "The Buntline Special," which is coming out in December. Priest's "Dreadnought" could certainly be read as Weird West, complete with train chases and a Texas Ranger.
james loyd
2. gaijin
"Van Helsing is close, but it is so cheesy that we hesitate to own it. So Wild Wild West it is."

Riiiiiiiight, because Wild Wild West wasn't cheesy at all. The steampunk tech and Will Smith were the only positive elements in that film and even they weren't enough to salvage it.
3. kid_greg
Well, I haven't yet read any steampunk books but I do plan to soon.
Is there a reason The League of Extaordinary Gentlemen wasn't mentioned?
I would've thought that would be like the ultimate steampunk movie and made an excellent poster-child to rep, but then again, like I said, I'm not even new to the genre yet.
4. kid_greg
oh, and don't forget Jonah Hex.
As fan of the comic back in the 70's it was a little hard to adjust to how the movie version steam-punked Hex up, not to mention the super-natural elements.
But once I got past that, it was a pretty good tale. And most definetly Wierd West
Ashe Armstrong
5. AsheSaoirse
Jonah Hex is glorious in comic form. Now that that's out of the way...

Weird West and Steampunk are siblings, I think. Steampunk tends to ere more on the side of whimsy and adventure, whereas the Weird West tends to be more horror or revenge based or supernatural. They can mix, of course and I love when they do but I must say, my heart belongs to the Weird West. Ghoultown is a perfect embodiment of it and I am a huge fan of theirs. I kind of hope it ISN'T the next big thing though. Gaining popularity is one thing and I encourage the expansion of the genre (hell, I have the only Weird West group on deviantart - but I think popularity explosions do some harm. On the other hand, seeing as how I have a series and a standalone novel in plans, it would make it easier to get published.
Tudza White
6. tudzax1
The giant spider is pretty much what put the final nail in the coffin for me for Wild Wild (Will Smith) West. A pity, because I wanted to like that movie.

Now the steam powered bicycle Gordon was riding toward the beginning of the movie, that was good.
Joe Romano
7. Drunes
As bad as the movie was, the original TV series was pretty darn cool... If you grew up in the 60s, it was steampunk long before steampunk was born.
8. kid_greg
Robert Conrad was bad-@$$. "nuff said" :)

I actually had a Wild Wild West comic book by Gold Key comics. :)
Kurt Criscione
9. Dathar
I LOVE Ghoultown and Deadlands... Steampunk and the Weird West are like peanut butter and jelly, it just goes together so well. Will have to look into Steamcon II.

Michael Burke
10. Ludon
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!”

While the Weird Weird West stories might be questioned because of the American setting, I can give you a solid foundation on which you can defend your view of Steampunk being Steampunk away from London because the Victorian era was everywhere.

The Sun Never Sets On The British Empire.

That saying was true during the Victoriam era.

I'm glad that others remember Legend. I loved that show. There had been another - earlier - twisted western but I can't remember any steampunk hooks in it. Does anyone remember Best Of The West? Could that one be on the fringe of the Weird Weird West?
Ashe Armstrong
11. AsheSaoirse
Oh and anyone who hasn't seen Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter owes it to themselves.
12. Benjamin Lesley
One show that I wish could have lived beyond it's short time on television was The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. That was some steampunk/Weird West right there. I think it was put out there before it's time. A show like that, today, might have had a better chance.
Madeline Ferwerda
13. MadelineF
You're lucky to have Shane Lacy Hensley! He is a sweetie. At least, the two times I met him randomly at gaming conventions when he lived in San Jose, he impressed me well.

I prefer my steampunk Western. Victorian England is for Goths. Steampunk is for seeking out new things, meeting new people and new cultures, and that happened in the West, among other border regions.
14. kid_greg
"It's what people know about themselves inside that makes 'em afraid. "

Clint Eastwood delivers the best one-liners in movies, hands-down.
Michael Grosberg
15. Michael_GR
As much as I love oversized mechanical archanids (and who doesn't?), Wild, Wild, West was an Awful, Awful Film and I'd hate to see it or anything related to it used as a poster child for anything other than as a warning to future directors, writers and actors.

And why would you even need it when you have the Nautilus from Disney's 20,000 Leagues adaptation? Now, that was a Steampunk Marvel. Yes, the original Nautilus from Verne's masterpiece was a straight-up serious speculative vehicle. But not the Disney sub! nosireebob. Verne's sub was a sleek tapered hull, not too different from today's subs; disney's was a full blown rivet-fetooned victorian iron monstrosity. Ain't nothing Londonian about it, either. The poster child for Steampunk inventors turns out to be asian! How's that for cultural diversity?
16. Aaronious
I can't believe some people would be so small minded and limited as to think steampunk is only set in England. I'm very glad to read this article and see some level headed reasoning. Thank you.
Ashe Armstrong
17. AsheSaoirse
@Benjamin Lesley- Brisco County Jr. introduced me to Bruce Campbell and the weird west (along with Back to the Future III) and I still adore it to this day.

@MadelineF- I can sort of agree but if steampunk is about adventure, then the western frontier of America isn't the only location for it. I think for Steampunk, Weird West or an amalgamation of the two, the adventures happen wherever you feel they should be told.

@kid_greg- Probably his best line is from Unforgiven. "Deserve's got nothin to do with it."
18. Laughing Gnome
I've always loved Wild Wild West, so when I was first introduced to Steampunk, I immediately thought of that movie. I guess that's why I always go for the more Western Steampunk look (and forget sometimes that the whole genre kinda spawned from Victorian London).
Don Beyer
19. dwbeyer
Yeah! I am not nuts! I am just getting started in my writing and have been inspired to do a Steampunk Western and thought I was being a complete idiot. As campy as Brisco County got, it was a heck of a lot of fun.
20. hrmessinger
If it's not too tacky to mention my own work, I had a Weird West novella published by Baen's Universe 2 years ago, and I'm about to finish up a novel based on the same characters. Here's hoping the trend continues for a while.
21. James Swallow
Speaking as a Londoner, I always felt that Steampunk spanned the world, not just my hometown. My first novels were a quartet of YA Steampunk Westerns (the Sundowners series) published by Scholastic back before the Wild Wild West movie came out... Maybe I should get 'em back into print...
22. filkferengi
Alan Dean Foster's short story collection _Mad Amos_ is definitely Weird West.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment