Oct 4 2011 2:30pm

I Love That Thing You Do

Early on, when Phil and I had just begun to release Girl Genius, our book received a bad review. Specifically, the reviewer was unhappy that he couldn’t tell if our new comic was supposed to be science fiction or fantasy — we were clearly idiots who didn’t know what we were doing — we should have picked one and stuck with it, by damn. His point wasn’t that we were “mixing genres” poorly, it was that we were doing it at all. I puzzled over that one for a while, then just shrugged and wrote it off, concluding that the reviewer was clearly suffering from a crashing lack of imagination.

These days, I can’t help but remember that review, and wonder what the poor fellow makes of the current steampunk boom — with its cheerful disregard for the hard facts of real-world science, and the limitations they impose on writers of science fiction. Or, that is, the limits they would impose, if we were to pause in the middle of all the fun we’re having and let them.

In the last ten years or so, the word “steampunk” has come to mean far more than simply the literary subgenre of science fiction that, before the turn of the last century, lurked in the shadow of cyberpunk. Makers, visual artists, musicians, fashion designers, gamers, filmmakers, performers, culture historians, and even political thinkers have since joined the party. In many cases, these people had long been doing their own history-flavored retro-techno-fantastical work, and were surprised (and in many cases, delighted) to find themselves in a group of creative types of a similar bent, now classified as “steampunk.” We hear (and say) it over and over again, to the point where it has become a cliché: “I didn’t even know the word until someone used it to describe what I was already doing — what I already loved.” Or: “I knew I liked it, I always have, I just never knew what it was called.”

Phil and I are certainly two of those people — we’ve said just those things countless times, while giving interviews, chatting with other creators, or explaining ourselves to the curious readers who visit our table at conventions. (Officially, I still use the term “gaslamp fantasy” to describe Girl Genius. This saves me some time and grief, since, like any subculture or artistic movement, we have our share of people happily fighting about “what it all REALLY means.” Not slapping “steampunk!” all over my books keeps me from having to argue with them about whether or not we’re “doing it right.” They may be having fun arguing about what is and isn’t “proper steampunk,” I’ve got a story to tell. If it doesn’t fit into someone else’s box, well, so what? It’s mine.)

Still, whatever Girl Genius “is” or “isn’t,” I love steampunk. I sometimes imagine that I was very, very good in a past life, and I’m now being rewarded with a subculture and artistic movement based directly on my aesthetic sense. (I know I’m not the only one. Apparently, a whole bunch of us were really good. Who knew we had it in us?) Going to the conventions, seeing the incredible amount of love that people put into their clothing, costumes, gadgetry, and art of all kinds, is a huge treat for me. From a person whose living depends on other people buying her creative work, this may sound odd, but one of my favorite things about the steampunk subculture is its do-it-yourself attitude. Everyone involved is participating in the creativity in some way — whether they are making their own costumes, throwing theme parties, creating entertainment at a con, or simply spinning wild stories about the person they would be if they really lived in a world of mad science, adventure and airships.

Steampunk is not a group of children in a classroom, sitting quietly while the teacher reads a story, it’s the kids at recess, playing a wild, endless game of pretend. More than any other fandom I have experienced, there is something about steampunk that inspires direct participation, and huge enthusiasm. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people who don’t feel that they have it in them to do anything creative. They shrug and claim that they “have no talent.” They say things like: “Don’t quit your day job” or “Leave it to the professionals.” In the steampunk subculture, I don’t hear those things. I hear things like: “I’m learning how to do that” or “I’m going to try it.” The people who make up the steampunk movement are out there having fun, learning about odd points of history and technology, meeting people whose work they admire, and finding that they, too, can create beautiful things.

It’s a new age of discovery, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Kaja Foglio is one of the creators of the Hugo-award winning comic Girl Genius: the ongoing story of Adventure, Romance, and Mad Science.

This article is part of Steampunk Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Jaymee Goh
1. Jha
So, when can we expect an appearance of the Bouncy Bustle? :D
2. aetherical
Just wanted to say how much I love Girl Genius! And my pre-reading daughter likes looking thru the books, too. Agatha is, to my mind, a good role model for her.

Thank you for all you do!!!!
3. kathleen duey
I love the hand-made/handcraft side of steampunk and the huge, roomy span of the books. My next-up novel is feeling steampunkier all the time. ..
Emmet O'Brien
4. EmmetAOBrien
For what it may be worth, the reason why mixing genres at the level much steampunk does does not work for me is that it's mixing levels of realism and logical consequence; I have a fairly good idea of the mechanics of how an airship can actually work, and combining that with a world with zombie outbreaks, or clockwork automata that violate conservation of energy, can leave a situation with no way of telling what is and isn't possible in the setting, and that, for me, undercuts narrative tension. Hard to believe a character's in any real peril, for example, in a world run by loosley defined or mutually inconsistent chunks of rules that could in theory leave room for a plethora of different shapes of deus ex machina at any instant.

This does not mean I think people who like or do steampunk are idiots, just doing something not to my taste. I hope it works as a coherent response to the puzzlement you express in your first para as to why someone might inherently not connect to mixing genres, though.
5. Jaysun O'Scalleigh
I am very new to steampunk and I'm finding that it appeals to me on very many levels. It awakens in me an interest in actual Victorian history, culture, and aesthetics and at the same time fires up the desire to see time and space as far more plastic materials. The kinds of problems that Emmet has with the genre are precisely what makes it so appealing to me. I'm seeing things not in terms of an alternate past, or future past, but as an entirely alternate dimension where the "laws" of physics are simply different....the inconsistencies I think lead to some astounding flexibility. It is this very flexibility that makes this a very participatory genre...just my two cents.
Thanks Kaja, I regret not talking to you at Craigdarroch Castle at VSEII...maybe in future.
6. Gustovcarl
I have liked Girl Genius (& the rest of the Foglio output) for a long time now. Keep it up!
Really, as soon as you label something, people swoop in & start arguing about the true form of it. Hell with it.
As far as the "SF vs. Fantasy" thing at the beginning, authors like Vance or Zelazny walked that border their whole careers & nobody said much about it. How could they? They were too good.
7. deblentz

I absolutely ADORE GG, and so does my hubby. We have been fans since waaaaay back in the mists of time, but GG really hits it for us. We have excellent writing, wildly frantic, visually exciting art, and gadgets! Call it what you want to, it's fun and we would love some more, please.
8. Jon Aul
You guys keep making them, Kaja, and I'll keep reading them.
9. The Old Wolf
I have long been one of your fans, and will continue to be. Critics have less taste than a drunken tapir, anyway. The Old Wolf has spoken.
10. W6BXQ, John
I'm fairly new to Steam Punk and GG. I love Sci Fi and Fantasy so I really love GG. Don't let the detractors bother youand keep up the good work!

Kim B
11. Amaranthine
Just popping in to say that although I only found out about Girl Genius, I read it regularly now and absolutely love it!

Fantastic storyline + wonderfully built world + beautiful artwork = a great comic.

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