Steamcon, the first steampunk-only convention in the Pacific Northwest, will run October 23-25 in Seattle, WA. I spoke to Steamcon Vice Chair Diana Vick about steampunk itself, and what goes into starting and running a convention. While on the phone with her, power went out on her block. Since we were talking about steampunk, I found that rather fitting.
Jason Henninger: What would you tell someone who knows nothing of steampunk?
Diana Vick: Steampunk is a burgeoning subculture and artistic movement that is, at its very core, Victorian science fiction. That’s the really basic definition. From there it spreads out and almost everyone you ask has a completely different idea of what it is.
Henninger: I used to be a pretty regular reader of Brass Goggles and there was a lot of debate there about what exactly steampunk is. People would fixate on the steam or on the punk and miss the larger picture.
Vick: One of the problems steampunk has is defining exactly what it is. People made it a popular term and started labeling everything they could get their hands on as steampunk. Mad Max is not steampunk. Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t steampunk. I think steampunk requires a beginning in the Victorian era or a return to that era. I’ve talked at conventions about this. I get a lot of push-back for trying to define it, but really if you don’t define it, how can people who are brand new to it have any idea what it is? Steampunk was coined by K.W. Jeter to describe altered history Victorian fantasy. And that’s specifically what he said in the letter. Victorian fantasy. So the man who coined the term emphasized the Victorian. How can you fight with that? And then, punk, because cyberpunk was so popular at the time. It doesn’t have to have steam. Punk doesn’t mean punk rock music. It has nothing to do with that. No plaid. No safety pins. If you think of punk as counter culture, people who were exploring and inventing and not doing what society expected of them, that’s punk. It’s rebellion.
Henninger: How was Steamcon conceived?
Vick: My husband and I were always interested in steampunk, and the alternate history aspect of it really fascinated us. I came at it from a costuming perspective. I love being able to make costumes that are completely from my imagination. Anyway, we were at Norwescon in 2008 and a lot of people were talking about how they wanted to start a convention but no one had really taken the ball yet. We realized it was time. It had to get started right away. So, sitting there at the bar at Norwescon, my husband looked up the URL and said, “Hey, look. We can have steam-con.com. Let’s do it. So it’s been about a year and a half since, which is about what you need to get everything in place. We’re a non-profit, so that’s a lot of paperwork. And it takes time just to make sure that everyone knows what they’re doing by the time the convention starts.
Henninger: Do you have experience running conventions?
Vick: My husband and I have been in the science fiction and fantasy convention world for about 25 years each. He’s done more con-running than I have. He’s done security and stuff like that and I’ve done publicity. For the most part, we’re basing our convention on a science fiction convention model, but were taking things we’ve seen at other types of conventions, like Convergence. Things we’ve never seen done at a science fiction convention.
Henninger: Such as?
Vick: Well, for example, we have a concert Saturday night. I’ve seen little concerts at some science fiction conventions, but not very often. We’re calling it Airship Invasion. Abney Park is headlining and we’ve also got Vernian Process and Unwoman. It’s an extra ticket event, because we have limited headcount to consider. Can’t cram the entire convention in there. It’ll be capped at about 500.
Henninger: What sort of panels will there be?
Vick: I’m not terribly involved with programming but there will be a bit of everything. Literary talks, costuming, movies, prop-making. Jake von Slatt will be there and has promised to be on exactly one panel for us. I was like, oh come on, more than one! And he said, nope, I’m on vacation.
Henninger: Getting back to Abney Park, how did you get them involved?
Vick: I had been trying to get them involved in Steamcon and they were kind of dragging their feet because it’s in October, and they do really well in October. They weren’t sure they would sign up with us. About a year ago, they were at Dragon*Con and didn’t have anyone to run their merchandise table, so we volunteered. We became better friends with the band through that, and they signed on. Also, Tim Powers is our Author Guest of Honor and he’s [Abney Park violinist] Nathan’s favorite author.
Henninger: He’s one of my favorite authors as well. How did you decide on him as Guest of Honor?
Vick: Early on, I was doing some research online, making sure I knew what I was talking about, and the authors who are considered sort of the triumvirate of Steampunk are, of course, Jeter, Blaylock and Powers. My husband and I have always loved Tim’s work. My favorite is On Stranger Tides. It’s not exactly steampunk but it’s the right time period and I love all the pirates. We talked to Tim and his wife at Baycon, and they weren’t sure at first, because of World Fantasy being so close. There was some worry over scheduling, but in the end they agreed.
Henninger: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in planning the convention?
Vick: Keeping a clear vision. People coming from the science fiction convention community expect this to be exactly like what they’re used to. And then we have a lot of people who’ve never come to a con before. So, educating everybody about what to expect, trying to get over preconceived notions and keeping it steampunk, not letting it become a general science fiction convention. Also, we’re non-profit, it’s our first year and we have no budget to speak of. Our organizational meetings right now end up being about 30 people, all volunteer. In fact, no one in the committee is getting into the convention for free. The only people getting in for free are Abney Park, Tim Powers and his wife, and Paul Guinan and his wife. Everyone else is paying.
Henninger: What are you looking forward to the most?
Vick: I’m looking forward to seeing all the creative people. I’ve never seen a community get so excited about dressing up. People get really excited about crafting and sewing and creating personas, more than any other genre I’ve seen. Cherie Priest recently said one of the tenets of steampunk could be reduce, reuse, recycle. People love to change things up and make it work for them. Lots of thrifting, lots of modifying.
Henninger: Elements of steampunk have been around a very long time. Why the strong interest in the last few years?
Vick: That’s a good question. You could consider the grandfathers of steampunk to be Verne and Wells, and the fathers being people like Jeter, Powers, Blaylock, even Moorcock, so yes, it’s been around a long time. I have a friend whose been talking about steampunk for twenty years. And everybody went, “Yes, Henry, that’s nice.” And nobody really got it. And then, suddenly—maybe as a result of having too much slick and soulless mass-produced crap in our lives—we all decided we wanted to go back to something more interesting, to make our own things, be polite to each other, be romantic and optimistic. Explore the world. All the things the Victorians did.
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA. He hopes it isn’t terribly arrogant to include a picture of himself in this interview.