I have a simple goal: I’d like steampunk to begin mutating before—not after—the burst of the steampunk bubble.
Note that when I say that the steampunk bubble will burst, I’m not joining the ranks of those who think steampunk is a fad, or that it’s going to die, or that, as I’ve sometimes heard argued, steampunk “lacks substance,” whatever that might mean. (Space operas are “substantive,” but steampunk is “artificial”? Seems a damned silly argument to me.)
I’m simply saying that there’s never been a movement in speculative fiction, or fandom, which has only gone upwards. Nor should there be; speculative fiction as a genre would be deeply diminished if we all got stuck in one place and never moved. So I’m not laying claim to any great predictive powers here; I’m simply saying that what goes up…tends to go down.
I’m speaking here of steampunk as a social phenomenon. That’s not because this doesn’t hold true for the specifically literary side of the genre, but rather because I want to speak where I’m most qualified. By trade, I develop unusual events for a living. I run an odd, cuisinart event called “The Wicked Winter Renaissance Faire,” and I’m one of the creators of the Steampunk World’s Fair, which has the honor being one of the best-known steampunk events in America. Neither of these things makes me an expert, really; this is all too new for us to have “experts.” But it makes me a reasonably educated guesser, and I’d like to share some of my guessing with you.
I predict steampunk will descend at some point because of that old and common foe, oversaturation. I doubt that steampunk can, or should, sustain its current rate of social growth. That doesn’t mean I dislike or think poorly of all the steampunk events that are springing up—quite the contrary! Let’s build this thing as big as we can while it’s still growing!—but let’s recognize that this growth isn’t eternal. There won’t always be room for more steampunk events. There won’t always be a circumstance wherein venerable, pre-existing events can increase their attendance simply by announcing a steampunk theme. And we wouldn’t want those things to be a permanent condition…at least, I wouldn’t. I don’t want to go to sci-fi conventions and see nothing but steampunks—unless it’s a steampunk event—any more than I’d want to go to general conventions and see nothing but members of Starfleet, or nothing but Jedi.
But we have an advantage over earlier subgenre (or subcultural) movements: we’ve got history on our side, both literally and figuratively. Literally, in that we can learn from other cultures (both within fandom and without) which rose steeply, and then declined—the Rocky Horror movement, for example, is still very much alive, but few would say that the current days are Rocky’s best. And figuratively, in that steampunk’s very nature is one which requires interpretation and extrapolation on an individual basis.
That is to say, there’s no universal steampunk world. There’s no Federation, whose cosmic span started to become quantified in the first few episodes of Trek, and is now the subject of a vast body of work. There’s no Force binding the Universe together. There’s not even the galaxy of Transexual, Transylvania, and its indisputable role models. Steampunk doesn’t have immutable laws: at best, it has a few relatively firm guidelines, and even those are quite disputed. If you want to create a steampunk character, a steampunk game, a steampunk band, even a steampunk illustration, you need to make a thousand choices on your own—does your steampunk world include magic? Is there travel between the stars? Is it a world of Victorian styles but modern attitudes towards race, gender, and sexuality? These choices lie not within existing texts or shows, but within the purview and desires of each individual participant.
What will we do with this enormous creative freedom? What will we do with this extraordinary opportunity for self-expression? Again, I’m not saying that steampunk is by any means the only creative genre in fandom—far from it. Rather, I’m saying that we are at an amazing moment of opportunity, when we can actually see, right in front of us, the birth and growth of a social genre in our midst, and there’re no absolute rules saying what we can and can’t do. What steampunk can become is limited not by a specific set of books or characters or even stories, but by our own creative forces.
And that opportunity is something that’s not always discussed or considered desirable within the steampunk community. There’s a lot of very understandable talk about defining steampunk, about trying to make sure that things are “appropriately” done. There’s that ancient bugaboo of “historical accuracy,” and the many, many, many flamewars it inspires. I know a lot of people who are afraid to try steampunk for fear they’ll “get it wrong.”
I’d like to raise a different banner, if I may.
I call upon anyone who’s ever had an interest in “this steampunk thing” to go out and push the boundaries of the genre, twist them, turn them, and build new ideas. Don’t be afraid of what steampunk’s “supposed to be,” be curious about what it “could become.” Conventions: don’t just talk about what steampunk is, and how it came about—talk about how steampunk might blend with other genres, what directions it could travel, and how it can evolve. Musicians: go ahead, don the goggles and the capes, but then, give us something we haven’t heard before.
On Sunday, November 21st, we’re putting on an event called “The Anachronism: Wonderland Meets Oz” at Webster Hall in New York City, which we hope will do just that. The idea is not just to host one of the first and largest steampunk events in Manhattan—though we’re proud to be doing that as well—it is to create an event which mixes genres freely. An event which actively encourages people to bring in influences from other great fantasy worlds—in this case, the classic spaces of Oz and Wonderland. And we’ve added a third dimension: we’re trying to be clear that one can attend a steampunk event in “normal” attire, that the event doesn’t depend wholly on having a great hat or a big aetheric-phlogiston gun—that it’s also created by showing up with an open mind, a ready imagination, and a desire for adventure.
Airships, chart your routes! First, we take Wonderland, then Oz, then it’s on to Lemuria, then the 1980s, then the counter-weight continent, then the Planes of Leng!
And then, of course, it’s off to Candyland. I’ve always wanted to go to Candyland.
Jeff Mach is a writer, singer-songwriter, playwrighterer, and event-putting-on-person. He’s probably best known for events like The Wicked Winter Renaissance Faire and The Labyrinth. His most recent musical work is a production of his play, What SHARP Teeth. His next project will be a short run of his steampunk musical, Absinthe Heroes, with music by Psyche Corporation. He’s currently putting together one of New York City’s first Steampunk events, The Anachronism, and is proud to be a partner in, and co-creator of, the Steampunk World’s Fair.