A Discussion on The Steampunk User’s Manual

At DetCon1 I finally got a chance to meet Diana M. Pho, founder of the popular Steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, editor at Tor, and contributor to The Steampunk User’s Manual. We met for a wide-ranging conversation covering everything from the upcoming book to the current state of Steampunk.

An abridged version of our conversation appears below, edited slightly for space and clarity.

On the difference between The Steampunk User’s Manual and Jeff VanderMeer’s previous volume, The Steampunk Bible

Boskovich: One of the main things we wanted to do with The Steampunk User’s Manual was focus more on actually making stuff. We interviewed more than eighty artists in all different fields… art, textiles, fashion, design, storytelling, music, performance. We asked them a lot of questions about their creative process and how they get inspiration and how they do their work, getting into every step of the creative process, and using their answers as inspiration and information. Like… How do you start? How do you finish? How do you push through obstacles? The Steampunk User’s Manual focuses a lot more on actually doing creative practices yourself.

Pho: What I find really fascinating, just listening to your explanation, is how The Steampunk User’s Manual seems to be some sort of bridge to not only The Steampunk Bible, but also Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, in talking about artistic inspiration.

I think it’s fascinating because we’re at a point with Steampunk as a community, where it’s questioning its identity and its purpose. Regardless of what cultural or political affiliations you may have in connection with Steampunk, one of the strongest aspects that everyone agrees with is that it acts as a form of artistic inspiration. I think the way we’re looking at Steampunk now, it manifests itself as an art movement more than anything else.

When you talk about all these different artists, musicians, makers, crafters, and how they all fall under this umbrella of creativity… I think we’re also investigating Steampunk not just as a genre, but as a school of art. Which is kind of crazy to think about, in a sense, because there is no salvaged aesthetic at any formal art school. But it’s also undeniable that the level of creativity people are expressing and have incorporated into a sort of ideology makes it seem more cohesive as a school than anything else right now.

Boskovich: I think the comparison to Wonderbook is really interesting. Because, of course Wonderbook has a lot of concrete stuff about the writing process, but I feel like one of the things that made Wonderbook so popular this past year is that it’s also about the mindset you have as you approach creative work, and getting into that playful, imaginative space. We tried to do something similar with The Steampunk User’s Manual. Of course we can’t tell people, for example, Here’s how you become a painter, and we’re not going to get that much into the nitty-gritty… It’s more about getting into that creative mindset, and the problem-solving and creative tools to approach it.

Of course, we do also have practical stuff in the book, like step-by-step projects, but it’s both. The hands-on, and the higher level. The mental game that you bring to art.

As far as what you say about Steampunk being a school… I think “Do It Yourself” really informs all of that. We talked about that with interviewees, too—the “Do It Yourself” aesthetic and how that really sets Steampunk apart.

On Steampunk’s continued relevance and sense of purpose…

Pho: Earlier we were also discussing the role of retro-futurism, and how it’s tied to various ideas about where we think the future is… why do we keep looking to the past when discussing the future? Is it nostalgia? Is it a way of trying to find alternative pathways by looking to something we did in the past?

More and more I feel like even if you’re sick and tired of Steampunk, even if you think it’s dead… the ideas that Steampunk embodies about the potential of human creativity, and scientific forethought, and mindfulness of history, are still being pushed forward.

Boskovich: It’s interesting because Steampunk is about looking back and also about looking forward. Then when you bring in multiculturalism, as we’ve been talking about, it’s also looking sideways, because every culture has their own past and their own future, and that brings in so many more perspectives. It just expands the pasts and the futures.

Pho: One of the biggest aspects that will impact our lives is the effects of globalization. What does it mean when you have technology where people from China can instantly connect with people from Israel? Would things that happen in Africa have a greater impact? When you have the missing girls from Sudan become global news in ways that probably wouldn’t have been the same fifteen/twenty years ago? You have this instant connectivity and engagement across different countries and peoples, and what does that mean?

Already, I feel like there’s a lot of conversations where Western nations look down on non-Western nations as they technologically develop, saying, “Oh look at Beijing all covered in pollution, and all their rivers are a total wreck.” This idea, that as these countries develop they’re somehow still inferior to Western nations because they’re trying to lift themselves up? I think that’s a conversation that is completely ridiculous. Partly because these countries also have opportunities to choose different pathways. You don’t have to repeat all the atrocities that other nations have done. I think it’s important to open up those conversations more. I know this is something that goes beyond Steampunk, but just talking about… How do nations industrialize? How can people impact the type of ecological plans or developmental plans that their governments are considering?

In one sense, it seems far-reaching to even discuss these ideas, but I think it’s extremely important to consider the ramifications. You can treat Steampunk and art as a game or a hobby, but nonetheless it’s a form of human expression. It’s about communicating something that’s currently happening right now. If we don’t think about the ways that we are concretely interacting with these ideas that are driving us, then it’s like shouting to the void, almost. Why are we reacting this way? I think those things are important to explore.

Boskovich: We were talking about the different paths into how we express our technology. I think that’s behind the motivation to keep appending the “punk” suffix to new words like biopunk, or nanopunk, or all those kinds of things. Once you start thinking about it with steam, you start thinking about it across the board. All of the different ways that society can look, society can be organized. All the different ways we can use technology to fuel our endeavors. I think stuff like biopunk is getting into that from another angle. Maybe there’s a better way to do it then what we’re currently doing?

Pho: I don’t think the use of the “punk” suffix has become tired, but I think people just like adding it without fully understanding why they’re adding it. I think there are definitely people who are involved with Steampunk (and Cyberpunk beforehand) who did realize, this is why we’re into it, this is why we’re adding the “punk”; it’s not just cute. I would like to see people consider that more.

Boskovich: Yeah, what does the “punk” actually mean? Are we representing that “punk” aspect? I really appreciated the contributors who discussed that in their interview. The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing is one band we talked to and they were like, “We are putting the punk into Steampunk.” I think they started envisioning themselves as a punk band from that era, with all the kind of political messages that would go with that.

Pho: I do think ways that people express the punkness also vibes with current conversation. I know for example, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing—some of them identify as having non-binary gender and sexual identities, and so did people from the punk movement, too.

It’s fascinating to see when people say that they’re punk, how they’re reacting to narratives that are permeating our culture. What are they punking against? You’ll see it’s not just rebellion for rebellion’s sake, but it is questioning gender, questioning sexuality, questioning this dominant white supremacy that is engulfing our culture, especially the media. Literally fighting corporations, will they eat us alive? I think any science fictional subgenre that ends itself with “punk” has that potential, just because they identify themselves that way.

I also realize that not all punk subgenres are necessarily progressively-oriented, because their participants haven’t fully considered what it means to be rebellious. Especially depending on where you’re from and how you’re doing your art, and what your art means to you and those forms of expression.


On using Steampunk as a force for good…

Boskovich: There was a quote you had in your interview for The Steampunk User’s Manual, where you were talking about people using Steampunk for practical applications that have greater social impact. The one you mentioned as an example is something that Bruce and Melanie Rosenbaum from ModVic were working on. [A bit of background: Bruce and Melanie created a nine-week course called Steampunkinetics for young people with autism spectrum disorders to learn Steampunk design skills. As Steampunk interior designers themselves, they also contributed to The Steampunk User’s Manual with a feature piece on “The RetroFuture Home.”]

I was wondering if you have any other examples of that, people using Steampunk as something that’s actually practical, rather than just being a cool thing or a thought experiment, and can immediately benefit people in the real world.

Pho: Especially in the past year I’ve seen a lot of Steampunk charity events like raising money for cancer research, raising money for organizations that help women suffering from domestic violence, and programs that help the queer community. I think bit-by-bit, various Steampunk groups have become more socially aware and are using Steampunk to help support various progressive causes. I’m really happy to see that, by the way.

I know that Bruce and Melanie are still out developing programs with UMass Lowell and using Steampunk as a teaching method for students. I also know that Kevin Steil did a soft launch, I believe, of the Steampunk Museum, because he really wants the arts and the people involved in the community to be seen and respected as educators, and be able to have their art used as tools in the classroom.

Personally, I was recently contacted by a professor in Germany, who wants to use Steampunk literature to teach multiculturalism to her students. People are definitely seeing the practical potential of Steampunk beyond a weekend warrior activity that you do with your friends or at a convention.

Boskovich: That’s really cool. Did you have any recommendations for the German professor?

Pho: I recommended some books that have already come out, including The Steampunk Bible and Steampunk Revolution (the anthology edited by Ann VanderMeer). Of course, Steampunk World (the recent multicultural anthology edited by Sarah Hans). And various options. We’re also going to discuss more about what it means to live in a multicultural society, what systematic hierarchies of oppression exist that people may or may not see, that people from marginalized backgrounds still suffer from? Engage her students in something that’s fun and interesting, and really makes them think.

I also find it pretty amazing to get outreach from abroad because it shows that it’s not just the US and North America that are really having these conversations, it’s people in other countries. It also reminds me about how earlier this year Kevin Steil did the “Steampunk Hands Around The World” Blogging Campaign, where over eighty bloggers from twenty different countries across eleven languages went and blogged about Steampunk and Steampunk communities, and what they’re doing in their own local communities as well. It really shows there is a dedicated group of people who are looking at the genre and at the aesthetic and using it in ways that have the potential to make it more of a global movement than it has been, even a couple of years ago.

The Steampunk User’s Manual: An Illustrated Practical and Whimsical Guide to Creating Retro-futurist Dreams by Jeff VanderMeer and Desirina Boskovich is available now from Abrams Image. Get lots more updates at here, and download the story “An Officer and a Gentleman” from Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.’s site here!

Desirina Boskovich is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose stories have been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Kaleidotrope, and more. She’s also the editor of It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction.

Diana M. Pho (or in other speculative lights, Ay-leen the Peacemaker) works at Tor Books, runs the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, pens academic things, and tweets. Oh wait, she has a tumblr too.


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