Five Thoughts on the Popularity of Steampunk

Weird Tales editorial director Stephen H. Segal was recently privileged to be a guest at Dragon*Con, the nation’s largest fan-run fantasy/science-fiction/gaming/comics/etc convention. The entire event was spectacular, but Stephen particularly enjoyed taking part in a panel discussing how steampunk — science-fictiony stuff built on Victorian-era technology and aesthetics — has suddenly leapt from being a simple literary subgenre to an all-out alternative-style trend. Sure, there are great steampunk books (including a definitive new anthology coedited by WT’s own Ann VanderMeer), but now there are also steampunk fashion & jewelry designers, radio shows, and rock bands. Here, crossposted from Fantasy-Magazine.com, is Stephen’s take on what might be fueling the excitement:

1. IT’S GEEKERY THE GENDERS CAN SHARE.

On the most basic, most appealing social level, steampunk is a way to masculinize romance. That is to say: Steampunk takes something stereotypically feminine that most boys hate — Victorian lace and frills and tea and crumpets — and says, “Hey, how about some robots with that?” It’s like the Dance Dance Revolution of nerd culture: now we all have something we can play together!

2. AN AESTHETIC RESPONSE TO THE SCIENCE FICTION IN THE CULTURE.

The ’80s and ’90s gave us totally ergonomic sci-fi, as seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation — smooth, glossy black touch panels that call up whatever display you want, then you wave your hand goodbye and there’s no mess. Picard’s Enterprise led straight to the iMac: clean, happy technology with rounded edges. Which is great in that it’s completely user-friendly — but terrible in that “user-friendly” means “predictable” means “totally not exciting at all.” Having 120 gigabytes of information storage in solid-state flash memory is like having the entire knowledge of a hundred ancient libraries of Alexandria in your pocket. But who the hell wants to explore your pocket?

Steampunk says: Let’s store that knowledge in a colossal mechanical brain the size of a skyscraper that runs on punch cards, and whenever we want to know something, we’ll get to feed in our punch card and watch it go zipping and flipping through a behemoth full of gears, all the way summoning little clockwork librarians to spring up from behind panels and inscribe notes on it with miniature styluses, and they will all be well-oiled except that one that’s just screech-screech-screeching up a storm all along its track, and the spectacle will be frakking awesome.

3. LIKE BEING GOTH WITHOUT SCARING YOUR PARENTS.

A lot of kids in today’s steampunk music & style scene used to identify with the goth aesthetic — and are pleasantly surprised to discover that normal adults seem intrigued by this new thing rather than alarmed. Well, yeah. People think of goths as weirdoes who take vampires too seriously, and therefore they can’t help being worried on some level that a crazy goth might, you know, want to make them bleed. Whereas steampunks are — what? Weirdoes who take pocket-watches too seriously? What are they gonna do, vehemently tell you what time it is?

4. BRIDGING THE SUBGENRE GAP.

Sure, steampunk “proper” may simply be retro-alternate-19th-century science fiction — but in practice, writers and artists and filmmakers and musicians are all starting with this basic aesthetic and then mixing in some fantasy, some horror, some superheroics. We’re seeing steampunk pirates, steampunk faeries, steampunk Wonder Woman, steampunk Cthulhu cultists! Steampunk is helping to bring us back to the days when the subgenre categories didn’t matter so much and it was all just a big lurching conceptual mass of “weird fiction” — and we’re realizing that it’s really rather a lot of fun that way.

5. THE FUTURE: UR DOIN IT WRONG.

The heyday of science fiction — the mid-20th century — was fueled by near-universal excitement about the promise of science. We had a definite vision of “The Future,” in which the details might be variable but the overall picture was clear: new discoveries and technologies would lead us to a glorious golden age, in which robots would free us from drudgery and we’d use rocket ships to colonize the galaxy, redeeming manifest destiny in the name of all humanity together. That future — that was IT. We were going there. Our parents knew their grandkids would have jetpacks.

…except not. Today, that classic vision of the future — not only hasn’t it happened, but right at this moment, as we stare down the barrel of resource shortages and rising global temperatures, the people of Earth don’t really believe it’s going to. We know now that 20th-century technology helped us solve lots of problems while creating entirely new ones that might be even scarier. In effect, we were expecting Star Trek and we got Blade Runner; all the quirky little bits of science fiction have come true, but we lost the big dream.

Steampunk basically lets us go back, at least in our imagination, and try again — lets us tap into that sense of wonder at the unfolding universe that our grandparents might have felt when modern science was just beginning to open up all its incredible new pictures of the world. And you might just call that escapism into nostalgia — but I actually think it’s more than that.

Whether you’re reading and identifying with Girl Genius or making yourself a pair of functioning telescopic brass goggles, the fact is that when you have to get your hands or brain dirty puzzling out how stuff works, you can’t be blasé about technological miracles — you’re forced to realize what miracles we’ve actually wrought. And once you’ve got that sense of appreciation, once you’re not taking all our modern-day scientific accomplishments for granted because you finally understand deep down that people had to sweat them out, experiment by experiment — it seems to me you can’t help but approach the world around us, here, today, with fresher eyes and a more adventuresome spirit.

I think that’s where a lot of the young people jumping on the steampunk bandwagon right now are coming from. It’s not just cool because it’s trendy — it’s cool because it’s inspirational. You know… like science fiction at its best always has been.

Related Steampunkery:


Stephen H. Segal is the editorial & creative director of WEIRD TALES. He was first introduced to the concept of Victorian-looking science fiction in the early 1980s, while peeking around the back of the couch to sneak surreptitious glimpses of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who.

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