LonCon3 – Second Steampunk Panel: Decontextualising Steampunk

After yesterday’s Introducing Steampunk, and given a lot of folk here love the genre, I was intrigued to see what this panel would make of it. Where the former panel were loosely aiming to end at a definition, taking in the hallmarks and issues of the genre en route, this discussion rather worked the other way. It was not so much about what steampunk is (though of course this is repeatedly touched on) as which of its features are common but not necessary for a work to be classified as such.

The panel was chaired by Ann Vandermeer, the (Hugo) award-winning editor of Weird Tales, well known for her editorial and publishing work in the genre. The others, Gail Carriger, Rjurik Davidson and Liesel Schwarz, are all established steampunk authors, whereas Patricia Ash is the editor of Gearhearts Steampunk Revue, representing more of the steampunk subculture / lifestyle side of things. The panel confirms that the movement is very much alive and, if the increasing number of conventions and attendance thereof is anything to go by, yet to plateau. Interestingly we hear that many of the stylistic steampunk tribe are not even aware of the literary side, though it’s safe to say the readers will have a strong awareness of the former, whether or not their interest extends to the wearing of costume.

Retribution Falls

As in yesterday’s panel, the author’s love of steampunk comes down to the aesthetic and the history of the period in which it’s classically set, the Victorian. But is it still steampunk if it’s not Victorian or, and on the same note as yesterday, if you remove empire? And this is amongst the key questions because this is about decontextualising steampunk, to see if it can still tick without its regular trappings.This panel is rather more emphatically in the ‘yes’ category on this, quoting examples such as Chris Wooding’s Ketty Jay series, and the Clockwork Heart by Italian author Dru Pagliasotti (as opposed to the book of the same title by panellist Liesel Schawrz), each retaining the same kind of clock / steam technology of the genre but without the history.

The aggregate view of the panel, as well as the publishing output, seems to affirm it’s the (pseudo) technology that is the most defining element of steampunk; mind it’s worth reflecting on where the term originated. It came only a few years after the term cyberpunk was coined, in a letter by K.W. Jeter in a wry attempt to collectively describe the writings of the founding triumvirate: himself, Blaylock and Powers. The latter’s work, including the richly deserving award-winning The Anubis Gate, is very much founded in folklore and magic and period rather than technology and the same, which rather counters the substitution of tech-level prefixing the punk in terms of apt description. Still, given the term was established playfully and given the playful nature of the genre, perhaps it’s aptly titled after all.

Clockwork Heart - Dru Pagliassotti

Anyway, back to the decontextualising. Rjurik Davidson comments on the relevance of empire. Yes, you can take Steampunk out of Victorian Britain / London. His work is Australia-based for one thing. But he makes a similar cautionary note as yesterday’s panel: you can’t write about Australia without writing about the colonial process – or you run the risk of perpetuating the colonial mindset.

He goes on to establish that the genre and its associated and sub genres are characterised by being pre-digital. The panel run through the offshoots and variations, noting diesel-punk as coming after, clockpunk (the Renaissance and Enlightenment) being the prior equivalent, in terms of historical setting, and the term retro-futurism is offered as an all-encompassing term. Other terms are being coined for related works and culture beyond the traditional composites of technology level and, well, punk: Rococo-punk, for example, elfpunk (which is probably what you’d expect), but also greenpunk. The latter is less the literary and more the lifestyle, not ‘hippy tree-hugging’ of the past or future but a ‘technologically conscious now’, grassroots utopianism as opposed to the paranoia and technology that define the originating cyberpunk genre.

But now we have the panel’s sense of what steampunk is, where is it going? Well the genre’s bounds are ever expanding, especially with the publishing output. Gail Carriger notes that multiculturalism is a strong creative driver and that publishers are all the more interested in reading works based outside the traditional Victorian setting. Liesel Schwarz agrees, noting the direction and expansion is definitely about other cultures and other histories, and other classes as Carriger adds (it’s a good point given authors wry love-affairs with an aristocratic cast, their culture, style and affectations).

We move beyond the subject of setting / tech-level and direction to the punk element which, given the term was playfully coined, is perhaps too easy to forget. The suffix in Cyberpunk, appropriated from Bruce Bethke’s short of the same name, refers to the misfit and malcontent protagonists in the early books in the genre. But, while there are doubtless many parallels in steampunk, the panel seem to feel the relevance of the transplanted punk element as being in the politics of creation. Ann Vandermeer wants more punk on her steam, she says. Punk is DIY, about getting your hands dirty. Liesel Schwarz adds that punk involves the signs and signals of subversiveness, the process of breaking something down and rebuilding it better, something particularly apt for a genre that does exactly that in terms of setting; also that storytelling is a form of activism. Patricia Ash picks up on this, saying that writing can give voices to those who didn’t have one at the time. Gail Carriger comments that you can get away with a lot of subversion when you do so with humorous narration.

Rjurik Davidson offers a cautionary note however, that authors should maintain a degree of awareness of their limitations to avoid overblowing a sense of the impact of their works. He expands on this with an example that majority of us in the world of publishing and the book trade generally will have heard and winced at: ‘This book changed my life.’ People who say this tend to believe what they’re saying even if their attitude and behaviour is entirely unchanged. He believes more in political responses than the literary; of course in this age of social media a well followed author certainly has a greater voice with which to be political, regardless of how influential their otherwise entertaining works are.

Still, as Patricia Ash comments, readers are influenced by books, magazine readers by magazines, movie-goers by films. I would certainly put forward that the ‘this book changed my life’ line is far more commonly used by people who aren’t the core book buying audience. And the greenpunk lifestyle element certainly has the right ideas, even if it’s not currently a particularly well known movement.

Unwrapped Sky
Gearhearts Steampunk Revue
Steampunk II

Either way we can take a number of things from the discussion. That you can take the steampunk out of England and the empire out of steampunk; that it’s a genre defined by a sense of history, rather than the history itself, and that it’s expanding and redefining its boundaries as new works explore the possibilities therein. That there is a real sense of the political: that the author can love the aesthetic of the period / setting but must be aware of the history and thus the negatives of the period and the consequences. And with that there is a notion of using fantastical storytelling to give a voice to people and peoples the writer encounters in their historical research that didn’t have one at the time. This certainly tallies with the genre’s cultural diversification within its expansion, and this is something that both panels very much agree on.

It sounds like we have a lot to look forward to: The past never sounded so promising.



Check out the latest from Gail, Rjurik and Liesel on our Jan-Jun 15 Steampunk Books page here!