LonCon3 – The Steampunk Literature Panel

A packed room greets us late arrivals with people already having ignored the ‘No Seats, No Entry’ notice, sprawled and stood at the back and sides like Victorian underclass. The panel is made up of Girl Genius creator Kaja Foglio, East Midland author Kim Lakin-Smith, Germany’s Oliver Plaschka and Spain’s Marian Womack, all chaired by Gollancz’s Gillian Redfearn and is in full flow.

The discussion is inexorably heading toward the big ‘what is steampunk‘ question though that, and perhaps some answers, are repeatedly touched on along the way. Aesthetic is the key word, and the love of the genre being ‘playful’; other defining elements or aspects are noted as being the culture of the time: fashion, politics, manners and multiculturalism, and technology and its implications, whether or not treated with a second world twist. As the chair later wryly queries ‘Do you have to do more than stick a gear on it to make it steampunk?’

Kim Lakin-Smith

Kim Lakin-Smith

(Which reminds of the joke of: Q –  ‘How many steampunks does it take to change the light bulb?’ A – ‘Two; one to change the lightbulb and the other to put the unnecessary cog on it.’)

More questions: Are steampunk and Victoriana the same, is one a subset of the other? The panel seem happy that Victoriana, perhaps the more general love of the style of the period and it’s history, has been around for a lot longer. Though now, especially with the modern Steampunk / goth ‘tribe’, there’s a new sense of Victoriana spilling out from steampunk literature.

Steampunk Cos-play Either way, the Victorian period is the era of colonialism and imperialism. The panel debates briefly on whether they’re inseparable from the Steampunk genre – it sounds they’re happy creatively to not confirm they are, though it seems likely they will usually play a part. More interestingly the discussion moves to characters, ethnicity and nationality, how even foreign steampunk authors can be prone to locate their work in the classically British if not London locale. Gillian Redfearn also warns of the danger of unexamined steampunk, in which in the glorifying of the period the issues of race and exploitation are lost; also how less accessible steampunk works may be to non-white readers, given the colonial backdrop and societal if not racial superiority of the British of the times.
And how often are the main or strong characters therein non-British? (It’s a fair point and gets the mind working as to what new ground an author might break by building on the notion.)  On a more upbeat note a number of the panel are emphatic in their appreciation of Steamfunk, in which the African and postcolonial experience and culture is combined with steampunk; that was a new one on me and something to investigate…

Alongside that, later period offshoots of Victorian era steampunk are raised – Dieselpunk, being of the 20’s and (if I heard this right) Dustpunk of the 30’s, each with their own aesthetic, style and view of the world, partly understood through the entertainments of the time.

Oliver Plaschka alludes to the relationship of cyberpunk and steampunk and that the former was of the 80’s, representing the fears and technological developments of that decade (which makes me wonder what the future retropunk of that era might be – NewRomanticpunk? Postpunkpunk?) Then Kaja Foglio expresses her love of and interest in the pre-Victoriana period and it’s potential for similar science fictional interpretation (Enlightenpunk anyone?)

Kaja (and Phil) Foglio

Kaja (and Phil) Foglio

As we move toward the big question, which of course was never going to be categorically answered, Foglio is clear that she won’t ascribe her work a category, Steampunk or otherwise. If you give it a category, she notes, someone is just going to tell you you’re not doing it right. If she has an idea and likes it then it goes in, she says.

Besides, as a friend of hers pointed out, ‘It’s not very ‘punk’ to let people tell you how to do it.’

No arguments here.