February 24th, 2013

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Boskone Panel Notes: Steampunk Is a Way of Life

This panel happened on Sunday at 10am. It snowed that morning, so the con was possibly a bit quieter than it might have been, but the panel was still fairly well-attended.

As always, this is not a true transcription, just whatever I could make sense of based on the things I hastily scrawled down during the panel. These are incomplete and likely full of errors. Please feel free to offer additions or corrections in the comments.

Here's the official blurb:

Steampunk fans don't just read the stuff. We also rock the goggles -- and the cosplay cons, and the Victoriana motifs for everything from our tablets to our tattoos. Does the lifestyle circle back to influence the writing? What's changed since the start? What's the current state of the field, and what further enthralling developments are even now in gear?
Jim Frenkel (M), James Cambias, Margaret Ronald, Julia Rios

Jim Frenkel is a senior editor at Tor. He has over 35 years of experience in the publishing field. Jim edited Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter (the first novel to be called steampunk) in 1986.

James Cambias is an American science fiction and fantasy writer and tabletop game designer, whose stories have been nominated for the Nebula Award and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. His website is here.

Margaret Ronald is the author of an urban fantasy trilogy set in Boston (Spiral Hunt, Wild Hunt, and Soul Hunt), and numerous short stories, including several which might be considered Steampunk, or Industrial Fantasy. Her website is here.

Julia Rios is me. I'm one of the three fiction editors at Strange Horizons, an online magazine of SF and fantasy. I hover at the outermost tangential edges of Steampunk fashion and DIY maker culture.

Jim: What is Industrial Fantasy?

Maggie: Instead of focusing on the punk aspects of Steampunk (class/race/colonialism/deep analysis of alternate history and science), more involves aesthetic of that stuff while handwaving things a bit--machines powered by magic, etc.

Jim: What are the punk aspects of Steampunk?

Julia: Aside from what Maggie mentioned, from a fashion perspective, a lot of Steampunk aficionados are into DIY fashion and maker culture.

James: There's the sense of Spirit of the Century, and coming into the 20th century we have Dieselpunk (with more combustion engines, etc.). Alternate paths of possibility in human achievement, but not all light. Jules Verne actually made some apocalyptic predictions in his fiction.

--Some discussion of trends and people adopting Steampunk aesthetic without clear understanding of meaning. Mentions of this send up of steampunk from Hark, A Vagrant! and the Just Glue Some Gears On It and Call It Steampunk YouTube video.

Maggie: Steampunk devotees use elaborate devices and show their workings overtly. Celebrating/interrogating mechanical wonders and Victoriana.

Julia: Definitely in mainstream at this point. Art installation at Versailles called Lilicoptère "helicopter fit for Marie Antoinette" with very steampunk aesthetic.

James: Does it work?

Julia: No idea. Probably not, but it's very much in keeping with the fashion and the DIY aspect of steampunk art.

Jim: What do you mean by DIY? To me that's people remodeling homes.

Julia: It is that, in part! In steampunk culture it would be remodeling home to fit with steampunk aesthetic. In my case, today I have an ostrich feather in my hair. It was not sold as a hair clip or anything like that, so by choosing to use it that way, I have done a tiny bit of DIY fashion.

Jim: At Convergence when there was a Steampunk theme, 7,000 people attended. Obviously very popular.

--discussion of steampunk literature as SF about alternate history that never was (see this article about the possibility of Babbage's analytical engine creating Victorian computer age). Victorian England very fraught time and place, full of pollution and other health hazards, with industry completely unfettered. Modern steampunk, especially in fashion, often takes high points and disregards lows. Jake Von Slatt's Steampunk Workshop does a lot of that, imposing romantic Victorian vision on modern convenience, for example: The Steampunk RV.

Maggie: Doesn't see the literature trend fading, so much as changing. Steampunk has opened a new milieu of historical fiction--SF/fantasy no longer limited to modern or medieval. Can explore times in between.

James: So fairyland is allowed to have an industrial revolution.

Jim: Katherine Addison does that in her forthcoming novel, The Goblin Emperor.

James: L. Frank Baum did that with the Oz books. There is a lot of machinery in Oz, and a seamless blending of magic and technology.

Jim: Science fiction is always about today, so makes sense that Baum would write about machines at turn of 20th century. More examples of steampunk in modern culture outside of literature--steampunk ballet in Madison, where Jim lives.

James: There is also the steampunk apartment in New York.

Jim: What is steampunk music? Is there a modern revival or late 19th century music?

Maggie: There is Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band.

Jim: What is literature doing that is new/not new?

Julia: Well, some stuff is specifically challenging the problematic aspects of colonialism and empire. SteamPowered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories anthologies edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft are deliberately digging into the different perspectives. Other stuff can fall into a safer area, fluffy adventure that doesn't really think too much about the grit underneath.

Jim: Give an example?

Julia: Maggie mentioned earlier her Industrial Fantasy, which I think is that sort of thing. One book I read and enjoyed, but would put in the less interrogating and more fluffy adventure category is All Men of Genius by Lev A.C. Rosen. Fun steampunk retelling of The Importance of Being Earnest and Twelfth Night in steampunk version of Victorian London at a school for mad scientists. Handwaves a lot of science--has automatons (very cool), but is not about how they truly work, more about how creepy killer robot army would be. Also doesn't really delve very much into the deeper ramifications of colonialism or classism.

Jim: People don't always want to read about colonialism and classism.

Julia: No, and I'm not saying it's bad to have some fluffy fun books that don't get into that, but I do think it's good to have stuff that acknowledges it, and engages in deeper conversation. I did read and enjoy All Men of Genius. I also often like to come home after a long day and watch a fluffy sitcom, but I don't think that those are usually groundbreaking or boundary-pushing. Sometimes I want a challenging drama which does make me think about things from a different perspective. I'm a complex person, like most everyone else.

Jim: Where does Cherie Priest fit in?

--Some discussion of themes of race/class in Priest's work. Panel agrees it does embrace the punk aspect of Steampunk.

Maggie: Uprising of the masses. Game that touches on this 9as far as she can tell from trailer) is Bioshock Infinite, which plays with political ideas churning at turn of 20th century in USA.

Audience: Is Frankenstein steampunk?

James: Novel is not, but the 1930s films might very well be.

Julia: The novel does come from some of the same roots of simultaneous human fear of and wonder at technological advances.

Jim: Subtitled "a modern Prometheus"--appalled by modern progress. Not a steampunk book.

Maggie: Dealing with Romanticism, and Gothic hero/villain roles. Different track from Steampunk, which tends to be less Gothic, but draws on some of the same roots.

James: Modern at its time--very SFNal because the idea of electricity as spark of life was a very modern notion.

Jim: Jules Verne was having fun with modern ideas and speculation. Shelley wasn't.

James: And Verne was concerned with things that can be built. Two streams of steampunk literature seem to be: 1) real possibilities explored--what if history had gone differently? The Difference Engine is very analytical, and 2) What if all the wacky dreams of science turned out to be true?

And that was time.

I realized later that examples of fun and fluffy steampunk that doesn't much interrogate the time might include Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies.

Please feel free to share your favorite steampunk things (books, art, fashion, etc.) in the comments! To see more panel notes, click the panel notes tag.