Nov 11, 2013

Steampunk, Undefined

Had a wonderful time once again at this past month's SteamCon event in Seattle, Washington. The panels went nicely - mostly focusing on writing and self-publishing - got to spend time with some good friends and even made a goodly quantity of new ones. Scores as a win, I say.

Sometimes it's easy to forget, when you spend so much time in a particular genre - whether it be fiction, society, fandom, music or whatnot - about a few different perceptions that tend to go on. There is the perception among people outside of your genre about the people inside the genre, as well as the perceptions held by people inside the genre about others inside the genre as well as about those people outside the genre.

From the outside in, this generally gets expressed simply by one of two common questions I get asked:
"What's going on here?" and "What is Steampunk?"

The first question is mostly overheard at Steampunk events - I typically dress more or less how I normally do, plus or minus a vest or clever glasses, so innocent bystanders usually guess I'm a reliable source of insider information. They also guess that I'm not going to give them an answer in essay form (I leave that for the blogs).

But the second question I hear as often from people who know very little about Steampunk as I do from people who LOVE Steampunk.

Now, if you don't know much about Steampunk, it's a reasonable question to ask, right? (There was that episode of Castle where everyone was wearing top hats, right?) Any time a segment of subculture strikes popular attention - punk, goth, hipster, geek, whatever - there's naturally some curiosity about it. And that's a good thing. Steampunk isn't a religion or a cult, so nobody's looking to proselytize or corral in new members.

But it's when I hear it asked from other Steampunk fans that I grow concerned. Not because it's betraying some lack of Steampunkery or whatnot, but because oftentimes I smell a trap. Much in the same way the Comic Book fandom - and Geekdom in general - has been experiencing self-defining growing pains, Steampunk seems to be feeling the itch as well. But let's call it what it is: this is adolescence.

One of the primary characteristics of adolescence (which means, by the way, literally, "growing up") is self-definition. Figuring out who you are, and coming to grips with that. Self-confidence, self-identity, self-esteem. It's kind of self interested, really. And we find that same element in nearly every organization - it's been present in religions, political parties, and it's not by itself a bad thing. It's just a thing.

Now, granted, the roots of Steampunk have been around for years - you can effectively track it back to the Victorian era itself - but it's been reformed in the age of rebellion, of the redefinition of history, and it's been turned into a social structure, a fashion statement, a cultural resistance born straight out of the fires of DIY and a love of old world elegance.

When I wrote the Chronicles of Aesirium, I'll admit that my first goal was not to write a series of Steampunk books - the industrial age simply worked as the most ideal backdrop for the world I was creating, and it felt like the best place to insert my story. I wasn't trying to write the definitive Steampunk book - nor would I have ever wanted to. If anything, they're somewhere in the middle between "it has a gear on it" and "STEAMPUNK!", which is where I would generally want to be.

The new series - "Tales of the Dead Man" - is even less so. The first book, "Steel and Sky", involves two differing cultures, tech and natural magic. The tech world has a steam-powered science, but I wanted to take it out of pure victorianism and do something different with it. Also, I've written 6 borderline steampunk books, I wanted to introduce some new developmental elements into the new books - but the spirit of steampunk, as I see it, is still there.

And that's the part of Steampunk's adolescence that I enjoy so much. The elegant way in which we do it ourselves, embracing that most industrious spirit of adventure.