It’s been a few years since I first stumbled upon the term, drooled over the aesthetic, and learned about the culture. From a writer’s perspective, it’s been an interesting ride. I didn’t start out with a steampunk novel in mind, and I hope I’ve never given that impression. However, since discovering that the world of the Aldersgate Cycle was a fantastic take on steampunk, I’ve done my own delving into the culture.
I came to steampunk, as I’ve written before, by way of the American West, and through a love of fantasy and alternate worlds. While I spent some time in the early 2000s hanging around lots of punk rockers in the Baltimore area, I’ve never considered myself very counter-culture. I mean, sure. I’m weird. I’m a geek. I’ve always been a maker of words. It’s not to say that I don’t have plenty of political views that might be considered unusual, but I try not to let that leak into my blog or (too much) into my writing.
What’s been interesting to watch, however, is the greater absorption of steampunk culture into the mainstream. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a progression like that before, save perhaps the goth progression in the late 80s and early 90s (though I was listening to the Beatles at that point, I certainly watched from the wings). Search trends for steampunk continue to rise, and everything from fashion to home decor shows signs of cross-pollination.
But I wonder, is the definition of steampunk changing? As it becomes a known part of our culture at large, does it diminish? Or does it grow? Here’s a few scenarios I think we might see in the coming months.
Gaining literary steam. I’m not the only writer out there with a love for steampunk. In fact, I see more and more writers trying their hand at incorporating alternate history/fantasy steampunk facets into their writing; we’ve seen Steampunk Tales for the iPhone, for example, and of course the VanderMeer short story collection (which, I believe, is in talks for a followup). From a novel approach you’ve got people like Ekaterina Sedia, Tobias Buckell, and Cherie Priest (among others) either publishing or actively working on steampunk-esque books. Why? While “steampunk” literature has been around a long time (well, they didn’t call it that when they were writing it in the late 19th century) it’s seen a rebirth. With appeal for fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and thriller writers, it’s not surprising to see growing trends in steampunk writing. It’s wonderfully fertile ground, and can be written in a multitude of ways. From a fantasy perspective, it’s a nice break from the standard medieval approach.
The -punk phenomenon. We may start hearing about lots of other “new” punks. You’ve probably already heard of cyberpunk and dieselpunk, etc.. I know plenty of writers who hate these terms (even the term steampunk itself) but it is what it is. In a way steampunk has become an umbrella term, incorporating bits and pieces from the 17th century onward to the Edwardian, and sometimes beyond. There are definitely divided camps, here, some who believe steampunk is only Victorian, and others who want to broaden the definition. Of course, there are positive aspects of each, but I certainly see–especially in the realm of fashion–the second camp winning out. It tends to give historical nitpickers hives, unfortunately… Is “steampunk” the right term? I dunno. It is what it is at this point.
Movin’ down the dusty trail. As with any subculture, there are always folks who are transients. That is, people who “find” a movement, become active, and move on. Now that you can buy steampunk inspired clothing at JC Penney, it’s not as hard as it once was to fit in at an event or a club. But, given time, and other new subcultures bound to crop up, people will move on to other things because, by nature, they always need to be different. Hell, there are already folks disenchanted with steampunk, or frustrated with the growing commercialization of steampunk. Or just bored. Because for some people, being different is all that matters. What lies beneath is inconsequential. (Although, if you join a movement to look like a bunch of other people, “different” is very relative, I suppose.)
Makin’ a steampunk buck. I’m sure you’ve seen it. The superfluous gear. The short story that tries too hard. That friend of yours who has become a born-again steampunk and is now making bookmarks, postcards and t-shirts all proclaiming love of the culture. Yeah, it’s tough territory here. You want to be welcoming to everyone, but at the same time, so much of what I’ve been seeing lately just comes across as people trying to make a quick buck. And I hate that.
Asking the hard questions. Steampunk isn’t perfect. The Victorians, for all they gave us, were highly flawed people. They were often racist, sexist and classist. And while some writers, in particular, have explored these issues, it hasn’t really seeped into the culture. I love corsets, from an aesthetic perspective, for example. But, some of the extremes women went through–or were made to go through–in attempt to “look right” is downright uncomfortable. That we can choose to wear corsets or not in this day is rather amazing. Know what I mean? It’s amusing to find that one of the instruments feminists rallied against has become a symbol of feminine power and sexuality… Anyway. I digress.
Not your parents’ steampunk. Steampunk will change. People will push the envelope. It’ll move beyond gears, cogs, and goggles, and become something else. It will be reinterpreted, re-envisioned, re-appropriated. It will move to Asia, to Africa, to the Middle-East, and bring new flavors, sounds, sights, and influences. And it will be better for it. I, for one, can’t wait!
What about movies? I think they’ll continue to be few and far between, and of middling quality. So far, most attempts, including most recently City of Ember, have not done terribly well. There’s something steampunkish, certainly, about 9, as well as a few others (not to mention new RPGs). I mean, in the past, the outcome just hasn’t been that great. Not even I could sit through Wild Wild West again. My hope is that something comes to television, soon. I think there, steampunk might find its home. With shows like Warehouse 13, which certainly cater to the aesthetic, I’m optimistic!
So, what do you forsee for the future of steampunk?