Phoebe Darqueling Brass Army

Guest post by Phoebe Darqueling

Steampunk: The Last 10 Years

Welcome to the fourth post in my series chronicling the evolution of the Steampunk genre. If you aren’t familiar with Steampunk here’s a brief definition: It is a literary genre loosely inspired by the culture and technology of the Victorian era. It can take the form of an alternative history, a dystopian future, or complete fantasy. In more recent times, it has leaped from the pages of books and into people’s lives in the form of special events, elaborate costumes, and dedicated “sports.”

Steampunk Journal hosted the first post in this series about adaptations of Victorian era books and how they paved the way for writers and dreamers to come. Chris Pavesic hosted Part 2 that looked at the actual coining of the term “Steam-punk” and the first 10 years of literature that bore that moniker. Yesterday, Part 3 was posted on Penny Blake’s blog and showed how Steampunk branched into graphic novels and other visual media during its second decade. Now, we’re going to take a look at the last 10 years and how this genre has exploded in popular culture and inspired countless annual events around the planet. The images in this article were made by the talented P.R. Chase as part of the “30 Years of Steampunk Exhibit” I toured with last year.

This series is part of a blog tour dedicated to the collaborative Steampunk novel, Army of Brass. 21 international authors came together in 2017 to craft this tale of intrigue, gadgets, and adventure. If you are new to Steampunk, this book is already being hailed as “a perfect entry-point for newcomers to the genre.” It’s available starting today as an e-book and will be offered for a special price of just $.99 between now and May 13 to celebrate Steampunk’s “31st birthday.” If you want to check out other stops on the blog tour, you can find them at the end of this post. Plus, check out our Facebook launch party to find your next Steampunk read, learn more about collaborative writing, and sign up for a giveaway that includes a $25 Amazon gift card.

The Media Starts Noticing Steampunk

Beginning the mid-2000s, news outlets first started to report on Steampunk as not only a genre, but an entire community and movement. Some folks who had been fans since the beginning were worried about how the exposure could “dilute” the fandom, while others welcomed the attention as a chance to bring more people into the fold. Either way, many members of the general public were first introduced to the word “Steampunk” thanks to these and other articles like them.

Steampunk Explodes in 2009

Many of the books that are now considered cornerstones of the Steampunk genre came out in 2009. For instance, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and accompanying sequels imagine an alternative World War I full of incredible machines that never existed pitted against the “Darwinists” who favor genetic manipulation.

But one of the most noticeable things about 2009 for me was to see how many female writers were added to the list of Steampunk books. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest takes place in an alternate Seattle that has suffered from an outbreak of a strange gas that turns people into zombies. It follows a mother who is looking for her lost son and is every bit a horror series as much as it is Steampunk.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find Gail Carriger’s Soulless. In this book about a world where vampires and werewolves are not only out in the open, but part of British politics, there are a lot more laughs than screams. The main character, Alexia Tarrabotti, is a delightful “spinster” who has the uncanny ability to nullify the magical aspects of others, and her exploits continue with several more books in the Parasol Protectorate. In this series, as well as Carriger’s YA series called Finishing School, clever women employ their wits and a suite of gadgets to battle evil, and happen to occasionally find love along the way.

Soon after, we see the first non-fiction books dedicated to Steampunk. In 2010, Steampunk Emporium was released. It had a focus on handicrafts and helping people give their creations a distinctive Steampunk style. And most diehard Steampunk fans own a copy of The Steampunk Bible, which came out in 2011. This collection of essays overs a wide view of the aesthetic and genre, and helped to inform the 30 Years of Steampunk exhibit and this series.

The TV show Warehouse 13 also started airing in 2009. Though it takes place in the present, the objects that are kept in the warehouse often have an origin in the real or imagined history of the 19th century. The electric gun wielded by the agents and the fantastical computer system at the heart of their missions are both undeniably Steampunk. Plus, a gender-swapped H.G. Wells who was frozen in time is an important character.

The Rise of Steampunk Events

In Part 2, I touched briefly on the formation of the first Steampunk bands in the early to mid-200s. Steampunk’s permeation of the music scene went hand in hand with the demand for entertainment at Steampunk-themed events. Fans weren’t satisfied with simply reading about airships and clever (if impossible) gadgets, they wanted to live and breathe Steampunk “in the flesh.” Some of these events were small-scale monthly gatherings, while others were huge conventions lasting all weekend. Nowadays, you can probably find some sort of Steampunk gathering in every one of the 50 states, and in countries all over the world. It has grown from a solitary hobby to a whole community that loves to get together and have a great time.

What does one do at Steampunk Convention?

In addition to enjoying the musical stylings of Steam-powered Giraffe, This Way to the Egress, Victor & the Bully, Nightwatch Paradox, and all of the other amazing musicians, Steampunk events lend themselves to a variety of other stage acts. There’s often at least one magician or “mad scientist” doing a demonstration of arcane medical quackery. I’ve also seen plenty of circus acts and aerial performers wowing crowds at places like the International Steampunk Symposium and the Edwardian Ball. And especially in recent years, burlesque acts have become part of the festivities. With a history rooted directly in the “steam era,” it comes as no surprise that this sort of performance has found a home.

Sound too noisy? No problem! You can always find a lecture to attend. I’ve been to a wide variety of talks ranging from the role of madness in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, to demos on pugilism and cane-fighting, to the bloody history of tea, to the ins and outs of alchemy. Steampunk covers a wide range of topics and areas of crossover, so no doubt you can find at least one presentation that will tickle your fancy.

Many events also have game rooms that feature tabletop games. These could be pen and paper RPG’s, board games, and sometimes even live action role playing. TeslaCon is famous for its hugely interactive LARPing track in their annual event in Wisconsin, and they have even started to publish books in the world of the game.

If you’re looking for some friendly and whimsical opportunities to compete, several sports have also emerged. Tea-duelling (and occasionally the spin-off, “coffee jousting”) can be found at almost every large Steampunk event. To play, all you need is some tea and some biscuits. Competitors dunk their cookies then play a game of “chicken” to see who can go longer without taking a bite. But watch out! If the cookie crumbles before you get it into your mouth, you lose.

The Maker and Steampunk are a Match Made in Heaven

Even though it began as a literary genre, many people find their way to Steampunk through the Maker Movement. The technology of Steampunk is largely mechanical and simple enough that even newbies can figure out how to make something go using gears. Pair this with the long tradition of beautiful, hand-crafted items from this time, and many makers are motivated to give it a whirl. Polished wood, inlaid brass, supple leather - they all have a place in Steampunk. Many of the competitions at conventions involve building something, then bringing it along to show off or pit against others.

My personal favorite are the races. I’ve seen people race both homemade dirigibles and “teapot racers” (remote control cars stripped of their bodies and replaced by tea pots) around obstacles courses. Weekend at the Asylum in the UK also invites people to race full-sized contraptions that are pedal-powered. Makers can also compete to see who has the coolest “mod” of a Nerf gun, and who crafted the best “vampire hunting kit.”

And let’s not forget the fabulous clothes! Though by no means a requirement, many people attend Steampunk events simply for the opportunity to wear and appreciate costumes. There are often competitions and fashion shows for people to show off their skills.

Steampunk Enters the Mainstream

You may not have even realized it, but Steampunk has increasingly become part of our mainstream popular culture. In addition to the examples pictures above, there are several episodes of the much-loved Dr. Who that are totally Steampunk. Recent horror movies such as The Woman in Black and Crimson Peak borrow from the aesthetic and literary tropes of the steam era. You can find a steamy flavor in some anime, such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Steamboy. Major pattern-makers now carry Steampunk lines, and if you search places like Walmart you can find items listed as Steampunk.

For many fans, this is terrible news. Whether they want to preserve their own status as an “outsider” or “oddball” for liking Steampunk, or they worry about the overall quality of goods diminishing as the talent pool is “diluted,” there’s no denying that Steampunk is finding a larger and larger audience. But while there may be a few gatekeepers out there, for the most part, Steampunk is one of the most open and welcoming fandoms I’ve ever seen. People generally accept that Steampunk is so open-ended and focused on individual ideas and tastes, it is basically impossible to actually regulate who participates and how.

Which brings us right up to the present, 31 years after the term Steampunk was “born.” People are fond of declaring it “dead” from time to time, but in my experience, I just see it spreading wider and wider. As the editor for Steampunk Journal and my capacity as admin for several Facebook groups, what I see is people joining in the fun more and more. Events come and go, bands form and break up, books rise and fall. But Steampunk isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

And don’t forget, Army of Brass comes out tomorrow! 21 international writers came together to create this tale of giant automatons, fearless airship captains, and deadly conspiracies.

Order your ebook copy of Army of Brass for $.99 and receive it on Friday to celebrate Steampunk’s “31st birthday.” The blog tour continues until May 13, and so does this special price.

Plus, Join us on Facebook April 28-29 to meet the writers, participate in giveaways, and more!

Not sure if it’s for you? Read a review, take a sneak peek at the full Chapter 1 or read another exclusive excerpt. You can also get to know the character Captain Jack Davenport a little bit better with his interview on Blake & Wight. If you want to find out more about collaborative writing, Army of Brass contributors and Collaborative Writing Challenge veterans Crystal MM Burton and Kathrin Hutson shared articles for the tour about the pros, cons, and rewards.

Speaking of giveaways, you can enter to win ebooks from the CWC writers.

And be sure to check out the rest of this tour at these links:
What's in a Name? Steampunk before "Steampunk" :
Steampunk: The First 10 Years :
Steampunk: The Second Decade :