[Worldcon] The Steampunk Genre

Friday (August 31) at 1330: The Steampunk Genre
Panelists listed in program: Sarah Hans, Jay Lake, Michael Coorlim, Chambers, Paul Genesse

Disclaimer: These are my notes from the panel and my own, later thoughts. I often was unable to attend the entire panel, and also chronically missed panelist introductions. When possible I try to note who said something, but often was unable to. Also, unless something is in double quotes it should be considered a summary and not a direct quotation.

Steampunk is unlike cyberpunk in that cyberpunk is primarily dystopian.

Steampunk is much more participatory; Costuming, film, music, not just literature. Much more participatory in that way than scifi/fantasy. At steampunk cons, most people are in costume. (WAY MORE than at Worldcon or anime cons.)

Recommended reading:

  • Log of the Flying Fish on Project Gutenberg – “steampunk” written during the Victorian era as scifi.
  • The Steampunk Bible – Jeff VanderMeer
  • Steampunk – Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (the essay at the end is a must-read)
  • Steampunk II – Jeff and Ann VanderMeer

Is steampunk sf/f or both?
“May I point out that the power to weight ratio for steam engines means… that all steampunk is fantasy.”
Dieselpunk is an offshoot of steampunk; it picks up where steampunk ends. WWI/WWII era.

Steampunk are fundamentally adventure stories.

“This is the last era where a true polymath could really exist and know everything about everything.”
“The last time a super villain could build his own base without minions.”

From audience – technology is positive, look at the decoration of it, they are putting their souls into it.
Panel – about reclaiming ability to interact and fix with machines. That’s part of the romance. Today when technology goes haywire we can’t really do anything. In steampunk, it can be fixed.

Sarah Hans – likes using magic in steampunk as the analog for the conservative/traditional values. Magic butting heads with technology because they’re seeing it as threatening those values.

If you want to write steampunk, number one rule is HAVE FUN.

  • Start in the steampunk universe and write from there. Do not write a story and spray cogs on it.
  • Research, particularly if you’re going to use real historical figures!
  • Invent only what you need to! This includes within the setting.
  • Don’t over explain your technology. You need to know how it works, but don’t go into too much details because the asshole scientists will eat your lunch.
  • “Steampunk is generally a gonzo genre. Go gonzo.”

Multiculturalism in steampunk – Fantasy con someone pointed out that there were no black people in steampunk. This changed the future of steampunk. Come on, it’s not just all white people. Steamfunk and Pimp My Airship.

Consider that from the alternate history standpoint. It’s not just white people in the world!
Silver Goggles – multicultural trying to break out of the western world box. (Rajpunk!)
“Steampunk is people doing to the Victorian era what the Victorian era first did to them.”

This should not be about nostalgia or romance for the past. The uncomfortable social issues (misogyny, colonialism, racism, etc) need to be met head on if you’re dealing with that historical context.
LGBTQ are not real well-represented in Steampunk either. This will hopefully be in the next wave.

Oh, the question of if you need to be descended from the colonized in order to write about the oppression within colonialism.
“Why not?” “Otherwise we’d all be writing about nothing but boring white guys.”
No matter what you write, you’re going to offend someone, but you need to be respectful about it.
Also it’s alternate history, so how much does this actually matter?
“You cannot get permission to write. You have an obligation as a writer to treat your subject with serious respect… no one is the guardian of any group or ethnicity or gender or historical period…” “That’s called being sensible. That’s not called don’t write.”


I actually went to this panel because I wanted to hear about Steampunk from people who are much more in to it than I am. I’d like to go to a convention, for example, but I admit I’m pretty embarrassed by my complete lack of costuming. (Well, and I lack time which is far more important. I can get over feeling like the ugly duckling.) But often Steampunk is presented as just being about setting, the bells and whistles, cogs and steam, and I knew it had to be more than that. I just couldn’t articulate what since I’m just dipping my toe in at this point.

What struck me the most was the point about technology, about problem solving. The reason I wrote my story for Penumbra  was because I like writing stories about adventures, and Steampunk always seemed like a perfect genre for it. And not just that, but one where it’s all about technology being used smartly and problem solving. Steampunk has always felt very optimistic to me in that way, and that’s something I’ve been thirsting for in a time where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a dystopia.

I think I already knew this – that’s sure the way I wrote The Jade Tiger. It feels good to have people far more expert than me laying that out, however. Hopefully I can take all the interesting ideas from this panel and write even better when I launch into my novellas!

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