It’s getting harder to maintain that steampunk is just resting. It may not be dead, but it certainly isn’t as alive as it used to be.
I was never big on steampunk events and I’m not into steampunk music, so I can’t speak for those scenes. But when it comes to art, fiction and the online fandom, there has been a noticeable decline.
Type “steampunk” in DeviantArt, filter for “newest” and don’t tell me you’re impressed. The most recent Hollywood production with steampunk elements was probably The Three Musketeers (2011, our review here). Most of the steampunk blogs and forums I used to frequent are either gone or dead.
The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles used to be bustling with activity. Now there are barely a few new posts each day. Our own community, the Smoking Lounge, has seen better days. The Brass Goggles blog hasn’t been updated in six years. The once-lively steampunk community on LiveJournal has withered. Krzysztof Janicz took his English-language Steampunkopedia offline in 2010 (archived PDF here) and his Polish Retrostacja last year. SteamPunk Magazine promised a final edition in 2016 but hasn’t been heard from since. The Steampunk Tribune returned in 2017 after a four-year hiatus but hasn’t been updated in a year. Even The Steampunk Museum, which was founded in part to preserve the memory of the rapidly disappearing online steampunk scene, is inactive.
A frequent lament is that the mainstreaming of steampunk has made it less interesting. But if steampunk were truly mainstream, shouldn’t it be more popular?
A related theory is that steampunk was taken over by unserious tinkerers and cosplayers.
Eric Renderking Fisk made this argument in 2017 (he wasn’t the only one, but his is one of the most recent commentaries):
Since it has lost the anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment aspects, “steampunk” is no longer steam “punk”.
Fisk accused “fair-weather steampunkers” of destroying the movement:
You’re either in a punk movement all the way or you’re not.
But that assumes steampunk was more “punk” than “steam” to begin with. That’s not how I remember it.
It wasn’t until the first SteamPunk Magazine appeared in 2007 that anyone explicitly tried to put the “punk” into steampunk. (Although they insisted they were putting the punk “back” into steampunk.)
Much like Fisk a decade later, a steampunk manifesto in SteamPunk Magazine (that had originally been published online in 2004) lamented that, to most, steampunk was little more than “dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia”; “sepia-toned yesteryear [that] is more appropriate for Disney and suburban grandparents than it is for a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.”
(Disparaging the enormous contributions Disney has made to the genre, by the way, from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) to Tokyo DisneySea’s Mysterious Island.)
Steampunk had to be more than Neo-Victorianism and an “escape to gentleman’s clubs”. It had to be aggressive, do-it-yourself and sympathize with the “traitors of the past” in order to rebel against the present.
Other examples of this mentality included Phenderson Djèlí Clark, Jaymee Goh and Diana M. Pho. All insisted that steampunk not only ought to be but was political, whether we liked it or not — and anybody who disagreed was naive.
If anything, it was this activism that drove people away. They were drawn to steampunk because of the stories and the style — and told they weren’t doing it right if they didn’t share the radical, anti-capitalist ideology of a loud minority that tried to mix steampunk and politics.
Cory Gross, who ran one of the first steampunk websites, Victorian Adventures in a Past That Wasn’t, and who now blogs at Voyages Extraordinaires, blamed both the tinkerers and the punks, writing in 2010 (in a blog post that is no longer online) that an influx of enthusiasts from “countercultural movements, such as Punk, Goth-Industrial and DIY hobby groups,” marginalized, “consciously and unconsciously,” the science-fiction and role-playing background of steampunk.
Steampunk’s uncritical recreation of empire didn’t help. Susana Loza and Damon Poeter, among others, have pointed out that steampunks seemed more interested in the grandeur of Victorian Britain than the colonialism, misogyny and racism of the era. This provoked an overreaction. (Which I experienced firsthand when we devoted an entire issue of our webzine, the Gatehouse Gazette, to “Victorientalism” without including a single critical word about this then-ill-defined subgenre.)
It’s not that the critics of steampunk’s imperialist nostalgia were wrong per se; it’s that they had no patience for ignorance and cried “racism!” whenever somebody donned a pith helmet. That’s not how you change minds. It’s how you turn people away.
Imagine you came into steampunk after seeing Wild Wild West (1999) or reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with no strong political views and only a dim awareness of the history of European imperialism, and you’re told on the one hand that being steampunk means being an anarchist and on the other that your interest in the Victorian era is borderline racist and sexist. Would you stick around?
It’s up to us
The surprising thing is that so many did, and it in fact were the punks who left disappointed that they could not remake steampunk in their image.
But many fair-weather steampunkers left as well, and who can blame them? An escape to gentleman’s clubs is what they wanted and they were scorned for it.
I hope it’s not too late. Steampunk has survived an arrogant attempt to politicize it. It has grown more inclusive. The fashion and do-it-yourself may have crowded out the science-fiction and role-playing side, but I think Gross went too far when he wrote that the new steampunk has marginalized the old. You don’t need to be into everything to call yourself steampunk. You don’t even need to call yourself steampunk to be part of the scene in one way or another.
So please, start blogging, drawing, sowing or playing. Don’t be discouraged by the purists and the pretentious. Don’t pay too much attention to self-proclaimed steampunk experts (including me). Don’t be afraid to invent something new. Steampunk didn’t happen because K.W. Jeter wrote down the rules in 1987 or when SteamPunk Magazine tried to reform it in 2007. It’s what we all make of it. Steampunk belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. If it dies, it will be because we let it.
Artwork on this page by Nicholas Maxson-Francombe.