Punk Is Dead. Long Live Steampunk!

The attempt to politicize steampunk has failed.

Pixabay photo

I didn’t get into steampunk to be an activist.

What got me hooked was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 2003, then discovering it was based on a graphic novel (which was even better), and then discovering there was an entire genre of this stuff.

I was already into nineteenth-century history and I was into science-fiction. Putting those two together was brilliant.

Dressed-up nostalgia

Cory Gross, whose website was one of the few dedicated to steampunk at the time (available through the Wayback Machine; Cory now blogs at Voyages Extraordinaires), described it as “Victorian Adventures in a Past That Wasn’t”. That was exactly what I wanted.

I read Jules Verne. I watched Wild Wild West (1999). Paul Guinan’s Boilerplate and Steam-Trek were some of my favorite websites. I created my own website, The Gatehouse (more about our history here), and a steampunk community, the Smoking Lounge.

Then, around 2006-07, something changed. The publication of SteamPunk Magazine made it clear: people were trying to turn steampunk into a political movement.

In its inaugural edition, the magazine disparaged steampunk as “simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia”; a kind of “sepia-toned yesteryear” it said was more appropriate for Disney and suburban grandparents than a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.

I rather liked dressed-up nostalgia. So did the people I hung out with. Suddenly this wasn’t good enough anymore.

Around the same time, cosplayers and makers appropriated steampunk to turn it into an aesthetic. I wasn’t much into that either, but at least they weren’t anarchists. Or if they were, they kept their hobbies and politics separate.

This tendency centered on the blog Brass Goggles, which was interested in the “lighter side of steampunk”. It spawned The Steampunk Forum and various on- and offline communities dedicated to costuming and do-it-yourself.

Either in or out

It’s now a decade later and I think it’s safe to say the “lighter side” has won out.

The punks know it. Kate Franklin and James Schafer of Parliament & Wake (now gone) recognized as early as 2011 that steampunk had “failed” as a movement for “social revolution”. (Read my response from the time.) Eric Renderking Fisk of The Fedora Chronicles lamented in 2017 that steampunk had lost its “anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment aspects” — and announced he was moving on.

I’m not sure steampunk ever had those elements, but Fisk went further: he blamed “fair-weather steampunkers” for killing the movement.

“True” steampunks, he wrote (his word), integrate steampunk in their everyday lives.

You’re either in a punk movement all the way or you’re not. There are no half measures in punk.

Or, as Dimitri Markotin put it in SteamPunk Magazine 5:

You want steampunk to be a novelty, a LOLcat, a meme. I want it to be my life. Which of us is going to fight harder for it?

I don’t know, but Fisk has left, Markotin is gone, and we’re still here.


In the end, it didn’t take much of a fight.

We pushed back against the politicization of steampunk at The Gatehouse and the Gatehouse Gazette — but we were only one publication.

Most steampunks were doing their own thing, whether it was seaming costumes or writing stories or visiting conventions, not paying a whole lot of attention to these debates. “Fair-weather” steampunks, if you will.

And the punks? I don’t know. If they’re still around, they’re keeping quiet these days.


Add Yours

Amen! It seems some people fear pure unadulterated pleasure. They need a spoonful (or gallon!) of medicine to make the sugar go down.

Amen to Will Rohan, whose comment reminded me of the “LEVIATHAN’ trilogy, set largely on a huge whale which IS an airship!

“Victorian Sci-Fi happy playtime”

I should put that on my blog.

I particularly liked this part: “If “Steampunk” isn’t about changing the culture and hacking the establishment, then what is it and what should it be about beyond its appearance? Unless steampunk has been and is only about the aesthetics and I’ve been wrong this whole time.”

Yeah, pretty much! Steampunk always was Victorian Sci-Fi happy playtime.

Actually, from what I’ve seen, Eric Fisk is still very heavily involved in the scene. His is one of several blogs I follow. The quote you used, when skimming his articles, seems to be misquoted and out of context. Not trying to be contradictory, but accurate for accuracy’s sake.

Also, I feel like your article just said “I don’t like how others are defining the scene and make it a debate, while defining and debating it in this article.”

It reminded me of a show I was at, when the singer of Skavoovie and the Epitomes stated before the set, during a monologue about ending racism, “I’m just here to tell you how to think for yourself”. In all fairness, he did catch what he had just done and followed with “Wow. That was ironic. Think for yourself however you think for yourself.”

Hi, Michelle, thanks for your comment.

I don’t think I took Fisk out of context. Read his whole column. I think I took the key quotes to summarize his argument.

I concede your second point, sure. The difference is that I liked steampunk the way it was. Others, like Fisk and the editors of SteamPunk Magazine, didn’t and tried to turn it into something else. (If steampunk was “simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia”, it wasn’t good enough for them. It was for me.)

They had a right to try. But they failed, and I’m glad they did.

Thank you for your response.

Let me start by saying I have read the article you quoted, and many of his other articles. I have read many of yours too. Your historical pieces are very good (I too am a history lover, with a deep fascination more with the way people thought and lived during each era, than with the clinical dates). I have read other blogs, forums and media coverage of the scene too.

All seem to point to the same thing. You and Mr. Fisk have many sililarities in both of your outlook and passion for the scene. Stating you like it as just a dress up nostalgia, when you are editor of an online magazine dedicated to the scene, write on the history, the philosophies and literature, the nuances, and write pieces where you yourself are politicizing and beimg an activist, such as the one above, I think its a downplay on your actual views.

One of the underlying currents and between-the-lines drives right now on most blogs, forums and media about Steampunk in the last year is an actual misuse and misdefinition of the scene, which is not coming from writers like yourself and Mr. Fisk. In fact I believe you both, with many others, are all saying the same thing, but struggling with it, as it is a very charged topic. That is the context. I did not miss it.

In the last few years, both West Coast and East Coast, and several in between, the Steampunk movement has been rocked by sexual consent and assault issues. Persons in the scene have misused their high positions to do the actual and real harm, not just to many individual that they preyed on, but to the scene itself. They changed it from a fun, family-like and -friendly, artistic and creative, philosophical and adventurous scene, into something more like their own predatory playground. It has become something very different from the goid both you and Mr. Fisk describe. Many of these same persons have used the ‘it’s just fun and dress up, don’t ruin it’ as a way to shut down those speaking up, and to convince others that they should shut them down too. Many people through the years, as it is coming out more and more, were actually pushed from the scene, targetted, scapegoated, by the perpetrators, for doing the right thing in speaking up and out, trying to save a good thing from becoming something it should never have been, a victim rich environment for predators.

I am not suggesting that you wrote this to do such a thing, but it does not help and is divisive, far more than the articles and writers you mentioned, simply because it assists them. Even if it was unrelated and unbeknownst.

Again, I will state, I have read the articles, blogs, not just of Mr. Fisk and yourself, but of many, and I do not think you were quoting them in context. They, like many, including yourself, are struggling to preserve something good. And broach a difficult topic that comes with very real and very unfair social consequences to the victims and folks brave enough to speak up about.

I think you and folks like Mr. Fisk are very much the same in your outlook and drive and passion and should be coming together, to save it, not competitively attacking each others philosophies. The scene is in jeopardy and I believe you both feel it. I do not think you would have written this article if on some level you did not.

Thank you again for taking the time to read and respond. And again, keep up the great work.

I did read about some of those allegations, but I’m not sure how it relates? Maybe this is a bigger issue in the US. (I’m in Europe.) It’s hard to me to gauge, from a distance, how this affects the entire scene.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m simply having a difference of opinion with those who want steampunk to have a political agenda.

I don’t mind people mixing politics and steampunk, but I do take issue when people say steampunk is a radical, left-wing political movement. I want to be able to enjoy steampunk as a genre and an aesthetic, just like I enjoy sci-fi or Star Trek or midcentury pulp detective stories. What I object to is the attitude (to clarify: not yours!) that this isn’t steampunk “enough”.

Thanks for your comments, Michelle! Like many interested in Steampunk and Dieselpunk, my involvement is entirely online (I live in Ireland), and I had no idea the sort of stuff you describe has been going on. I, and I believe Nick Ottens, were poking fun at a more theoretical politicisation of Steampunk, not related to specific misbehavior by specific people. Sexual assault is certainly no fun, but an abuse of both its target victims and the joy people seek to create and share in Steampunk. It is neither right nor left wing, and right, left and middle wingers should be welcome in Steampunk.

I completely agree with that and let me add that if people are using “steampunk is just fun” as an excuse for harassment or worse, that is reprehensible.

Reading your latest command again, Michelle, I get the impression that may be the case?

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