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.
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.