Jakub Rozalski artwork

The Gatekeeper’s Scythe

More than two years ago, I caused controversy with the rant “Requiem for Steampunk” in which I outlined what had gone wrong the genre. I wrote in declarative statements that what we call “steampunk” isn’t steampunk anymore by bookending the article with these two paragraphs:

Since it has lost the anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment aspects, “steampunk” is no longer steam “punk.” It’s something else now and I’m not sure what to call it… So either steampunk is dead, it’s dying, or it was never what it should have been and what is now called “steampunk” is a bastardization.

And:

If steampunk — and for that matter, dieselpunk, decopunk and so on — isn’t about flipping society right-side up with a splash of non-conformity and anarchy against the ruling class, we should find another suffix besides ‘punk.

Sandwiched between those statements was the thesis of my argument and how I came to my conclusion that steampunk was in a lot of trouble as a “social movement”.

I have continued to write and talk about the topic, including in a review for The Steampunk Journal and in an appearance on “Radio Retrofuture” with Bonsart Bokel.

So have others. Nick Ottens’ recent “Who Killed Steampunk?” is the latest entry in this debate.

I have come to the conclusion that if only I had written “Gatekeepers Are Killing Steampunk” and made that the title of my rant, I would not have caused so much controversy. I could still have heaped much of the blame for what’s killing steampunk on the people who are trying to control it and make it their own and I wouldn’t be the villain and scoundrel that I am accused of being today. (Although, let’s face it, I actually enjoy the “scoundrel” part.)

I suspect that a more mundane title would have also spared Nick much of the heat he has taken for his article.

Tesla-ray the messenger

Nick has in the past taken me to task on my issue with the word “steampunk” and my semantics over the ‘punk suffix, arguing that if steampunk is simply the word we use to describe what I called “Victorian sci-fi happy playtime,” one of my main points is wrong: steampunk isn’t a repudiation and rebellion against a form of consumerism that tells us “new is always better.”

But his latest article actually echoes some of the points I made in 2017: that steampunk has evolved into something different.

The response to this was overwhelming. You would have thought Nick had shot Nikola Tesla in Times Square with his own ray gun.

Beyond the few authors who made good points for and against Nick’s hypothesis, there were many responses from people who seemed to have only read the title.

Making the point by trying to disprove the point

The majority of people who reacted negatively to what I wrote two years ago in “Requiem for Steampunk” and what Nick wrote last month in “Who Killed Steampunk?” either didn’t read our arguments or didn’t bother to respond to them. Instead, the typical response was, “Steampunk is not dead. Look at all the steampunk events! Look at all the steampunk cosplayers! Look at all the steampunk media!”

What this proved is that steampunk as a visual or artistic aesthetic is alive and well. What it also proved is that the self-anointed gatekeepers are still at work trying to defend their fiefdoms by ignoring concerns raised about the genre in general.

Say anything remotely critical of steampunk and they will descend upon you not just for what you said, but for what they think you said.

Steampunk Big Brother will convict you of a steampunk thoughtcrime.

Why steampunk?

Don’t blame Nick for reporting his observations and asking questions — especially when he is clearly in the top five of people trying to save steampunk. Blame the individuals and groups he mentions in his article.

There needs to be a deeper exploration into what’s going on with steampunk, how it is evolving and what should be done about the changes we’re seeing.

Maybe not all of the changes are bad. Maybe folks like Nick and me who are lamenting about “the death of steampunk” are simply sad that it is moving on without us.

We should all ask ourselves: Why steampunk? What purpose does it fill, not just for people like us, but for all steampunks? Do I have something to contribute that is worthwhile? Do the other people who love the genre and participate? Can I withstand the gatekeepers, the hyperactive newbies who haven’t been in the hobby for a while but already think they can dictate what’s what, the anarchists who insist that everything can be steampunk — and keep plugging along?

If the answer is no, then maybe the problem isn’t with steampunk. Maybe the problem is us.

For me, if steampunk doesn’t have an aspect that is a repudiation of what’s wrong with our consumeristic throw-away culture; isn’t about turning some aspects of fashion and style around; is all fun and escapism and not at all anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment, then it’s time to quietly leave or just stick with the few folks who still believe in the same things I do.

To paraphrase myself from “Requiem…”, if steampunk isn’t about flipping society right-side up with a splash of non-conformity and anarchy against the ruling class, we should find another suffix besides ‘punk — or I need to accept that “steampunk” is now merely the name of an aesthetic.

Art on this page by Jakub Rozalski.

2 Replies

  • So, we’re all doing it wrong? Good! Let’s strive to do it even WRONGER! (And invent as many neologisms as we can in the process.)

    Relax! EVERYTHING changes. You mention Nikola Tesla. He was a dead scientist until he reincarnated as an electric car.

    As for ‘The Establishment’ that’s even harder to define than ‘Punk’. And, if you actually succeed in overthrowing it you then become the Establishment yourself.

    Meanwhile, I consider ‘punk’ to be a synonym for ‘fun’, and I’m wary of the political puritanism of both right and left in this as in all areas. There are too many people with too much time on their hands who chose to spend it worrying that somebody somewhere might be enjoying themselves!

    So, I’m probably more anarchist than gatekeeper by your terms, but I’m doing anarchy wrong too. I’ll try again tomorrow, when my opinions may have changed completely.

  • Moi, I agreed with (and continue to agree with) the Steampunk Scholar: Steampunk is (was, and p’haps always will be) an aesthetic: no more, no less. Equally applicable to goofy fun and serious politics.

    People telling you that you are doing it wrong are everywhere, so I guess doing it “even wronger” is a good response.

    Btw, isn’t it ironic that those that insists on steampunk being punk in the way of punk rock where one important point was that you could and perhaps even should play in a band even if you barely knew which side of a guitar you played on complain about steampunks not being good enough at making stuff (or being steampunks in general)?

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