Is the punk in steampunk dead?

edited April 2020 in Steam
Around 2006-07, we saw a divide open up in the steampunk community.

On the one hand, there was SteamPunk Magazine trying to turn this 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 for a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.

On the other hand, people who rather liked dressed-up nostalgia were drawn to Brass Goggles, which dedicated itself to the "lighter side of steampunk".

It's now a decade later and I think it's safe to say the "lighter side" won out.

The punks know it. Kate Franklin and James Schafer recognized as early as 2011 that steampunk had "failed" as a movement for "social revolution". (Read my response from the time.) Eric Renderking Fisk lamented last year that steampunk had lost its "anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment aspects" -- and said 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 (he actually used that 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 I can't find anything steampunk Markotin wrote in the last few years and we're still here.


  • I understand why people would want Steampunk to be more "punk", but I never felt that it relied on becoming a political counter culture. It is great that it gears a community to consider a reflection of the past, in which we can correct the faults recognizable in retrospect. In doing so, it helped many to see where we could improve life in our era. I think this is a powerful and wonderful way to grow, both individually and socially. However, in attempting to turn Steampunk into a revolution, it was doomed make an enjoyable way to learn about what shapes humanity and society into a dystopian mire of our own shortcomings...
  • For me, Steampunk is not a political movement or a tribe or a religion. It is an avenue of creative expression analogous to twelve-bar blues. I am thankful for the wonderful and inventive Steampunks and all of their contributions, including Dinsey Imagineer Tony Baxter.
  • In attempting to turn Steampunk into a revolution, it was doomed make an enjoyable way to learn about what shapes humanity and society into a dystopian mire of our own shortcomings...

    I think that's right. Just speaking from my own experience, this attempt to turn steampunk into a (left-wing) political movement soured me on the whole thing for a few years. It took the fun out of steampunk for me and I wonder if it didn't for more people.
  • Put together my thought on this in an opinion piece for Never Was: Punk Is Dead. Long Live Steampunk!
  • I never saw steampunk as a movement anyway, just like cyberpunk never was, nor scifi.

    However, steampunk can be a tool to make a political point by using 19th century examples of life, especially the differences between upperclass and the lower classes (the punks).
    Imho steampunk is too much focussed on the upper class where the aestetics demand more of the labourers and such, those who actually work with machines.

    So yes I want more politics in steampunk stories (and maybe cosplay), but more to explore the possibilities of each side. After all, politics had their impact on our beloved area, after the 1789 revolution.
  • There's a difference, though, between politics in steampunk and steampunk as politics.

    The former, I think, is totally fine. Whatever the focus of the story or creation.

    The latter is problematic. As you say, steampunk isn't a movement, much less a political movement. Some people tried to turn it into one, and it didn't work.
  • Thoughts on the "punk" in steampunk from writer Andrew Knighton:

    Some people argue that anything with the term "punk" in it should be defiantly anti-establishment, politically and socially engaged, to earn that tag.

    This leads to heated conversations about what steampunk is and whether it should be more political, especially from those trying to preserve & reinvigorate punk music's radical roots.

    I'm not convinced that it's a necessity for steampunk, as the "punk" part is there by an accident of language, not out of radical intent. In literary genre labels, "punk" effectively means "tech level", not a political or social approach.

    But I also think that, like any genre, steampunk can be politically and socially engaged, and that this can be really interesting & powerful.


  • I don't mean to be a thread necromancer, but I wanted to ask if anyone knew what happened to the various radicals that tried to make steampunk into some kind of crypto-anarcho-Marxist movement. I missed all of the political discussion of 10-15 years back; If I understand correctly some of the editorial staff of Steampunk Magazine tried to do a sort of entryist conquest of the subculture. What was their end game? As Mr. Ottens has mentioned, someone named Markotin claimed the radicals wanted steampunk more, yet they've all since moved on. What happened to them?

    In the interests of full disclosure I'm largely apolitical in my hobbies, I just like Victorian/Edwardian aesthetics, literature (and a little Crimson Skies diesel as well) and tinkering with old electronics. I do find the idea of trying to conquer hobbyist groups for some political end or other distasteful, it must be said. I hope that's not too controversial an opinion!


    John Zybourne

  • It's a good question, @JohnZybourne. Since many people wrote under pseudonyms, it's hard to find out. I know some moved on to more general fantasy and science fiction. Others remain active in lefty literary circles.

    I think it would go too far to say there was ever a unified agenda. The way I see it, it was more a case of likeminded people converging on steampunk at the same time and either interpreting it as, or trying to turn it into, something that matched their political beliefs. Maybe hoping it could be a vehicle for social change? When that didn't happen - because it wasn't what most steampunks were interested in - they gradually left.

  • I think I follow; I wonder if Trump becoming president played a role too; He was something of a lightning rod for left wing fury and activism and I wonder if that in part also drew their attention away. On a lighter note Mr. Ottens I must say that I found the Gatehouse Gazette cover featuring President Lincoln with a Che hat on to be quite funny.



  • Ha! I didn't know if people still read those old issues.

  • For me steampunk was never about a political statement. Political reflection on the missteps made during the gilded age, but no statements or incitements beyond warning of what was could yet be again.

    For me it was always more about the tactile and what may have been as well as looking at why there was that wide eyed sense of adventure that seems to have died and maybe how we can get that back.

    Then again considering how my own personal situation has been? I've largely fallen out of step with EVERY community so my opinion is..... well. It's my own.

  • @Lazaras I broadly agree with this statement. For me, the idea that I have to adopt any political ideology in order to partake in discussions about 19th century aesthetics, fiction, science and modern creations derived from that is absurd.

    As an aside, does anyone know what happened to Steampunk Magazine? I remember hearing ages ago that they were going to put out a final issue in 2016 (I think) but then they just sort of faded off.

  • I'm afraid I know nothing more than you do. Someone must still be paying the hosting bill, though. The website is still up.

  • @Ottens I just visited the SPM website and you're right it's still up, but it seems to be in some kind of half alive state. None of the links to their about or downloads pages work any more. I wonder what happened. Ah well, another internet mystery!

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