Steampunk Style and Substance
I had so many issues with this panel, I wrote like three pages of notes. And there are so many frowny faces in my notes, which is not a good sign.
I wasn't totally sure what this panel was going to be about in advance, the write up wasn't super clear to me. In the end it was kind of a definition of steampunk, though less a definition and more the sketching out of a vague shape, which was cool.
Someone on the panel clearly had issues with computer technology. I have lots of quotes in my notes that steampunk is all about the "beauty of machinery that looks like machinery" and that the point of steampunk is that it lets you play with machinery that never existed, which I would totally dispute (eta: err, that that is the point, not that it can let you play with it). It was also described as 'stuff you can control' (in contrast to computers), which, again, I totally disagree.
There was an attempt at era definition of other things, diesel punk at 30s-40s and atompunk at 50s.
The discussion was mostly very white, very Victorian England. It was suggested that steampunk captures a deeper sense of Victorian England's society, capturing the imagination (though somehow not the real culture). Someone described it as "goth with colour" which makes me hmmmm. And also again obviously very Euro-centric. Apparently a lot of steampunk machinery is impossible (which I would also dispute), and apparently airships are the dragons of steampunk.
Descriptions of what counts as steampunk really bothered me, and this is why I think Towards a Steampunk without Steam
by Amal el-Mohtar should be essential reading for anyone who is vaguely in to the whole steampunk thing. "Steampunkish" is often more steampunky than steampunk aesthetically, apparently, and when giving examples City of Ember
was cited, as "it isn't an alternate Victorian England but it still counts." Such a description is, in its way, why we move towards a steampunk without steam. An alternate Victorian England shouldn't be the measure by which we count all steampunk things, we shouldn't be able to say something like that! Steampunk is not just stuff that comes out of Victorian England alternative universes, though people in the comments of el-Mohtar's post do try to suggest that.
What makes something steampunk is apparently the fascination with the devices, which I do kind of agree with, but it's also apparently velvet and structured garments (which, no), and finding another era exciting. "The injustices were just that more unjust" is a description which was given which makes me want to draw frowny faces over everything, because I feel like it's this sort of attitude, this nostalgia for some sort of past period, which erases current issues. I would contend that this is also another type of othering.
Someone on the panel mentioned how it (steampunk I guess?) doesn't mention imperialism/colonialism/how it's western-oriented, and Jeremy (I know who said it because my notes say 'jeremy :(') suggests that it is a "lazy attack" to say that steampunk glorifies colonialism/imperialism, as "most stories explore that." I have SUCH ISSUES with this assertion; although our community of 'steampunkers who critique' is growing, I think that it is a tiny subset of the steampunking community. Most steampunk texts make very little effort at interrogating the glorification of colonialism and imperialism and the erasure of us non-Europeans, and perhaps now is a good time to mention Jha's brand new article at Age of Steam, on Steampunk Postcoloniality
, wherein people in the comments are totally doing some excellent erasing but Jha is totally awesome.
There was a little discussion of multiculturalism in steampunk, but when a panel spends most of its time talking about the aesthetics of Victorian England, I'm not really feeling convinced that multiculturalism is a big part, you know?
I suppose this is where we should be asking (in our panels at Swancon, and maybe at other Australian cons), is defining steampunk a sign that we're falling behind? Should we be looking at futurism or even something else?
Because I'm concious that this is all crit, here are some links on multiculturalism (and other things) in steampunk (you'll note how few they are):
and also my very favourite, Art by James Ng
, which I would suggest you cannot deny that is Chinese Steampunk and it is amazing.