Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Boston Book Festival: Steampunk

The first session Anna and I went to was Steampunk!  Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.  It was with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, editors of the Steampunk! anthology, Holly Black and Allison DeBlasio, who is Mrs. Grymm of Dr. Grymm Laboratories.  It was moderated by Maya Escobar, Teen Librarian at the Cambridge Public Library.  I was particular interested in this session because I was curious as to what the editors of the anthology had to say about steampunk.  The anthology was so all over the place, I wanted to know if there had been any criteria for the writers.

Kelly explained that they wanted to throw the term "steampunk" out to the authors and see who they would interpret it.  So that explains that.  They chose what authors they wanted to write for them and they said, "write a steampunk short story."  It was totally up to the writer to define steampunk.  Kelly said that, "no one is sure how to define steampunk," and that it was still a question without a defined answer.  She said characteristics of it were strongly character driven narratives, and that they provoke a sense of wonder.  They can be romance, mystery, horror, anything at all.

I don't disagree with the fact that steampunk can be romance, mystery or whatever.  Or that it's strongly character driven or that it should provoke a sense of wonder.  I do disagree, however, that no one knows how to define steampunk.  I respect people who push the boundaries of a genre, but at some point, it's pushed so far that it isn't in that genre any more.  A genre has particular characteristics, and if something doesn't have those characteristics then it isn't in that genre.  Gavin actually said at one point that what was so great about steampunk was that you can slap some gears on almost anything and it's steampunk.  I don't think so.  You can't just throw in an airship and put a pair of goggles on something and say it's steampunk just because it's popular at the moment.

Holly Black talked about how she first came to steampunk.  She was first introduced to it online, and it appears to her as semi-Victorian DIY.  Her story (which was one of my favorites) was a Regency story with automatons.  It was also one of the few in the book at the felt really steampunky to me.

Allison talked about Dr. Grymm Laboratories, which creates visual art.  There's currently an exhibit at the Mark Twain House which sounds really cool.  Allison thinks of steampunk as "come see a time that never happen."  I think that's a good way to think of it.

I tried to ask a question, but I don't have a good track record for getting questions answered at steampunk seminars, and this didn't really go any better.  I was trying to figure out if there's any point when it stops being steampunk, since it seemed like Kelly and Gavin were saying steampunk can be anything which...sort of defeats the purpose of it being its own genre.  Why not just call it science fiction then, that covers everything.  Kelly said they didn't want everything to be the same, they didn't just want a bunch of Victorian romances.

OK, a lot of steampunk is Victorian because 1. industrial revolution and 2. that's when steampunk was first starting to be written (because of point 1).  All the speakers kept saying how steampunk was so new we don't know where it was going.  Newly popular, maybe, but not new.  Anyway, it's certainly expanded from when it's first appeared, but it still has basic elements.  At its center, I think steampunk is alternate history with advanced, steam-based technology.  Do whatever you want with it, set it in any time in the past, make it horror or mystery or romance, but that has to be at its core.  Anyway, that's what I think.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.  Kelly and I did not see eye-to-eye and she actually seemed kind of annoyed.

Ah well.  It was still interesting.  Also, Holly Black is awesome.


  1. Gavin actually said at one point that what was so great about steampunk was that you can slap some gears on almost anything and it's steampunk. I don't think so.

    THANK YOU! I've been saying this forever and people look at me like I'm crazy. There's more to steampunk lit than just fashion accessories! It disappoints me that these authors didn't seem to know the history regarding the genre they were talking about. It doesn't bode well for the future of steampunk as a sub-genre of science fiction.

    I've been wanting to read the Steampunk anthology you mentioned. It'll be good to know that it's a bit hit or miss going into it.

    Working for the Mandroid

  2. It was a bit hit or miss, but there were some really good stories as well. Let me know what you think of the M.T. Anderson one.


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