Steampunk conference report, part II

Steampunk conference report, part II

[All pics by Gary Mattingly]

Another highlight of Steam Powered, the Steampunk Convention, was meeting Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, editors of the most excellent Steampunk Anthology. They gave a talk called “Steampunk: Inside and Out.” A few highlights:

Jeff shared with us his steampunk equation:

Mad scientist inventor + [invention (steam x airship or metal man divided by baroque stylings) x (pseudo)Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot = steampunk.

Artist John Coulthart even turned the equation into a gorgeous laser-etched Moleskine cover.


Ann, who’s also the editor of the venerable Weird Tales magazine, shared Stephen H. Segal’s “Five Thoughts On The Popularity Of Steampunk.” (Stephen is the editorial and creative director of Weird Tales.) To paraphrase Stephen and Ann via my notes:

1. Steampunk is romance that men can participate in. It’s gender neutral. Masculinized romance.

2. It’s an aesthetic response to “ergonomic” (sleek, user-friendly) science fiction being culturally mainstreamed. Who wants the secrets of the universe stored on a memory device the size of a grain of sand when you can imagine a colossal brain the size of an art deco skyscraper with input/output delivered on punch cards by scurrying clockwork file clerks?

3. It’s like goth, but without scaring your parents. Goths take vampires very seriously. Vampires are scary. Steampunks take pocket watches seriously. Nobody is scared of a pocket watch.

4. Bridges sub-genres. There really is no set steampunk style. It’s a mash-up of fantasy, horror, adventure, superheroics, speculative fiction, etc. As Jeff said: It’s a set of tools, not a coherent movement.

5. It’s a technological do-over. Mid-20th century sci-fi was largely Utopian, with an unwavering faith in science and technology. Late 20th century sci-fi got scarier, showing where science and technology could go wrong. We wanted Star Trek, we got Blade Runner. Steampunk lets us go back to a more innocent, enthused time, but with the wisdom of hindsight, and this time, we’re not leaving the cowlings on the hardware. We want to be under the hood, we want to get dirty with the future, not just experience it like a World of Tomorrow ride.

One of the other talks I really liked was “Engines of Empire,” a panel on Victorian science and technology, with Chris Garcia of the Computer Science Museum, Dan Sawyer, multimedia artist, producer and open source evangelist, and freelance scholar Mike Pershon. Mike’s PhD dissertation is on steampunk as an aesthetic. One (of many) interesting things he said concerned the origins of the word “punk,” as in junk wood, tinder to start fires, and how that has some utility in describing the “punk” part of “steampunk,” as in the making, remaking, hacking aspects of steampunk. And, of course, the word “hacking” itself has origins in woodworking and axe-hewn furniture, so there’s a fortuitous connection there.


Steam Powered also featured a Victorian sitting room in the center of the lobby, put together by the Steamworx crew: artists ans set designers Norm Barringer, Devin Gregory, and Scott (didn’t get his last name). The space was filled with the loveliest cabinet of wonders-type pieces, framed Zeppelin plans, and other cool curios, including the throbbing power source in the fireplace seen above. The place reeked of absinthe and antiquity.


Dr. Grordbort himself, Greg Broadmore, of Weta Workshops was there showing off his ray guns and other aetheric oscillators, including the new “Unnatural Selector” ray-blunderbus. Okay, you know how cool you think these things look in pictures? They are MUCH cooler in person! Here’s what went on inside my head as I saw them up-close, hefted them in my hands, and marveled at all the attention to detail and quality: “Wow, these are amazing. These are REALLY amazing! Holy crap, these are INSANE! Okay, quick, how can I figure out a way of spending $650 on one of these? I HAVE to have this!” (One caveat: the mini versions of the ray guns are *really* mini, much tinier than I imagined. If you want one of these pieces, save your lunch money and get a REAL ray gun — or as close as you’ll likely ever get).


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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