San Diegoâ€™s Premiere Steampunk Convention Rises to the Occasion
I got home today to a host of boxes and packages â€“ one contained a batch of new corsets my girlfriend ordered for her Steampunk outfits. Another was apparently an early arrival for my birthday, which was supposed to be delayed on back order for a couple of weeks. She was more excited about it than I was, so she let me open it: a genuine Fizziwig brand Annihilator (Mk. II) rifle! I already had the Outlander Energy Capacitor Chambered Ion Disruptor (Mk. G) plasma pistol â€“ but this really completes my armory!
After 20 years in the local Goth scene here in San Diego, I began to notice some of my friends exploring a new (to me) subculture called â€œSteampunk.â€ My own firsthand experience was attending San Diegoâ€™s first Steampunk convention last year: The Gaslight Gathering Steampunk and Victoriana Convention. Although Steampunk tends to browns, brass and bowlers â€“ black is always in fashion and people had clearly adapted some of the Gothic attire to this alternate subculture. Old School Goth is rampant with Victorian/Edwardian styles for both men and women, and I was able to â€˜crossoverâ€™ quite effortlessly. It proved to be a delightful experience all around.
Now I absolutely love the whole Steampunk vibe â€“ the creativity is joyous fun. And it is easy to see why it is growing in popularity, especially here in Southern California. So I was quite excited to return to the second annual Gaslight Gathering, subtitled â€œThe Expedition,â€ with its theme of exploration and airship travel. Once again, the weekend was full of creative costuming, interesting accoutrements, and an energetic, almost circus-like, atmosphere.
As I enter the Conference area, I am immediately struck by the costumes. They are so elaborately interesting; I felt I had literally stepped into another world. I always feel that I am under-dressed at Steampunk events â€“ I have the basics, but I lack the details. Fortunately, there are no fashion police here looking down their Victorian noses at me. People are having too much fun and just seem happy to be here.
I attended a panel on Diesel Punk and then another on steam-driven Anime (SteamBoy being at the top of the list.) But I spent plenty of time at the exhibit hall, full of crafts and costumes. This is where the Makers come in â€“ a term used to describe anyone invested in the creative art of making jewelry, photon pistols, costumes, etc. The little top hats the ladies like to wear are called fascinators, I learned. Each day of the Gathering was filled with workshops to teach you how to make your own fascinators, prop guns, leather gear, ribbons, and on and on. This grass roots approach to creating your own cottage industry is quite appealing in this scene.
And, as expected, there was more here to explore than I could possibly capture. There were belly dancing demonstrations and the delicately beautiful Music box Mannequins. There was a Motherâ€™s Day Victorian Tea and a turn-of-the-century bathing costume competition. One entire room was set up as an explorerâ€™s base camp with mysterious artifacts and stories to tell about the deep, dark jungles of Central America. On Sunday morning, I participated in a session of Bartitsu, the art of Cane Fighting and self-defense, led by martial artist Tom Badillo. In the evenings, there was a Shadow Puppet/Magic Lantern display, a Victorian sÃ©ance, Dr. Charlieâ€™s Time Traveling Medicine Show, and the Airship Ambassadorâ€™s Ball. A particularly touching aspect of the conference was the insertion of a resident charity to support. The Gatheringâ€™s designated charity is â€œFreedom Dogsâ€, an organization which provides trained companion dogs to wounded soldiers trying to reintegrate into society.
Iâ€™ve been following youth subcultures for thirty years or more. All of them are borne out of a musical subgenre: glam metal, death metal, straight edge punk, grunge, goth, industrial, etc., etc. The uniqueness of the gothic music scene is that so many were fans of artists that had actually disbanded before their fans were even born! The uniqueness of Steampunk is that it is not a subculture built from the music at all â€“ but a subculture based on literature.
Steampunk fiction is an offshoot of the Alternative History genre â€“ the literature of â€œwhat ifs?â€ What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Abraham Lincoln had actually been a Vampire Hunter? In this case, what if steam had won out over the gas engine? What if the Hindenburg hadnâ€™t been a disaster and dirigibles were the primary mode of air travel? What if Tesla had created unhindered by Edisonâ€™s marketing machinations? What would our culture be like today?
Steampunk literature is actually scattered far and wide. Among the best introductions to this type of fiction are the compilations Steampunk (Vol. 1, 2008) and Steampunk Reloaded (Vol 2, 2010) (Ann & Jeff Vanermeer, eds.), both of which include very helpful articles on the culture of Steampunk. Jess Nevins, in his excellent introduction (Vol. 1), traces Steampunk stories to 19th-century dime novels full of steam-powered automatons in the Wild West! All of which pre-date the classics of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
For my tastes, the most delightful Goth/Steampunk crossover literature features the Parasol Protectorate novels of Gail Carriger, depicting a Victorian London full of prim and proper maidens, steam-powered contraptions, and vampires and werewolves properly integrated into society. Author Cherie Priest is immersed in the Steampunk lifestyle, making her work (such as Boneshaker and Dreadnought) more authentic. There is also a batch of bustle-bending romances, such as Katie MacAlisterâ€™s Steamed and compilations like Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance and Steamlust: Steampunk Erotic Romance.
The â€˜modernâ€™ age of Steampunk literature is usually attributed to K. W. Jeter. He coined the term in 1987 to describe his novels Moorlock Night (1979) (a sequel to H.G. Wellsâ€™ Time Machine) and Infernal Devices (1987). But it is probably more accurate to attribute this stage to a triumvirate which includes Jeter, Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock â€“ all of whom were mentored by the incomparable Philip K. Dick. Powers and Blaylock shared several panels at this yearâ€™s Gathering. Both authors were comfortable and enjoyable panelists who offered some delightful stories about Jeter and the early days of creating Steampunk stories. (They also gave a nod to William Gibson, known for his cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984), who also shaped early Steampunk literature with The Difference Engine (1990) written with Bruce Sterling).
While both authors have explored a variety of fiction styles, Blaylockâ€™s adventure into Steampunk resulted in the trilogy: The Digging Leviathan (1984), Homunculus (1986), and Lord Kelvinâ€™s Machine (1992). Powers is currently most notable for writing On Stranger Tides (1987), the novel that fueled the fourth film of the â€œPirates of the Caribbeanâ€ series. His contribution to the steampunk triumvirate was The Anubis Gates (1983). Both men proved to be well-spoken, humorous, and made themselves liberally available to the conference participants (something that no longer happens at ComiCon). When I asked Tim Powers about the future of steampunk literature, he indicated that while steampunk would never become an exclusive domain for his writing, he believed that he and Jeter and Blaylock opened a doorway in literature that would remain open for a long time to come.
Most of the youth subcultures Iâ€™ve been involved in grew out of a particular music style. Since Steampunk has grown more out of the literature, the process is being reversed: the music is growing out of the subculture. However, even here, it is the fashion statement that identifies Steampunk bands, rather than the style of music. Most aficionados consider Abney Park the premiere Steampunk band (The Steampunk Bible, Vandemeer, et al., eds., 2011) and their videos easily illustrate their defined Steampunk â€˜lookâ€™. Panic at the Discoâ€™s video â€œThe Ballad of Mona Lisaâ€ definitely uses a Steampunk theme, but they would not describe themselves as a Steampunk band.
The panel on the â€˜future of Steampunk musicâ€™ featured 6 String Samurai and the visually interesting Steam Powered Giraffe (both local bands). Jon Magnificent suggested that the distinctives of Steampunk music are the use of traditional Victorian scales, visual art styles in stage and video performances, and music that â€œsounds like an adventureâ€. â€œSteampunk comes from literature, so the music is more about eyes, than ears.â€
The panelist ultimately shied away from predictions about the future of the music. They didnâ€™t envision any distinct sound for this music style. I even suggested from the audience that there might be more use of traditional wind/steam instruments (i.e., the calliope or even the accordion) with less dependence on electronic instruments â€“ they were not too excited about this. They countered with the suggestion that we could expect more theatricality in Steampunk shows (Ã la , the early days of Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper). Steam Powered Giraffe already has some unique visuals and may well end up Steampunkâ€™s Blue Man Group. (I can see them in Vegas by the time they reach their mid-thirties). But I am hoping that the creativity wonâ€™t stop there. Like Blue Man Group, Steampunk has the potential inventiveness to develop a distinctive sound, through the creation of an entirely new approach and or invention of musical instruments. Without this, I doubt that Steampunk will ever be a musical movement to rival metal, punk, or even disco.
Was the Gathering a success? From the standpoint of energy, participation, and creativity, it had all the earmarks of being enjoyed by all the participants. But I wondered if the management was getting the kind of return on their investment to make it worth doing again, or whether this adventure would fade like another empty fad. I sat down with Colleen Kelly Burks who organized the event and felt reassured.
This event is really a grassroots effort, not a corporate-driven entity. There were 15 key people on the organizational committee and over 100 unpaid volunteers. While there were some unfortunate organizational glitches, as always with such undertakings, they went virtually unnoticed due to the sheer enthusiasm and volume of volunteer participation. They were able to share some marketing and promotional tie-ins with other festivals like ConDor and some literary conventions.
The fan base draws from a number of established subcultures and fan groups: Renaissance Faires, S.C.A, the local Costuming Guild, as well as the Gothic community â€“ so it has a broader base of interest than one style of movies or comics might have. In practical terms, this meant around 1,000 fans attended each of the two successive years. It also means, that next yearâ€™s convention, which has already been contracted, is likely to be equally successful.
Thereâ€™s an (already) old joke that Steampunk is just Goths in brown. There certainly is a Gothic crossover going on here â€“ or perhaps, overlap would be more accurate. I have many friends from the Goth scene here in San Diego that love Steampunking, too. But I think itâ€™s an oversimplification to suggest that Steampunk is simply Goth in disguise.
It would be a mistake to assume that Goths are abandoning their culture in droves to don Steampunk apparel. Most Goths I know may be experimenting with Steampunk paraphernalia, but are not giving up their Gothic roots or Gothic lifestyle. Steampunk is not merely drawing from the Gothic subculture, either. Many of the older Steampunkers seem to have drifted over from the Ren Faire and S.C.A. crowds. Many adults are coming into the scene with their whole families, children and all.
In fact, one of the most notable distinctions between Goth and Steampunk is the age range. Goth is primarily a youth subculture. After 30 years, there are a few more wrinkles and grey hairs visible in the clubs, but Gothâ€™s style is still being periodically reinvented by young people who are newly entering the scene â€“ the baby-bats, if you will. Steampunk has been a family affair from the beginning â€“ from little girls in their ball gowns to grandpa and his contraptions, this is a distinctively family friendly atmosphere.
The sense of creativity in Steampunk is broader here â€“ but not deeper. The Gothic community has always attracted the intelligent and the artistic: poets and song-writers (trying to emulate the poetry of Leonard Cohen, perhaps), stunning artists creating fantastic faeries and dragons, and creative craftswomen designing corsets and costumes. However, Steampunk has bred a veritable army of Makers who have delved into a myriad of crafts in a wide variety of materials: metal, polymers, glass, brass, and cloth; to say nothing of the authors, dancers, and musicians. It is not better art than the Gothic community, but it is the vastness of variety that is so amazing.
Ultimately, the atmosphere of the two scenes is profoundly different. I came into the Goth scene at a time when young people were deliberately cloaking themselves in costumes and makeup designed to intimidate. They often projected scary images of ugly fierceness, in an apparent attempt to ward off the abusive pain and evil of the world around them. They often isolated themselves from the rest of the world in an attempt to create their own havens of safety and comfort. And it worked. The Gothic underground was a mysterious, unknown area of American life for many years.
Steampunk is another world, altogether. It is that odd little village up the road that you always meant to visit, but are unsure of your reception. It turns out theyâ€™re quite friendly and rarely bite (with the exception of the occasional Steampunk vampire or werewolf.) There is an atmosphere of discovery and inventiveness, and you find yourself motivated to take that dirigible ride to see the world from a new vantage point. For my part, I am excited to explore the unknown and discover just what the next expedition might reveal.