Steampunk – Genre, Scene or Community?

We are all aware of some of the postulated origins of Steampunk. Whether we are looking at its roots in Victorian speculative fiction or the coining of the term by Jeter.  Of course this has sparked many debates but the fundamental point is that such discourse actually only serves to show where a person comes from into Steampunk rather than where Steampunk is currently, or where it is headed.


Of course the science fiction fans immediately plump for Genre.  It allows Steampunk to be categorised alongside other aspects of their reading and viewing. By accepting Steampunk as a style of science fiction it allows for its ready adoption and assimilation based purely on personal taste. Unfortunately this definition may also make it difficult for them to look outside the box occasionally to see some of the wider picture.


Social Steampunks are often drawn from the Goth and re-enactment worlds amongst others.  For them Steampunk is more of a Scene.  An excuse to get together and socialise, to dress unconventionally and to enjoy the company of like minded individuals.  This version of Steampunk has struggled a little in comparison to other “scenes” because it has not managed to find a defining musical style.  Of course the inherent creativity of Steampunk does make this difficult if not impossible. 


Genre and Scene are not mutually exclusive.  The science fiction aspects are attractive to members of the scene and the genre supporters are easily seduced by the social aspects.  In Steampunk we have a melding of two often exclusive worlds. (SF fans are often infamous for a lack of social skills and personal hygiene whilst some social scenes have been elitist and standoffish.)  In this combination together with an absolute myriad of other influences and input you have the beginnings of a real community.


Fortunately the Internet has enabled people to get to know one another across the world to share ideas, projects, highs and lows.  Fora such as Brass Goggles have become virtual communities in their own right with their own structures and hierarchies, flavours and aims.  At the same time the internet has allowed people to build relationships that have gone on to physical meetings and gatherings.  The virtual community has begun to transfer to the real world.


This last year has seen a blossoming in the real world.  Of course the old divisions immediately begin to raise their head here with Genre Steampunks immediately launching in with the latest book or movie and Scene Steampunks starting to talk bands etc.  I would postulate that these divisions should be simply accepted as part of the entertainments offered to the Community and not as defining the community.  In the real world (in the UK at least) we have scene dances, gigs, meetings, parties, art exhibitions, education projects, flash mobs and gatherings.  These have attracted notice from magazines, newspapers and other media raising the profile of what we are and what we do.  The establishment is standing up and taking note and whilst it may regard us as eccentric it is certainly accepting of who we are and what we choose to do.


Steampunk often has the obligatory “Mad Scientist”.  Well I suppose I am cast in the role of “Mad Social Scientist” since much of my time is spent on the social engineering of the Steampunk community culminating in the first ever UK National Convivial at the Asylum.  For the four hundred steampunks there it was one of those experiences that may change our view on life and has left us all hungry for a future full of steaminess.  For 48 or so amazing hours we were a single community interacting to our own rules and having a blast doing so.  Before the event I had talked about trying to gather enough Steampunks in one place where the atmosphere was conducive to creating a “critical mass of creativity”.  Well I hardly expected the steamy explosion that took place.  Because everyone attending was determined to enjoy themselves and determined to immerse themselves in the world of Steampunk a community was instantly born.


What are we trying to achieve with that community? First and foremost we want to be inclusive and welcoming. We want people to understand that all views and ideas are valid in the Steampunk world.  The Victorian aspects of it are simply the framework on which to hang whatever madcap creativity we wish to.  Rather than being prescriptive or prohibiting we see it as a world where imagination is the only limit and to celebrate the products of our imaginations.


Secondly we accept that contemporary society may be struggling a little in its interaction.  To counter this Steampunks are aware that good manners and polite conduct are essential to making people feel at their ease and valued.  Who could not enjoy spending time with a bunch of people who are impeccably dressed and perfectly polite?  This underpinning of social values instantly makes us non threatening and accessible and is indeed why we have been welcomed by wider society wherever we have gone en masse.  The Pseudo Victorian framework again comes up trumps.  It should be noted however that this does not prohibit the exploration of the seedier or less reputable aspects of behaviour and society for dramatic or literary effect but accepts that in the real world where real steampunks meet there is an expectation of polite conduct which is both refreshing and empowering.


Finally we are conscious of the aim to avoid the petty politics and squabbles which so often come to dominate social groupings etc.  We have set out from the very inception to discourage and reject any form of divisive unpleasantness.  By accepting that Steampunks are free to participate in events up and down the UK as they will we have used the Victorian market model to encourage facilitators rather than having clumsy management structures and hierarchies.  In this way power ultimately rests with the individual who can choose to attend if they wish.


Whilst some people reject the concept of Neo Victorians in relation to Steampunk I fear this is more a product of their own understanding of the concept rather than the reality of what we have in the UK.  We have taken the Victorian past as a framework, added to this the Victorian obsession with good manners and polite conduct and placed it all under a Victorian free market model. The Victorian informs and facilitates what we do but we are most definitely new.  This is a term we need to make our own rather than rejecting for what we may perceive it to represent.


So Genre, Scene or Community?  Steampunk is most definitely the former two but it is at its best when it represents the latter.  The Steampunk community is a great one to belong to and long may it prosper.


Major Thadeus Tinker (retd)  MVSS