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[conventions] Why steampunk cons can be confusing for genre authors

I had an excellent time at Gaslight Gathering this past weekend. This is the fourth different steampunk con I’ve attended (speaking off the top of my head), the others being GEAR Con in Portland, Steamcon in Seattle, and the now-defunct World Steam Expo in Dearborn, MI. I’ve noticed some things about steampunk cons that make them rather different from print-oriented fantasy and science fiction conventions, and in many ways more similar to anime and comic conventions. These differences can confuse authors.

Fundamentally, so far my experience of steampunk conventions is that they are not book-oriented at all. For example, at World Steam Expo, Gail Carriger and I were the only two out of town pro author guests in attendance, with something over 2,000 fan there. Here at Gaslight Gathering, I believe I was the only out of town pro author guest. (In point of fact, I was Guest of Honor.) People are here for a wide variety of experiences. Print publishing is basically a grace note for the steampunk fandom I’ve encountered. As Kevin Hull said in a discussion here at Gaslight Gathering, “Steampunk conventions are costume-driven.” Costumes, yes, and I’ll add art, maker culture, re-enactments, and music to that list.

But steampunk cons are very much about story, about narrative. 80-90% of the people you see are in costume. The tradition of hall costumes at SF and fantasy cons is relatively minor these days, but they are nearly de rigueur in the world of steampunk. And unlike the prevalence of cosplay and tribute costumes in the SF, fantasy, anime and comic worlds, steampunk costumes are mostly original work. Almost very one of those people in costume has a story and and character to go along with their creations. Most of them will be happy to explain in great detail, in character, what they are wearing, how it works, and why.

Like I said, very much about story, about narrative. Just not story and narrative the way a book dinosaur like me thinks of it as being packaged and delivered. In effect, the flow of primary creative endeavor is reversed, the fans becoming the creators. This significantly displaces the role of the author.

Hence the confusion. Because superficially, steampunk cons resemble SF and fantasy cons. They are run by many of the same people. They have the infrastructure of programming, the dealer room, registration, con ops, and so forth. Everyone’s wandering around wearing badges, most of them with ribbons. It all looks very familiar.

And it’s all very different.

The other observation I’ll make is that steampunk cons, along with comic cons and anime cons, is where most of young fandom has gone. Hanging around any of these conventions, I see the average age of the attendees is easily two decades younger than the average age at Worldcon, World Fantasy or most other SF and fantasy cons. The kids and young adults are getting their creative buzz on in different way than they were several decades ago.

What does this all mean? Heck if I know. I think it does bode well for the future of steampunk as a cultural element. And these conventions are a lot of fun. But what’s going on under the hood is different in some fascinating ways that I believe SF and fantasy authors need to take careful note of and spend time thinking about.

What do you think? Have you experienced the wild, whacky world of steampunk differently? Am I misunderstanding the source and direction of primary creativity in these contexts?

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