[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?

44 thoughts on “[conventions] Why steampunk cons can be confusing for genre authors

  1. The first group of costumers I recall being in costume all the time were the Logan’s Runners back when dinosaurs roamed hotel hallways. They may have had a larger impact on my consciousness than their actual numbers warranted, because: 1) They RAN everywhere, in groups; 2) They upset hotel management; and 3) they were really annoying to old (even when I was young) fuddie-duds like me.

    Steampunkers are kinda cool, though, even if the literary genre is starting to go stale on me.

  2. Definitely agree with you on this. I tend to gravitate toward steampunk because a) I like dressing up. b) I like making stuff. c) I like looking at all of the cool things and trying to figure out where the bits and pieces came from; I could go several more letters, but won’t. I tend to not worry too much about the back story, myself, but I think I’m in the minority here. In fact, I think I go against the grain, because I’m always saying things like, “Oh, that’s a glow stick.” To which I get responses like, “Glow stick? I know not of what you speak, my good man, This is the chemical energy source of my Transmografication Machine.” Situations like this, I think I need to find the proper Victorian phase to say, Bite me, dude.

  3. Diana Vick says:

    I think you have definitely spotted an important difference. Steampunk convention tend to be more participatory in many ways. Working on Steamcon, we thought that a science fiction convention model would work well, but might need to be tweaked a bit. The attendees just keep surprising us with how much THEY want to tell the stories and be involved. It’s a paradigm shift that I think makes these cons so much more fun for all involved.

  4. Joe G says:

    Steampunk exists in this weird hybrid space in fandom. Although its literary roots are old and long established, it really had only the smallest of niche appeals until about a decade ago, when it started blossoming into its own subculture.

    Just over a decade ago, there was a preponderance of steampunk in manga and anime: Steamboy, Steam Detectives, Sakura Wars, etc. (The Foglios’ Girl Genius started around this time too, so it probably also deserves some credit.) My theory is, once given a visual representation, a number of people across fandom saw steampunk for the first time and realized it was something that appealed to them. Along with the otaku were the Ren Faire/SCA crowd, who saw another historical costuming opportunity, aging goths who’d embraced neo-Victorian sensibilities a decade or two before, the maker community who liked the DIY ethic, and more serious historical recreationists.

  5. Steve Frankel says:

    I just got back from Nova Albion and Gaslight Gathering and will be hitting Baycon later this month. I basically agree with Jay’s comments. In my experience Steam punk cons end up being much more about shopping, talking with friends and viewing exhibits. SciFi/fantasy coins are more about attending panels. I costume for both, but would feel out of place without a costume at steam punk con and less pressure at other cons. Demographically I am an old fart who enjoys both cultjfrd.

  6. Jason Block says:

    People who read books for fun are, and always have been, mostly older – and fewer in number.

  7. Monsieur Jay touched upon a number of points that I cover in the panel that I originated at Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo in 2012, and which I’ve been presenting at other cons around the country entitled “Steampunk as a SUPERculture: Symbiosis Between Various Subcultures & Fandoms”.

    Steampunk is indeed evolving into its own, and is much more participatory than other genres for many reasons. There will be growing pains and naysayers aplenty, but when the worst is over, I believe that steampunk will be a model that other genres might follow in order to revitalize and attract more diverse participants.

  8. Lady Panda says:

    I think there are 2 reasons why you don’t see cons with large number of literary guests. First, most steampunks will agree that what fundamentally inspired the genre was turn of the century literature. Most of those authors are dead. Second reason, no modern authors of the genre are too ‘new’ to be large in number or exceptionally well known. We make up our own stories because there is not a large selection of pre determined characters from games and comics….yet.

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