Alex Garner Bioshock Art

Making Steampunk Cool(er): Part One – Beyond Popularity Contests

Alex Garner Bioshock Art

Judging from all those skyscrapers this image clearly comes from an era too late to be Steampunk, so it has no place in the community. Right? Of course not – but if we listened to the folks who want to rigidly define Steampunk we’d have to exclude this, and lots of other wonderful bits of culture. The only thing we get by limiting Steampunk is the exclusion of lots of stuff that’s awesome. (

I’m worried about Steampunk.

Over the last few years I’ve watched Steampunk conventions grow and proliferate like fungi and Steampunk become a word that is greeted with nods of understanding rather than blank stares. But I worry that these signs of external good health obscure a potentially fatal, or at least disfiguring, disease.

I’m worried that Steampunk is becoming “uncool” – both for structural reasons and, more ominously, by the willful choices of many of its self-described adherents. I realize that this is an inflammatory statement – but before you stoke your outrage, allow me to explain and also bear in mind that I’m not some outsider ragging on all the Steampunk dorks – I am very much one of those dorks and I love this community and this culture. My arguments are based on a desire to help Steampunk, not to belittle it or its membership. Though I help moderate Steampunk Facebook, these are my own opinions. I present them as a starting point for discussion, not as a normative manifesto. My hope is to provoke discussion and synthesis – so it doesn’t really matter whether you agree with me or not. I want us to think about the future of Steampunk and about how we all can better shape it into the best community it can be.

Central to my concern is my own definition of “cool.” I absolutely do not mean “popular.” I mean rather that ineffable set of characteristics that makes you look at someone and think, “Wow, I wish that I had thought of that. I love how that person looks and acts,” and, more importantly, “I’d really like to be that person’s friend, and I hope they say hello to me.” Despite decades of market research, there is no concrete guide to what is and is not “cool,” but it’s nothing so simple as pretty, stylish, or haughty. For me, the characteristics that have distinguished the coolest people I have known are their inclusiveness, their open-mindedness, their dynamic creativity, and their embrace of non-hierarchical power structures. When I say that I am worried about Steampunk becoming uncool – I mean that I am worried about it becoming exclusive, close-minded, Procrustean, and obsessed with hierarchy and celebrity. If you prefer a different word to mean those things, then by all means substitute it.

This wonderfully improbable fellow also wouldn’t fit the bill of the people who get outraged when Steampunk fantasies couldn’t function. The road of exclusion ultimately leads to someplace boring. (

To be fair, I don’t see this as a problem unique to Steampunk. It seems to me to be a problem with “Geek Culture” in general. In an age where comic book characters dominate the silver screen and where everyone plays video games, the notion that Geek Culture is somehow distinct from the mainstream seems spurious – at least with respect to content; but, there is a character to Geek Culture which does distinguish it. Namely, its membership WANTS to be distinct. More importantly, while I don’t want to indulge in too much armchair psychology, its members seems to want to be better than mainstream culture and to possess some special set of knowledge and experience that sets them both apart from and above the community of “normals.” Again, in an era where frat boys have nipple rings and grandmothers have neck tattoos I don’t really know what “normal” or “mainstream” mean, but the people who like to refer to the uninitiated as “muggles” seem to have an idea.

I hate this aspect of Geek Culture. I didn’t like the popular clique in high school. I wasn’t a football player and I wasn’t fond of the kids who made me feel like I was a loser because I got good grades and knew what a D20 was. But it never seemed to me that the solution was to craft my own culture in which I got to be just like them and make other people feel like they weren’t as good as me. I understand that temptation – absolutely, I understand it – I just never believed that I could be happy knowing that I was living in a space that made anyone feel the way that I had. When I look around at Steampunks acting like they are better than non-Steampunks, or other Steampunks; or Steampunks insisting on cultural definitions that exclude others and elevate themselves . . . and I sadly see it a lot . . . well, that’s what I mean by “uncool.”

From a more practical perspective, it drives me crazy when I encounter people insisting that this or that can’t be Steampunk because of some arbitrary definition. Only these four crappy bands are Steampunk. Only these five mediocre movies. Only these three derivative novels. You’re not Steampunk if you dress like a goth. The gears on your outfit have to do something. Dr. Who isn’t Steampunk. Nothing after the invention of the internal combustion engine is Steampunk. Steampunk has to be political. Steampunk can’t be political. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Generally people are slightly more circumspect about saying crap like that in public (slightly), but if you’ve spent any time in any online Steampunk community you know what I’m talking about. The result is a sense that Steampunk needs to have as robust as rule set as a role-playing game, and that if you aren’t following a canonical script as elaborate as a Star Trek wiki you’re somehow “doing it wrong.”

This is ridiculous. I’ve heard the arguments – if we fail to come up with a definition for Steampunk and just let anyone do anything and call it Steampunk then our community will become “diluted” and “unrecognizable.” Pretty soon cats will be sleeping with dogs and just anyone will be a Steampunk, and unscrupulous Etsy sellers will be tarnishing our good name selling little bits of crap with gears glued to them. I don’t buy any of that for one second. People are going to continue to do creative things that interest them no matter what (and horrible things to make a buck) – the question is whether we as Steampunks want to embrace and welcome such creativity – even if if doesn’t look exactly like what we’ve grown accustomed to – or whether we want to put ourselves in a little box with a small amount of identical stuff and ensure that all the interesting new things happen outside that box.

While I understand the taxonomic impulse behind the need to split Steampunk and Cyberpunk – this isn’t an Olympic sport. We’re all doing this for fun – and when I see things like these incredible wings I want to make sure that people creating similar objects know that they belongs in the Steampunk community. (

I, for one, don’t want Steampunk to be in a box. I don’t want it to be so obsessed with defining itself that it succeeds in defining itself into irrelevance. I want it to welcome other anachronists (Rockabillies, re-enactors, and renfaire kids leap to mind but that’s certainly not an exhaustive list) and to embrace contemporary cultures and those looking to the future as well (cyberpunks, makers, goths, and good old fashioned punks – even, gasp, those hipsters with vests and mustaches that, despite their skinny jeans, look an awful lot like Steampunks to me). It’s true that in a bigger house we all have a smaller piece of the pie. It’s also true that people like me with a voice in shaping the community are less important. But I’m okay with that – I’d rather be nobody in an awesome pool than the king of a boring mudpuddle.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be presenting a series of articles on aspects of Steampunk – music, fashion, etc. – that I believe are at risk of becoming stagnant and some ways that I think we could make them more dynamic and inclusive. But I’m just one man and there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of Steampunks out there. Ultimately our culture is only as “cool” as we are, so let’s continue to set examples that make people WANT to embrace Steampunk.

28 Responses to “Making Steampunk Cool(er): Part One – Beyond Popularity Contests”
  1. SKG says:

    Actually, sky scrapers are Victorian, at least at those heights. There were at least 4 buildings in the 1890′s over 300 feet. (Wikipedia, history of the tallest building.)

    Even in Edinburgh and Glasgow around 1900, lots of 5 and 6 story buildings (

    Not much artistic exaggeration there. :-)

  2. Katie says:

    I never understood the need to ‘class’ things differently, Cyberpunk, Deiselpunk ect. Itsnt it all Steampunk anyway? Why does one outfit/song/book have to be a “new” form of punk?

    • David says:

      Katie, I think in the sense that James is referring to the classification of the “punks”. then yes, you are right, there is nothing to be gained by dividing them up; or rather by being exclusive, and deciding that some things are cool and that some things are not. As James correctly says, that road leads to boredom and sterility.

      However, I would add one caveat; that it would be a good thing for writers and other creators to have a good sense of the difference between steampunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk, mythpunk, etc etc… so that they have a good handle on what they are doing artistically, and can apply focus and discrimination when and where it is needed. So, parasol punk and Gail Carriger need each other, as do mythpunk and Catherynne Valente, and the relationship is made useful to the rest of us because those writers know their craft and their subject matter so intimately.

      James, I agree with your analysis. The way forward – and it will happen, regardless of the carping of any ‘purists’ – is to be found in inclusiveness and a broad acceptance of the creations of anyone who cares and dares to create. The steampunk rooster would agree with this, I am sure.

  3. katz says:

    The effect your describing is one I call you “The gaslight moment” When the first gaslights were installed in homes only one class of folks had them and when others got them the original gaslight owners want ed some thing more. It has happened with all forms of (formerly reserved for the uncool) forms of entertainment. Comics, gaming, cos play, tatoos, you name it and the cool kids have tried to embrace it! . But like the gaslight moment they want more of the same but want to change it enough so its exclusive and makes people remember how cool they are.

  4. kelvin says:

    is not steampunk the victorians perseption of what the future might be so why no skyscrapers?

  5. Amy says:

    Fantastic article. Can’t wait to read the rest.

  6. Baroness Violet von Mickelsburg says:

    Great piece. I agree quite a bit.

    I will say that you’re wrong about the skyscrapers in that picture. The word skyscraper was first used about buildings in Chicago in the 1880s. 15-20 stories was the range of them, I believe, and they just went from there.

  7. Lisa Schobert says:

    James, first and foremost – I’ve met you and you are cool and I want to be your friend. Why? Exactly for the reasons that you have delineated here – your personal style is not “branded” or limited or constricted by a arbitrarily decided set of norms that an elitist class has decided is “real.” You embrace the “steam” and the “punk” (why do so many people forget the punk?) And when we met you were friendly and engaging and welcoming to a couple of newbies at a convention.

    These are the elements that originally attracted me, and continue to attract me, to the Steampunk community. The creativity, the delight in other’s creativity, the friendliness, the people of all types. No, not all the various aspects of Steampunk may be my cup of Earl Grey, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a place in the greater community. Just because Steampunk glories in much of the elegance and wonder of the Victorian Era doesn’t mean that we need to go back to that era for our elitist attitudes and prejudices. Elitism and derision – definitely not cool. THAT is what is “definitely not Steampunk”

  8. WNed says:

    Why, then, Steampunk at all?
    Why not CulturePunk, or some more nondescript name?

    • Lisa Schobert says:

      WNed – just using the term “Culture” implies that some people have it, and some people don’t. I would propose that “Culture” would unfortunately be one of the most elitist terms out there due to it’s common use in the vernacular, even if you meant it as “cultural.”

      A different more generalised term might be more accurate, but I think we are stuck with what we’ve got. Face it, people like to make lots of little boxes with labels and then try to fit everything into them.

  9. Peter says:

    On one hand you have that instinctive drive to tribalise and categorise which is all about status and so on. On the other hand you have the philosophical desire to create, and to recognise that creativity in others, a position I hold. The other feature which I associate with Steampunk, apart from style is quality. To me Steampunk is also looking to take the best from the industrial past, and reform it to a more modern aesthetic.

  10. Lloyd says:

    Terms like CyberPunk, and SteamPunk were coined by people trying to describe a style of
    Science Fiction. The Term “CyberPunk” originated in the ’80s to describe SciFi with a more
    computers / information lean than traditional scifi robots, rockets, and spaceships. Steampunk
    was (at the time) considered a blend of contemporary SciFi & Jules Vern themes. One of the
    definitive SteamPunk titles “The Difference Engine” was co-written by authors known for their
    CyberPunk novels: William Gibson, and, Bruce Sterling. In the second Wiki link below,
    Steampunk is listed as a deriviative of Cyberpunk.

    In short, these names came about to describe ‘flavors’ of SciFi.
    So, I agree with this article, in that as soon as something gets a label, that label
    quickly gets obsolete.
    For example, if you were to poll anyone about a tune you’ve heard- you may get differing
    opinions on how “rock” it was or “rap” or any number of lables (some invented daily)
    “Trip-hop-step-dub-retro-rock” 8)

    So, the catch-all would be “SciFi / Fantasy” or even (gasp) just “Fiction”.
    All Scifi basically asks is: “What If?”
    Last time I checked, “What If?” is pretty much everything.
    My two cents.

    Oh hey, some Wiki Articles- Take ‘em, Leave ‘em, -your call.

  11. Amalia Zeichnerin says:

    Thanks for this article. I completely agree with your opinions and wish there were more people with such an open-minded attitude in the Steampunk community (or how ever one wants to call it).

  12. Sinclare says:

    Hi folks, here are my 2cents:
    1. Steampunk is a subgenre (along with Tech-punks from clock to cyber) of Sci-Fi
    2. Sci-Fi is about (future) visions of science, embedded in any way of art (novels, paintings, movies, sculptures, clothing, etc.).
    3. Sci-Fi has its main questions (what will be the humanity in the future, how will it be, social, ethical, psychological problems in a technicised inhumane world, etc.)
    4.While there are superficial scenes of Sci-Fi (trekie meetings, cosplay, yellow back books/movies, etc.), there are the hard core parts too (we can name lot of artists and directors, who made, make and will make hard core sci-fi novels, movies, drawings, etc).
    5. The Sci-Fi is NOT restricted to a narrow path. Take some movies for example. Almost all Star Trek series are soap operas, Deep Space 9 is about religions and ethics, Stargate series is a contemporary sci-fi soap opera, while Solaris, Space Odysseys, Dark City or the Matrix (mostly the first movie) are HC sci-fi movies. All of them are sci-fi movies (or tv series with movies), and all of them have the right to be labeled as Sci-Fi.

    So what’s about steampunk?

    The main problem is that steampunk became heavily based on visuality, and in several cases dropped the science from the sci-fi.

    Shall every steampunk stuff really working? Of course not. We saw tablet PCs in the 2001 Space Odyssey while the normal PCs were nowhere back in 1968. But the real sci-fi gadgets have to have got meaning and the potential to became working somehow. An exoskeletical body armor powered by steam engine, or giant walking wrought iron spider automatons are out. Same like robots with MI based on a babbage-computer. These could look cool in yellow back novels and B cat. movies, but, well, it will be a yellow back steampunk. Are you satisfied with it? Okay, no problem, it’s up to you.

    But than you shall not expect, that the world would accept steampunk as real sci-fi (subgenre). And would not shall wonder, that most people will see steampunk as a transient whim, as a playground for bored geeks.

    What shall we do?

    We should prove, that steampunk IS a sci-fi subgenre. That’s all. It wouldn’t be a short walk in the alley, but a struggle, to emerge from cosplays’ world, while we support the cosplayers! We shall not turn against each other, but support ourselves.

  13. CW says:

    Really? REALLY?! You elitist hipster twit. The BEAUTY of steam-punk is that IT WON’T LAST. It will endear it’s feeling, then dissipate. Much the way Firefly did. Get over it, Steam-punk has been capitalized on by mass-media… which means it’s days are in fact numbered.

  14. Carlos McDaniel says:

    A-FREAKIN-MEN!!! My own Steampunk autonomous collective has it’s unofficial motto, “we’re not period, we’re exclamation point!” I grow so tired of hearing Steampunks decry that some aspect is too late, or too early or too to be part of a narrow Neo-Victorian Futurist parlor game. Steampunk is not just a genre of literature, film, and music: Steampunk is a lifestyle and a mindset. One can pursue it as a dabbler, a devotee’ or an evangelist. There is room in the Steampunk fold for ALL aspects and offshoots. Multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-disciplinary mindsets are bringing new life into the genre all the time.

    The beauty of Steampunk, CW, is not that “it won’t last,” but that it won’t remain static. It will continue to grow and prosper as long as people are unafraid to explore the question, “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Besides, as art, Firefly has not dissipated; it has become part of the cultural lexicon. One TV network’s poor decision ended a series, but the artwork itself lives on.

    As for mass-market and mass-media co-opting Steampunk and bleeding it dry, they co-opted rock and roll a long time ago, and even though some insipid stuff has come out recently; music, through indy publishing, reverbnation and other such sites are bringing a renaissance to ALL genres of music. As long as we maintain our enjoyment of all things Steampunk, it will grow and thrive.

    If someone shows up at one of my events wearing a Prada Steampunk overcoat, I will smile and introduce myself, welcome them and give them some pointers on how to accessorize. Remember, we do this for FUN, not for historical authenticity or to establish a “right” way to do Steampunk.

    • WNed says:

      James, you’re an anarchist, and that’s cool. What I see, though, is someone who works to be a deacon in an Anglican church, then becomes disillusioned when he realizes the church is not Unitarian.

      Just erased a bunch of high-minded blah-blah-blah. Short version: I think that ,deep down inside, you are looking for the Terry Gilliam-esque society, which I have just now started, called the Dreampunk movement. Please join it.

      • diane says:

        Why can’t we all get along, no matter what costuming genre we love, even if it is more than one? It’s for fun, right? My point here is: SCA has driven people away because of all of its clothing, armor, etc. rules. Western Reenactors, Living History and Civil War groups have done the same thing. Why does having fun mean there has to be so many rules? Please understand that I am not dissing any of the above groups – so don’t get butt hurt if you participate in one of those groups – some of us truly just want to have fun with our hobbies – it’s not a job!

        • Sinclare says:

          Cause freedom based on rules and regulation. Is it forbidden to you to go out to the next meadow with your friends, all clothed in jogging suit and PJs, and with broomsticks replay the battle of Waterloo, based on an A5 sized leaflet? Nope. You can do that anytime. But if there are people, who like to replay the Waterloo battle in authentic uniforms with authentic guns and by the detailed script of the real battle, you can NOT blame them, that they do NOT want to have anachronistic people running around there in jogging suit with broomsticks in their hand while know nothing about the battle of Waterloo.

          You ask for where is the fun. There. For hundreds of people (or tenthousands around the world) the fun is the most accurate revivification of currents. See? It’s fun – for them.

          If you don’t like it, you can do your own fun, where you draw the rules. Or won’t draw any rules. It’s your decision. But you shall not ruin others’ fun, just because their rules are not acceptable for you.

      • Carlos McDaniel says:

        DREAMPUNK????? I like it! Terry Gilliam always ends up in a dark place for some reason,though. WNed, please feel free to visit my aforementioned “autonomous collective” on facebook. I believe we have room for Dreampunk in our midst. We are the Red River Regional Steampunk Expeditionary Society and we welcome your visit. I like the way you think. At least I THINK I like the way you think. I think I like the way you express what I think you think (I think). Therefor I am going to look forward to hearing more about Dreampunk!

        • WNed says:

          I’ll be creating the Dreampunk FaceBook page in the morning! I agree about the Gilliam Cloud. Hopefully we can realize a less dysfunctional dream.
          For my own part, I’m really quite pleased with my own ability to articulate, in their own words, what others are thinking inside my head, and I thank you, most humbly–OK, there’s a touch of arrogance, but nothing unstylish–for your pleasantly unexpected invitation!
          A pleasure not meeting you, sir, by which, of course, I mean, cyber-meeting!

        • WNed says:

          Thanks, Carlos, you have provided the key to the Dreampunk tagline: “What if Terry Gilliam made a movie with a happy ending?”
          There is now a Dreampunk Facebook page and group. They’re brand-new, so they kinda suck right now. If you know of anyone who would like to join and contribute art, stories or whatever, I could sure use some window-dressing! Peace! … or war, whichever is most fulfilling to you.

          • Carlos McDaniel says:

            At the risk of seeming to hijack coxcomb’s thread here, I believe that Steampunk (inclusive of ALL the various subgenres) is here to stay and I agree that exclusivity is the path that leads to dissipation. Culture itself is a malleable thing that is shaped by many influences. The very things that make Steampunk so fascinating are the things that threatened to tear Victorian society apart. The same culture that was obsessed with manners and propriety also gave birth to bomb-throwing anarchists. Skilled craftsmen lovingly fashioned massive machinery that put other skilled craftsmen out of work, clever children were sent into the bowels of these machines to do maintenance because they were smaller than adults and (sadly) viewed as expendable. Society was undergoing massive upheaval in the era, and I daresay the same dynamic tensions exist today. The economy many of us grew up with has ceased to exist, class warfare has again reared its ugly head. The way the “Victorian Futurists” sought literary and eventually practical escape is appealing to us today.

            More importantly, The Steampunk movement has given a shot in the arm to the “maker culture;” Steampunks count it a point of pride when they create their own costuming or equipment, creatively scrounge and repurpose something commercial, or combine bits and pieces in a new and creative manner. It was asked earlier in the words of the recently deceased Rodney King,”Can’t we just all get along?” I say we can, and if we can’t… the sturm und drang of discourse and disagreement that take us from thesis to antithesis to synthesis.

            We may not recognize what we become untill we look back at where we came from, but that is the joy of the journey: our destination is merely the next point of departure.

  15. Gabrielle Riel says:

    Thank you.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I have been dealing with “elitist Steampunks/Dieselpunks/geeks” for years. I agree with many of your points, and I feel your pain. *Believe* me, I feel it.

    I do what I do under the umbrella of “Steampunk” simply because I am passionate about it. I truly do not care if someone rips me apart for not meeting their definition of Steampunk. Or Dieselpunk. Or whatever else. They can go on their merry way while I have an absolutely joyous time doing what I do and while I invite everyone else to come along on the ride with me.

    Also…life is change. Period. No matter how hard people try, they will never be able to define something in static terms in a constantly changing Universe.

    Thank you! Let’s do lunch! I am in Michigan! :-)

  16. Drivbeythinker says:

    “On one hand you have that instinctive drive to tribalise and categorise which is all about status and so on. On the other hand you have the philosophical desire to create, and to recognise that creativity in others, a position I hold. The other feature which I associate with Steampunk, apart from style is quality. To me Steampunk is also looking to take the best from the industrial past, and reform it to a more modern aesthetic.”

    I absolutely love this comment. I think it’s really good embidiment of what Steampunk, or any historical creative project is and should be.

    James, While I agree with some of your points, I do disagree with others. Yes, I believe that it’s lame when someone spray paints plastic to look metal instead of finding a suitable metal piece. Or just gluing a gear to a top hat and calling it Steampunk.

    Sometimes you have to define something in order to maintain it. Geek Culture was started by the Geeks, just because someone goes to see The Avengers doesn’t mean they’re a part of Geek Culture. It means they’re a hanger-on. Because a good chunk of the people who play the videos games, who go see the movies, are the same ones that mock the Geek kids for dressing p for Spiderman. For playing Magic and D+D or collecting the comic books.

    Defining Steampunk, for myself anyway, is a means to deliniate it from its maninstream use. To be able to see who the true lovers of the artform are and who are simply there to say they went; The people that can sing the lyrics of Emilie Autumn, know who GD Faulkner is, and want to build their own versions of things that could have been but never were in the Victorian age. People who can tell you that Morlocks were hairy, that Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde was more than just a colloqualism for someone with dicotomous behavior patterns and are fascinated by things brass and shiny and what they can do with them.

    Not these peopel that think, “Oh I saw this stuff in a Justin Beiber video. OMG I’m so cool because I have a leather vest on and a gear painted on my face!”

    I’m not an elistist by any means, but I recognize real effort and a slap dashed attempt to be a joiner at any cost.

    I’ve been a fan of Anime for years, I went as Agent Paper from Read or Die the Movie, and I worked for HOURS on my costume. Analyzing screenshots and the video so I could get it right. Then I went to Anime Expo and saw people in black skirts that were pleated all the way around and tan jean vests. ROD was really popular the year I went, which I wasn’t aware of. And because it was popular people that knew OF the Anime and knew it was popular went dressed as the character to be “in.” I went as Yomiko because I think she’s adoreable and can relate to her love of books. (And really, how cool is it to be able to make paper do ANYTHING you want it to?)

    The creativity of Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Clockpunk, Diesel Punk, etc, it’s phenominal and there are SO many things I would love to be able to do and I can appreciate people of any skill as long as there is genuine effort and quite frankly, that their motives are pure. I can accept that, but if you join Steampunk simply to be in on the culture, to be popular, I will look down on you and I will call you on it.

  17. Tom90deg says:

    Thank you! I’ve been saying this for ever, back when Disney came out with those AWESOME steampunk Mickey pins. I loved em, loved how they looked, thought they were really cool. But my GOD you should’ve heard the people going off. This is the end of steampunk, it’s all mainstream. I’ve never understood the use of “Mainstream” like it’s a bad word. I WANT this stuff to be popular, I want to see what people think up, I don’t want everything compartmentalized into little groups, and NEVER shall they cross. All that’ll happen is that we’ll segregate ourselves to death, and then the whole thing will die.

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