STEAMPUNK GOES MAINSTREAM…and other things for geeks to panic about. Again.

by Tee Morris on January 18, 2013

First off, I’m sorry everybody. It has been far too long. Where in the name of clocks, gears, and cogs have I been?

Let me drop a few quick teasers as to what has been going on in my life:

  • Got a new job. Social Media Coordinator. And the best part, it’s very close to home with telecommuting thrown in as a bonus.
  • After a month, got a promotion at the new job.
  • Then, conducted interviews for the job that I was originally hired to do. (Being on the other end of the interview table? Woah…)
  • Got a new car. I’m driving a Nissan LEAF right now. LOVE IT!
  • Jumped back on to the Medifast train. My weight was out of control again.
  • Christmas.

Some of these things I intend to talk about later on this blog. (Stop laughing. Seriously. I am!) I also have to keep in mind, though, I have a novel to finish. I’m still on board with a steampunk reboot of MOREVI, so Rafe Rafton will be returning to the oceans this year.

It is this very subject — something that, I’ll admit, people are coming to me more and more about for an opinion which feels pretty good — from where this rant finds its core. So let’s turn back the clock to January 15, Tuesday, 10 a.m. At my new day job, a friend sends me a link to AdAge about IBM’s fascination with steampunk. I ran the article on my Facebook page as this truly was the convergence between my day job and my writing career. IBM is tracking “steampunk” in order to find patterns between trends and fads. I also posted it on the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Facebook page and between the two, I got a whopping 6 shares. So maybe it wasn’t as cool as I thought.

Actually, no, it was very cool as Forbes.com covered it (using the work of Brute Force Studios as a representation, I might add…) the next day. Soon followed two days later by Time.

Now with this story cropping up in a number of places this week, some are stepping up to take credit for steampunk suddenly becoming the talk of the Internet. To those asshats who are delusional enough to thing that Forbes and Time are reading your Buzzfeed entries, this is nothing new. Time ran an article about steampunk back in 2009. And no, you elitists were not mentioned. Either time. So there.

What strikes me as truly “odd” is the other reaction people are having to this: Steampunk is going mainstream!!!! PANIC!!!!!

Funny. I heard that in 2011 when Justin Beiber did his steampunk music video.

I also heard it in 2010 when other authors (who knew me in the Dragon Moon Press years) told me I was “selling out” and “jumping on the bandwagon.”

And I’m pretty sure I heard the same sentiment as far back as 2003 when Sean Connery hit the big screen with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Fanbois and elitists are screaming about the “mainstreaming” of steampunk, and with IBM leading the charge it seems that science is predicting that THIS TIME it’s really going to happen. (Science!) Now here’s a little slap from the Halibut of Truth: weren’t people just bickering mere months ago (particularly around the infamous Prada campaign) about the definition of “true” steampunk. It’s the running joke of the genre — what is steampunk, exactly? The lack of a concrete definition could very well hinder the sub-genre’s journey to mainstream, but much like those pinheads ranting against “fake geek girls” some are bemoaning the fall of steampunk. Again. Why are so many worried about a genre that, if it isn’t redefining itself minute by minute, no one can agree exactly what it is?

I would like to see steampunk go mainstream as it would mean a wider audience for my books and my podcast. I am totally transparent in that manner. But going mainstream is bad, you say? Why? Is it because people will, by your definition, get steampunk wrong?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but people are doing that already, on a whole, in the science fiction genre. There is a great love for the film version of V for Vendetta. Despite wonderful performances, I believe the Warchowsky Brothers got it wrong. Same goes for Monsters and Skyline, two films that are science fiction, but science fiction poorly executed. Do we want people to get science fiction wrong? Of course not; but with Asylum Pictures making “mockbusters” with D-List actors, it happens more often than we like. It’s part of the risk of science fiction as science fiction is part of our mainstream culture…

…and because it is mainstream, for all the SyFy Crap of the Week we’re thrown, we also get The Avengers, The HobbitSerenity and John Carter. (Yes, I’m putting John Carter in there. That movie, for all its negative hype, was surprising with a lot of heart and beautiful visuals!) This is an upside for going mainstream: for all the attempts that fail, we find gems that stay with us and inspire the next generation of fans.

So yes, I would love for steampunk to hit mainstream. With the right creative minds behind it, I think a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences movie would rock. But what do you think? What are the upsides and downsides of steampunk going mainstream? Will it continue on, even after its popularity wanes?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Keith West January 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm

I think steampunk going mainstream is in general a good thing, just like it would be for most any genre. While there will be dreck and people getting things wrong, doesn’t that happen anyway? Sturgeon’s Law applies on multiple scales. The upside is there is a wider audience and a greater diversity of books, comics, films, music, etc.

Oh, and congrats on the new job and promotion.

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David Tyberg January 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Tee,

This is great. And you are fantastic! You really hit the nail on the head here. I’m so glad there are some sensible voices in our community who aren’t running around like Chicken Little screaming that “the steampunk is falling!” Cheers to you!

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shereekachu January 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm

This too shall pass… but I’m very happy that the genre is going mainstream. Mainstream always comes back. Look at all of the “fads” of the past – bell bottoms, neon bangles, rock-a-billy updos. It warms my heart to think some kid 40 years from now will find his granddad’s waistcoat, tophat and pocket watch and make it his own!

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Nuchtchas January 18, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Steampunk going mainstream isn’t bad at all, i don’t even mind them getting it “wrong” because it’s already been done “wrong” and steampunk as a movement hasn’t suffered at all. (Will Smith’s Wild Wild West anyone?)

Steampunk going mainstream can do so much good for me personally. If I can buy clothes in stores with steampunk flair that would thrill me beyond belief. I would most likely be one of those people that wore every day steampunk wear if I didn’t have to construct every piece myself. Since I do, my punk is reserved for cons and geek events.

There is a slight hipster reaction when something you loved and no one else understood becomes popular. It’s hard to not have that reaction. As a fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R R Martin I’m dealing with the popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones. People who don’t know the difference between a red apple Fossoway and a green apple Fossoway (or who the Fossoways even are) are shouting their love for Tyrion Lanister and telling me how great the series is. They are right, it’s a great series, I have had to learn to not hold it against them that they are new fans, that they don’t know everything about the series, they didn’t read all the books, the Hedge Knight Comics & Short Stories and the children’s book, like I did. There are different levels of fandom.

I had to do this with comics when comic book movies got big, and star wars, and even a little with star trek thanks to the JJ Abrams film, but in the end, it’s not bad. Because of these mainstream fans more movies are being made, I am getting more content, and for that, I’m happy.

It’s so easy for people to fall into the judgement trap, even those of us who feel judged by society as a whole. We need to actively let it go, and give up the nerd rage :)

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Laura January 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm

The elitism within the steampunk community really echoes what I saw growing up around the goth community: You weren’t a “real goth” unless your clothes, music, art, and intimate preferences fit within some unknowable parameters. But the aesthetic has influenced the world around us so much so that it has become part of everyday life; it’s become a new normal, mundane. I suppose, in a way, it’s lost the attraction for those seeking to be “unique,” much in a way I suspect some steampunk feel their niche is being endangered. But isn’t individuality more about what *you* bring to the genre, than whether or not it’s “mainstream?”

Then again, I don’t think I was ever considered a “real goth.” My interests were too diverse, and I was just too damn perky. =)

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Violet Turning Violet January 20, 2013 at 6:13 pm

I, too, was going to bring up the Goth angle, but you beat me to the punch, Laura! ;) I remember wearing all black, listening to Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie and The Cure, and reading/writing/acting out vampire stories in cemeteries in high school and getting an endless amount of grief from adults and peers alike. Then sometime around college Goth had a resurgence and suddenly stores like Hot Topic were cropping up in even remote towns (though my town was so remote that it took until grad school for one to appear). And, of course, thanks to Buffy and those gosh darn Twilight films, vampires are more prevalent than ever, though even more separated from the Goth scene than before.

I knew a great many Goths who were none too pleased with that late 90s resurgence, and I understand the initial reaction of panic when the mainstream finds your subculture. No one wants their style to be stamped and branded by a corporation, not only defining your subculture in a stereotypical fashion to the curious public but also making your music and clothing readily available to, say, the jocks who tormented you as a teen who now want to hop on the trendy bandwagon. It particularly stings when you use the fashion of a subculture as an identifier, assuming that someone dressed like you enjoys the same sorts of hobbies and interests. When a subculture goes mainstream, identifying potential “allies” in that way goes out the window. It was one thing when everyone was crafting their own outfits, but once anyone can buy a Steampunk outfit at Target, the rules and social cues change. However, as has been brought up by other commenters as well as the original author, more exposure means more additions to the cannon of artistic endeavors that appeal to or even help define one’s preferred subculture.

Overall, I see the mainstreaming of a beloved subculture as a good thing. As Nuchtchas mentioned above, finding cheaper clothes to fill in wardrobe gaps is always lovely. But perhaps most importantly, securing a place in pop culture means more great films, books, music, and fashion, which in turn means that more and more young people will get involved, and that is the key element to keeping any subculture alive and flourishing.

I attended a panel on the state of the Goth scene at Dragon*Con last year, and it turns out that the median age of the scene is currently 30s-40s. Not that there’s anything wrong with us older folk sitting in a corner covered in cobwebs, but as people age and start having “adult responsibilities” take the forefront (i.e. raising babies or hamsters or what have you taking up your time instead of going out to the local clubs) if there’s no new blood (pun intended) supporting your scene, it all goes the way of the dinosaur. Case in point: it seems like most people today know what a “Goth” is, but few seem to gravitate toward the label. Finding a Goth club night is nearly impossible in many parts of the country, and even those who maintain a “gothic” appearance or enjoy Goth music or films consider their appreciation of the subculture as part of something else (i.e. metal-heads, industrial hardcores, Vampyres, dark hippies, etc.). Not that this is particularly good or bad, it simply is the way of things. Everything either evolves or dies out. (Or it lurks in a basement watching Nosferatu and muttering, “Undead undead undead!”)

So, after this long diatribe, my point is this: if someone really loves a given subculture, whatever it may be, the best thing to do is support it in any way possible. That includes not just patronizing club nights and fancy gatherings or going to concerts and films, but also being open and welcoming to those curious newcomers, even the ones initially drawn in by something mainstream. More people = more interest = more art and more gatherings that appeal to you. That’s how a subculture can keep flourishing throughout the years: it has to appeal not just to devoted old-timers (like yours truly) but also to new generations who bring their own spin into the mix. At least, that’s my opinion. Personally I’d be thrilled to bits to see bowlers and top hats replace the sea of baseball caps I encounter whenever I step outside my front door. More waistcoats and corsets? Yes, please! :)

(My apologies for being so long-winded. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on subcultural studies, and it’s a topic that I love to discuss extensively. Cheers for the article, Mr. Morris, and hearty congrats on the new job!)

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Tee Morris January 20, 2013 at 6:55 pm

That. Was. Awesome!!!

Thank you for such a passionate reply! :)

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Doc Coleman January 22, 2013 at 7:43 am

I find the idea of Steampunk going mainstream to be an indication that the taste of the general public is improving. I can only support such an activity.

Doc

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Indiana Jim January 23, 2013 at 10:46 am

The Wheel turns, and ages come and go, let the Dragon ride on the… oh, sorry. Just finished the Wheel of Time.

But it’s all cyclical. There are always ebbs and flows to every definable “thing.” With Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings you could say Epic Fantasy went mainstream. But it’s all in how you define “mainstream.” What does that mean, exactly? Are we talking wholesale adoption by a majority of the population? Because Television wasn’t mainstream until there was one in almost every home. Now several. That’s what I call mainstream.

But there is no group identifier attached to it as there is with a genre definition. Nobody says, “Oh, you have a TELEVISION? Me too! Let’s hang out!” But you can meet someone at a con dressed in Steampunk regalia and you have instant commonality with that person.

I think what happens when things go mainstream is it ceases to be self-identifiable. It no longer stands out. If Steampunk truly went mainstream, then there would be a certain loss of identity because it’s no longer special. It’s no longer different. I think the attraction to Steampunk is in its oddity. It’s in the odd looks you get from the uninitiated. As it stands now you either get the “good Lord what are you wearing?” looks, or you get the “hey that’s awesome I’m a kindred spirit” look. Nothing in between.

When you’re wearing something mainstream nobody looks at you at all. I don’t even get looks for wearing Star Wars stuff in church anymore! And that’s just sad.

But I don’t think Steampunk is in any danger of going mainstream. Sure you get the occasional interpretation in films and such, but same with vampires or sword-and-sorcery. It’s just occasional. There’s ebbs and flows. For me, whenever Fantasy flows, I enjoy it for what it is but I don’t get out of sorts if it’s somehow misinterpreted or watered down. It doesn’t take any joy away from those things that I already love.

Let the Dragon ride again on the Winds of Time….

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Doc Coleman January 24, 2013 at 7:45 am

Good points, Jim. When you think about it that way, Steampunk is in no danger of going mainstream until top hats and ascots become part of everyday business attire again.

Doc

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