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Thursday, December 9, 2010

writing: Steampunk Panel Report from LOSCON, 2010

LOSCON is a science fiction and fantasy convention that took place at the LA airport Marriott hotel the week of Thanksgiving. There were quite a few panels on Steampunk. I went to this one:

Title of session: Is Steampunk Anachronistic?

generic answer from the whole panel: Yes!

Question - is it even possible? giant airships? corsets outside of your dress?

The panel seemed to agree that steampunk was more a style than a specific code
or lexicon for writing a book. But there can be disconnects in which the
anachronisms are more egegious than at other times. In particular the panel
felt that historical or technical anachronisms were much more acceptable than
behavioral anachronisms. And that comedy made the anachronisms more acceptable
than in other forms of literature.

Examples cited by the panel for disconnects included (a) in Wild Wild West, the
movie with Will Smith (an African American in the title role), that as soon as
the movie brought up the civil war, and that the civil war was fought for the
reasons it was fought for, then the movie did not work anymore. [And the panel
made lots of jokes about giant mechanical spiders]. Also Wild Wild West, the
movie, had a fully integrated Chinese female character who the panel called into
question after the civil war reference. (b) in Pirates of the Caribbean, where
the female character asks someone on the beach 'Are you OK?' Or another movie
about Easter Island in which one survivor tells another 'OK, let's focus...' (c)
The Great Race was cited as a really bad anachronism.

Don't take 21rst century characters and dress them in period costume and call
it steampunk.

The panel said that an author needs to have some sort of 'cover' for their
anachronism -- it need be no longer than a single sentence long, but it must
exist or the reader will think it is an 'imaginary' story. You need to be like
a fraudulent policeman, who at least presents a fake badge to simulate a
reality. Anachronism can come along if the author is sloppy about their 'cover'

These comments begged two questions -- (1) if you have period characters, and
stick to it, how do you appeal to 21rst century sympathies? (2) Can you have
Steampunk at all if you get rid of all the anachronisms? the panel's response:
Leviathan is an excellent example of a steampunk story that does not make use of
20th century characterizations. also, just as there is a certain degree of
'accepted' science in comic books - Kryptonite, and the very fact that Superman
is in most respects 'Human' -- so there is a certain acceptance of anachronsim
in steampunk. The trick is to keep/make it credible/consistent; to stretch the
reader's gullibility without making it an alternate history (which is a
different genre).

Anachronisms in costume: Victorian clothing was very restrictive, but an
Adventurous, pragmatic female protagonist would abandon certain clothing. so
some of the clothing choices can be made consistent with character.

There were lots of other interesting comments, but I found this one to be a take
away from the session - that Americans are fixated on How Things Work. And in
contemporary life we are moving away from being able to obviously 'see' the
working mechanisms of things. Take the iPhone. It has a touchpad, and how it
works is largely invisible. The automobile that you might have been able to fix
yourself 20-30 year ago, is now only diagnosable with a computer. So steampunk
might be thought of as a harkening back to a time when the mechanisms were more
tangible and accessible to the average person.

Also - there's a steampunk Star Trek on Youtube


  1. Really interesting! Lots of hints to make Steampunk work.