Words for Writers: What the Heck is Steampunk?

There is a lot of discussion of what is and is not quote-Steampunk-With-A-Capital-S-unquote.

Richard Castle investigates Steampunk in an episode of “Castle”.

For a while I didn’t have a good definition of my own (only that it’s “yesterday’s future, today!”), but then I had the very good luck to be put on a panel with The Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon, at the Canadian National Steampunk Expo.

J.M. Frey and The Steampunk Scholar; photo by Lex Machina

I was meant to act as Mike’s foil, both of us being smartypants. But I couldn’t disagree when I heard his rundown of what “Steampunk” IS. His explanation of how to define Steampunk was the most clever and concise version I’ve ever heard and I immediately had to agree.

Comic by Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant! Follow her on Tumblr here.

The Steampunk Scholar posits that Steampunk is not a GENRE, but an AESTHETIC.  I will wait for you to fetch rotten fruit, but while you are searching for it, take a look at his article describing why: Steampunk Aesthetic 101.

In short, The Steampunk Scholar posits that these are the three pillars of Steampunk, and that each pillar must be present for the work to be considered Steampunk, but the AMOUNT of pillar that is present may vary, and that is perfectly acceptable.

Quoting from the Steampunk Scholar’s article:

Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.

Technofantasy . It’s tech that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as impulsion.

Neo-Victorian I’d have preferred something less ethnocentric, but neo-Victorian evokes an era, rather than necessarily saying it takes place in the time. It was a lot less clunky than “nineteenth century fantastic mise-en-scene.” I’m not saying it has to be British. I’m saying steampunk’s aesthetic is grounded in the Victorian period with fuzzy boundaries. It’s not a geographic or temporal limitation, save as inspiration.

Retrofuturism: The way the past viewed the future, or more important in steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future. The idea of steampunk anachronism is flawed, because in texts where it’s a secondary world, there’s nothing anachronistic about your technology. It belongs in that fabricated world. There are steampunk texts that use anachronisms (again, The Difference Engine), but it’s really retrofuturism that runs across the board. Retrofuturism should be understood as more than technological: there is social retrofuturism as well, when we make the past in our image, as we do whenever a nineteenth century woman isn’t slowly going crazy in a room with psychedelic wallpaper.

These three features, in combination, seem to be what constitutes the steampunk aesthetic–since Moorcock and the California Triumvirate, right up until now. Steampunk texts and artworks do not belong to the same genre, but rather draw from the same aesthetic. Maybe that’s just semantics to some, but so long as we keep viewing steampunk as the stuff in the container, we’re going to miss that it was the container we should have been talking about. Steampunk is the glass – and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass – art, film, or lifestyle – and steampunk it.

I would also add that as a sort of flying buttress to these pillers, but not a piller unto itself, is the notion of Exposure of Inner Workings – corsets on the outside, mechanical guts showing, social anarchy, the ability to look at the Problematics of the era that is celebrated (racism, genderism, colonialism, etc.) and work with them and on them, etc.

Further Resources

You can read The Steampunk Scholar’s review of the CNSE convention here.

I am quoted in this article on Steampunk in the Torontoist, which gives a decent overview of my thoughts on Steampunk As Aesthetic: Steampunk And The City

Author Adrienne Kress of the forthcoming THE FRIDAY SOCIETY (Dial, Fall 2012) talks about why she loves Steampunk and how she defines it here.

An older blog entry I did on defining Steampunk here.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: What the Heck is Steampunk?
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Review: Victor Sierra, “Electric Rain”

Victor Sierra – Album Review

Arabesque, haunting, throaty and filled with European duende, Paris-based Victor Sierra’s album “Electric Rain” is perfect for Steampunks who want a less England-central experience. With lyrics in French, German, Yiddish, and English, Victor Sierra’s Anouk Adrien, Bob Eisenstein and Big Machine offer international flavor and haunting melodies mixed with a driving, relentless rhythm that pushes the listener along the train tracks of the album.

Victor Sierra provides an album that is the epitome of what the Steampunk aesthetic is all about – craftsmanship, cultural mixing, passion, raw feeling, cryptic theatricality, pride in your creation, and just a dash of cheeky social anarchy.

Bob Eisenstein, credited with playing all the instruments on the album, has a natural flair for making them scream a little bit. There’s something that he does with the compositions that is just uncomfortable enough that it makes the music intriguing, makes you want to writhe on a dance floor, but not so much that it becomes grating. Big Machine’s synth work is seamless, and evocative of the Hydrogen Queen, the band’s airbound berth. For someone who doesn’t really like ‘fake’ instruments in her music, I quite enjoyed everything about the production. That’s a mark of a true artist with a synth and the electronic arts of creating sound.

And what could easily become a slide into gratuitous and overly sensual vocals is instead punctuated by Anouk Adrien’s more raw, natural and not overly-trained, gripping vocal quality. I’m reminded, happily, of the folksy, desperate singing of Louis Attaque.

This driving, human sound is, to me, the equintessence of Steampunk music.

Even better, I love the cultural mélange of the lyrics. Some French, a dash of Yiddish, a swirl of German, references to Commonwealths and sheesha-smoking caterpillars (“Keep your head!”) – this is what Steampunk is.

Borderless, bold, and blended.

As a story-oriented person, my favourite track is by far #3, “Blood In The Skies”, a song about a tenuously obeying flight crew on a mission that they know nothing about. But the story of the album extends past the CD/MP3s – be certain to check out their myriad of videos, including the suitably cryptic “Self-Portraits” of the band members.

I look forward to seeing this band live – the music lends itself beautifully to belly dancers, pyrotechnics, burlesque, and over-the-top performativity and I salivate at the thought of what their stage show must be like.

And I freely admit that I’ve been listening to the full album on endless loop for the past two weeks, especially while I’ve been editing my next novel.

More info about Victor Sierra
Buy the album “Secret Page”
Buy the album “Electric Rain”
Victor Sierra’s touring schedule.
Want Victor Sierra to come to your city? Click here

JM FreyReview: Victor Sierra, “Electric Rain”
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2012 Cosplay Charity Calendar

It is nearly the end of 2011 (yipe! How did that happen?) which means only one thing… you need a 2012 Calendar!

Well, how about the 2012 FutureCon Charity Cosplay Calendar – “Women of Valour”?

Why should you buy it? ‘Cause there are beautiful, brave, kick-butt geek ladies all over it!

And… ‘Cause I’m Miss November!

I'mma gonna sonic you!

FutureCon is a New Years Eve convention whose many year-round events support Epilepsy Toronto, a charity dedicated to epilepsy awareness and support endeavours in the Greater Toronto Area.

Have I convinced you? Pre-order the Calendar HERE.


(This is not necessarily the final image that will be in the Calendar. Photo by Krissy Meyers. Costume by Kenneth Shelley. Accessories by J.M. Frey)

JM Frey2012 Cosplay Charity Calendar
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Fan Expo Sched!

Here is my schedule for FanExpo 2011!

8pm, room 714
“Writers Guild of Canada Pro Panel: Adapting Well Loved Properties for the Screen, featuring Kill Shakespeare and Murdoch Mysteries”
I will be introducing and hosting this panel on behalf of the Writers Guild of Canada. Promises to be facinating, so make sure to make it out!

12pm, Room 707
“Steampunk Costuming Panel”
I am on this panel with a cadre of experts in cosplay and steampunk from both the Toronto Steampunk Society and Steampunk Canada

After the panel, I will also be at the Steampunk Canada/Toronto Steampunk Society table until 5:30pm to answer questions, discuss steampunk, sign books, and to give away a FREE EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEEK of one of my upcoming projects.

12pm, room 707
“Steampunk Author Panel: Words Driven By Steam”
I will be on this panel with some of the most incredible writers in the genre, including Adrienne Kress, author of the upcoming “The Friday Society”.

6pm, Level 800
“Steampunk Photo Shoot”
Come on out and show off your latest creation!

I am also going to try to stop in at the Nerd Girl Pin Ups “Gaming With The Girls” party AND the “Ultimate Fan-Expo Canada Party”, both at the Royal York Hotel.


I will probably swing by the Steampunk Canada table again, but like most of you, I will be getting my shop on!

In addition, I will be walking around, attending a lot of panels about webseries, so you can probably find me on the floor or at those panels.

JM FreyFan Expo Sched!
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Steampunk Blanket Wars

This is a conversation between me, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow and Emerging Technologies Librarian at Emory BRIAN CROXALL and MIKE “The Steampunk Scholar” PERSCHON. This arose from me tweeting some relevant points that came out of presentations and discussions at the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition this weekend. Warning, lots of aca-jargon, and gets a bit fun and silly!

JM: Is there really a schizsm between the performativity of SP and the socio-political literature and commentary? Can costuming be sociopolitcal statement? Can literature just be frivolous, fun dressing up? #Steampunk #cnse

JM: Liking The Tinkerer’s talk about the #steampunk “Be Splendid” movement in the UK. Be splendid in what you create, in how you interact, in life. AirshipEmbassy: @scifrey Found the link to Be Splendid Great idea, will spread it to everyone 🙂

Mike: #CNSE joy unspeakable at the rabbinic geek midrash shared between @redlianak and @scifrey tonight! This is what it means to dialogue!

JM: I am tweeting from the past! Notes from the @SteamScholar’s presentation on the struggle to define the #Steampunk aesthetic this past Sat.

JM: #Steampunk is an aesthetic, not a genre. There are no narrative or characteristic tropes, only archetypes. Steampunk is a tool box for artists.

JM: #Steampunk is like a teacup – empty of content, but a recognizable shape to be filled with a narrative (any genre), characters, and art.

JM: #Steampunk performativity can be viewed as a nostalgic return to etiquette, and pride in careful, semiologically freighted fashion. #cosplay

JM: #Steampunk also celebrates an era when items were made to last, where opulence was important (whether this is informed by nostalgia or not).

JM: #Steampunk is focused on a era when Alchemy was giving way to Science; still a sense of ‘magic’ mixed with the genesis of Industrial Revol’n

JM: One of the “pillars of #Steampunk” – TechnoFantasy – technology that has a retrofuturist origin, but could not actually operate without bending the rules of physics (i.e. creating a new element or gas, etc.)

JM: One of the “pillars of #Steampunk” – Neo Victorianism: the art work is evocative of the era, but not a slavish recreation.

JM: One of the “pillars of #Steampunk” – RetroFuturism: imagining the future (or present) as imagined by the creators of the past.

JM: GOOD #Steampunk will be a) aware of the issues inherent in the era/geography – colonialism, sexism, racisism, etc. b) ADDRESS these issues c) not “vanish” the issues by not addressing them AND not admitting to them, d) will attempt to avoid euro-centric cliches and pitfalls.

JM: A “sub-pillar of #Steampunk”-SP is concerned with exposing the “inner workings”; corsets on outside,gears and guts shown,political anarchy

JM: While “Steampunk” sometimes bows to the “punk” aspect,it doesn’t all have to be about ‘anarchy’ and rebellion.It can be a more subtle shift.

JM: What’s with the [big] guns? Visible #Steampunk weaponry = Victorian-ish desire for adventure, making nature and empires submit (danger of Colonialism! Beware!); recalls an era when gentlemen were allowed to wear weapons visibly, but with the cosplay skew towards hyperbole; conflation of showing of power in the POTENTIAL and Romantisization of violence. 

 Brian: @scifrey @steampunk I’m not sure about the definition of “good” here. Couldn’t “good steampunk” be faithful to the 19th-century vision?

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey I think I’m being devil’s advocate here. In some ways, I’m asking *why* we want that distance now? +

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey To what degree can our awareness now change the past? (The future, sure!)

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey Of course, as all SF / Fantasy do. All right, I think I’m just being an imp of the perverse now.

JM: @SteamScholar @briancroxall Being slavishly recreationist of past narratives only perpetuates the atrocities. #Steampunk lets us break them.

Brian: @scifrey @steamscholar I think I’m quibbling with the term “good.” Atrocities were real. +

Mike: Introductions are necessary! @scifrey, author and fanthropologist, meet @briancroxall, editor of that #steampunk issue of Neo-Vic Studies!

Brian: @scifrey @SteamScholar But what would #steampunk look like if “good” meant reinhabiting that worldview? +

JM: @briancroxall @SteamScholar IMO, Sci-fi and fantasy in general exist to allow comment on NOW and US by talking about THERE/THEN and THEM.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey Well said, Brian – recreating the monstrosity to underscore it, perhaps?

Brian: @scifrey @SteamScholar Let the reader (not the narrative voice) create the dissonance. There. *That’s* what I meant. [-]

Mike: @scifrey @briancroxall Precisely what I tell my students about all speculative fictions – SF, Fantasy, and Horror. Godzilla IS the bomb!

JM: Hi @briancroxall, nice to meet you. And yes, of course, “good” was just meant to be general and not an evaluating qualifier!

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey Wow. You’re crediting readers with far more savvy than I would.

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey Yegods! He’s scryed my intentions!

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey It’s a risky move. And would result in off-putting stories. But I’m just wondering about it. #steampunk

Brian: @scifrey @SteamScholar William Gibson has a quotation that I recycle endlessly on this point. It’s very apt.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey It’s that smart ass grin in your profile pic that gives you away, Brian! Brian: @scifrey Pleased to meet you as well. I’m sorry to have gummed up your twitstreams with my retrofuture imaginings of narrative. 😉

JM: @briancroxall @SteamScholar Agreed – sometimes you need to spell it out. Reinhabiting is great, as long as you can make the reader see that there IS an issue present that needs to be addressed and not perpetuated by current societies. Can an author do that? Sure, though it will be one hell of a subtle juggling act.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey Wondered about it too, in a different way: I suggested re-writing the Fu Manchu stories from the Other’s perspective.

JM: @briancroxall No muddling done! This is why my twitstream exists! 😀

 Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey This is WHY I’m on Twitter, Brian. The rest is mostly a resounding gong or clanging cymbal.

Brian: @scifrey @SteamScholar Right. I think Moore and O’Neal do this with the Orient in the first League. But it’s very tricky. And debatable.  

JM: @briancroxall As I said to @SteamScholar this weekend, the great thing with #academia is that you can fight over theory then go for a beer.

 Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey Re-writing from the other’s perspective is the exemplary postmodern move. What’s the post-postmodern move?

Brian: @SteamScholar Some tinkling brass too, one imagines.

JM: @briancroxall @SteamScholar Writing from the perspective for the furniture? #Idontknow #undercaffinated

Brian: @scifrey @SteamScholar PRECISELY! Or tea and laudanum.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey Now I see where you’re going with this, Brian – how do we innovate further? Good question.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey YES! A story written from the perspective of opium! Or a disease infested fur-trade blanket!

JM: @SteamScholar @SteamScholar CAN we innovate now? Is #Steampunk aware enough to start moving on? Not enough silenced voices speaking yet, IMO.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey A steampunk Dr. Seuss – a society of Whos on one of those blankets.

JM: @SteamScholar @briancroxall But is the blanket appalled or smug that the disease is spreading?

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey And would that further innovation be anything more than @Pierre_Menard_’s version of the Quixote?

Mike: @scifrey @briancroxall Agreed. But that doesn’t omit the need for some writers to make the quantum jumps.

Mike: @scifrey @briancroxall The blanket is appalled – it believed its weave was meant for warmth, not the chill of death.

JM: @scifrey @briancroxall Fair enough. Also, now I envision a blanket covered in little TARDISes. All of them containing Dr. Seuss’ Whos.

 Brian: @scifrey @SteamScholar It’s hard to know when to move on. And depending on how they did it, they might alienate the whole community.

Mike: @scifrey @briancroxall Perhaps a moment for steampunk poetry?

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey That’s an anthrocentric version of the blanket.My blanket exults in eradicating humans.Blankets shall rule the earth!

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey Agreed. But it’s fun to brainstorm it nonetheless.

JM: @scifrey @briancroxall If blanket is appalled, then it has a 21st C “white guilt” positioning. If it’s joyful, then it’s a colonialist.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey Which makes it the DALEK blanket to Jess’s Dr. Seuss Who’s.

Brian: @scifrey @steamscholar And thus we find ourselves back in the beginning.

JM: @scifrey @briancroxall God, now I have visions of a Dalek-blanket and Whovian-blanket shouting at each other from across the linen cupboard.

Mike: @scifrey @briancroxall Unless it’s a Hudson’s Bay blanket in the 21st century. Then it’s just expensive.

Mike: @scifrey @briancroxall War of the Blankets. My blanket is attempting to thwart Brian’s by getting them both thrown in a campfire.

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey I will say that involves playing from the perspective of doctor, patient, and virus.

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey So once again, we find there’s nothing new under the sun.

Mike: @scifrey @briancroxall To achieve these goals, my Whovians are using steam-powered dirigibles to tow the blankets to their destruction.

JM: @scifrey @briancroxall *helpless laughter* I love fandom! And I love aca-fandom even more!

Brian:@SteamScholar @scifrey Alas and alack. (Alas and dalek?) 

Mike: @briancroxall @scifrey Most fun I’ve had on Twitter since @mattdelman, @jhameia, and others formed a steampunk cabal!

Brian: @SteamScholar @scifrey Not bad for a Monday. Not bad indeed…

JM FreySteampunk Blanket Wars
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