(originally published on Steamed!)
Steampunks are an affable lot. They don’t lurk in dark corners, bemoaning their fate in the world. They get out and party. They’re outgoing, rollicking networkers—gregarious, eccentric and fabulously dressed.
So how does that work if you’re a writer of Steampunk fiction, a profession which demands many hours spent alone, dreaming up wild worlds? How do writers make time for conventions, balls and exhibitions when there’s a deadline to meet? This was something that frustrated me until I started The Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild (S.W.A.G) in early November 2010, and invited the party into my study. Now, I have only to log in to S.W.A.G to participate in fascinating debates, network with other Steampunk writers, ask for help with knotty writing problems, and share news when something cool happens. Our members come from all over the world, from notable Brazilian writers to talents from the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Our flying start wouldn’t have been possible without the passionate support of our members and we’re grateful for all the Steampunk community has done to promote the Guild. The Airship Ambassador and Steampunk.com are tireless, and Tor Steampunk, Pyr Books, and Flying Pen Press have all put their shoulders into getting the word out across the aethernet.
We’re currently collaborating with Flying Pen Press on an anthology of Steampunk adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The first submissions have delighted us and we’re looking forward to reading many more before the May 1st deadline.
We are also dedicated to the promotion of our members’ work via author panels and social media.
All this is well and good, but it’s the generation of a close relationship between writers, illustrators and publishers which is the true gold of the Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild, providing an opportunity to support each other through the process of writing, from conception to marketing. It not only provides an open dialogue about what Steampunk actually is, but the chance to shape what it becomes.
A recent forum discussion asked:
“Many books have been declared Steampunk that one might argue would more comfortably fit into other speculative fiction genres. Which do you think are the elements that define a Steampunk novel?”
David Major kicked off the debate:
“There needs to be some consideration of a dislocation or tension between humans and their environment, and this dislocation must be addressed in some way by technology. So, the air is bad? Your character wears a pressure suit, or mask, the more unwieldy the better. Communicating over distance? A clunky, oversized, clockwork-powered radio. Want to write something down? A pen that requires several actions just to get started, preferably with some hissing of gas-powered components.
So, the relationship between humans and their world becomes a complex field in itself, in which all manner of technology-based solutions and experiments can knock themselves out.
Gail Carriger’s Soulless had less of it (but it was still there to some extent) — Soulless was more a story of vampires, golems, and general (and glorious) Jane Austenesque excesses, and it was so well written that whether it was classic steampunk was beside the point. Soulless could be described as ‘parasolpunk’, I think…
The Halfmade World, which I’ve just finished, was totally based on this idea of tech vs environment, and it was done brilliantly. Probably the best steampunk novel I’ve read so far. Great characters, solid writing, and a relentless plot. I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
Gail Gray, author, artist, and editor of Fissure Magazine:
“David, I agree with your concept of the tension and dislocation between humans and their environment, but as an author who may fall more into the area of “parasolpunk,” (I really like your term), I do feature technology in my work, but focus more on how characters react to the use of the technology and it’s effects when in unethical hands. I may be considered one of those writers who use the “trappings of the technology” to elaborate on character interaction, so my work doesn’t really fit into the Sc Fi approach. In my personal reading, I prefer a less intensive look at the mechanics. I’ve purchased too many books where I got bogged down in the mechanical descriptions.
On a separate note, I’d be curious to see how the group looks at the overuse and detailed descriptions of violence. As the editor of Fissure magazine, a venue for experimental writing, I received an overabundance of submissions where the writers considered extreme violence to be their experimental angle. This was not only disturbing, but I also saw it as a way of the writer’s bailing out on using their imagination. That’s why I turned to steampunk. There are so many imaginative ways to treat the genre. Recently, in a few of the novels I’ve purchased, the violent descriptions overtook the plot line and technology. Yes, there should be room for everyone’s tastes, but in the lack of reviews on many steampunk books. I’d love to see more see more “categories” so we purchase the books we enjoy reading, as opposed to those we put down early in the story.
In my personal steampunk writing, I am more influenced by the darker psychological side of tales set in the Victorian era, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s, as opposed to the more scientific approach, yet I don’t consider myself a romance writer. (I continuously check with my writer’s critique group to assure I don’t go there.) I’ve previously written dark urban fantasy and magical realism and I’m sure some of that bleeds over into my work. So I’d like to see the genre stay open to interpretation and leave room for readers and authors of all inclinations.
I’d love to hear more about authors on the Steampunk Writers Guild as to their ideas on this subject, since at this time, it all seems so wide open.”
“There’s a natural tendency to want to pin down things into exact categories that can be defined by certain characteristics, but I think that’s more useful for publishers’ marketing committees (and for literary critics) than it is for writers. Writers start with ideas that excite and interest them, and then later might attach labels to what they’ve created.
Broadly speaking, I think Steampunk is speculative fiction connected to the era dominated by steam technology, and that should include many things: alternate history, science fiction, fantasy, the paranormal, and so on. But it needn’t concentrate on steam technology. The Steampunk label was invented to describe Victorian-set fiction written by people with a taste for Victorian literature who created stories that had an off-beat, non-realistic angle to them, making them not really historical fiction. Since then, it has gone on to include other things too.
To say that any particular theme needs to be present in a story in order for it to qualify as Steampunk would, I think, be unnecessarily restrictive.”
I essentially ended up sliding sideways into the world of steampunk from the world of historical fantasy (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Susannah Clarke’s books, Sorcery and Cecilia, etc.) so it’s quite likely that those books have influenced my preferences where steampunk stories are concerned. I find that the elements which really categorize the idea of steampunk for me include 1) an underlying sense of optimism in the ingenuity of humanity to solve problems even in what may seem a dystopic society 2) good old-fashioned ‘adventure’ 3) unusual, not to say anachronistic technology 4) some kind of kinship with (despite departure from) Earth’s actual history. I like best the sorts of stories which incorporate recognizable historic figures or events and then take an interesting tangent off from what we know.
That said, one of my current projects is a steampunk Sleeping Beauty, so clearly I’m not into restricting the genre either. *wry grin*
Andrew P. Mayer (author, Pyr Books)
“[Insert]Punk Genres generally are, I think, punk because of the DIY aesthetic. Looking at Cyberpunk for example, it’s about what happens when powerful technology falls into the hands of the masses. It’s not just what it *is*, it’s what you *do* with it.
In the case of Steampunk in particular that’s driven it’s an idealized “never was” world, where we take elements of the past and filter them through our own cultural perceptions. IE, we are putting our methods of production into the hands of the people of a previous world. (More or less, depending on the author.)
One other thing I’m trying hard to get into my books is what I call “the quest for authenticity”. If you look at the maker apsects (costumes and craft projects) you’ll see that a great deal of what makes Steampunk resonate for people is the idea of something handcrafted and personal in a world of mass-produced items. It also has an obsession with materials that are far less easier to manipulate and craft than plastic such as brass, leather, and steel.”
Gail Gray responded:
“Authenticity, Andrew, that’s the word I’ve been looking for and it hadn’t come to mind, despite my 20-year long study of Carl Jung. I’ve been asked to write an article on the psychology of steampunk, and after a few drafts am getting close, but I kept missing something, could see a void, but couldn’t figure out what it was. I needed a word that encapsuled the human need that drives us to such things as steampunk – and that’s it. Thanks!”
The Guild’s site isn’t the only way you can interact with SWAG members. The Guild hosts a weekly Friday chat on Twitter using the #SteampunkChat hashtag. Our latest chat, hosted and introduced by @jhameia, discussed Steampunk and Revolution, and if you’d like to hear what author Scott Westerfeld had to say, the transcript is available on the chat’s website.
As fun as these get-togethers are, it is this kind of ongoing dialogue between writers, illustrators and publishers that will encourage Steampunk’s growth, evolution, and staying power in a society with a short attention span, all too given to moving on to the next hot thing.
Lia Keyes is a British expat Young Adult writer, represented by Laura Rennert (Andrea Brown Literary Agency). She’s the founder of The Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild, co-editor of a Steampunk Shakespeare anthology to be published by Flying Pen Press in 2011, and is currently assisting in the production of four non-fiction books to be published over the next two years. She lives in California with her son, two cats, an Irish Red & White setter with a fondness for smoked salmon, and over 5,ooo books.