Several disjointed sets of observations
by Lawrence Tagrin
I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was eight years old. I started going to SF conventions in the 1980’s and stopped just before 2000 due to professional and family requirements. I retained a high regard for the convention scene, in which I was an active participant both at various events and behind the scenes. Now I am an even more dedicated participant in Steampunk. I’ve been asked to draw some contrasts between my experiences with large Science Fiction events, such as Okon (Oklahoma SF Con) Boskone (Boston SF convention) World Con and NASFiC (World and North American SF conventions). I have recently gone to two major Steampunk events: Steampunk Unlimited at the Historic Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania, and the 2014 Steampunk Worlds Fair, in New Jersey. Caveat -- I am only providing my own experience, not to be confused with a statistically significant overview of the field.
So from a personal viewpoint, here is what I saw.....
As other expressions of science fiction began demanding more attention, the SF convention scene splintered into a number of categories, including Literary Conventions, Media conventions (often focused on a specific show, like Star Trek), gaming, and even sub-genres within the field. Many of the attendees of these conventions showed a disdain for those who followed other interests. Steampunk is young enough so that all aspects of the genre; literature, media, art, crafters, costumers, gamers, etc... all seem to get along with each other and appreciate the contributions each make to the Steampunk world. While it seems contradictory, the Steampunk culture is both more diverse and at the same time more unified than any I have seen before. The bottom line seems to be that Steampunks are having too much fun to bother with tribal rivalry. Everyone can accept and appreciate everyone else. The only thing not tolerated is intolerance.
The SF cons began as celebrations of SF literature. The authors were the highlighted guests and fans flocked to their presentations and panels. My entry into Steampunk was also driven by literature, as a long-time fan of alternate history, I found much of the newer authors I was reading identified as “Steampunk.” Works like The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences by Tee Morris and Phillipa Ballantine and the Lady of Devices series by Shelley Adina paving my way into this renaissance of the genra. While authors are still very highly respected, they are one major expression of a rapidly expanding universe of Steampunk “makers” who express their creativity in a wide variety of means. Authors will always lead the way and open doors to invite makers of all types to express themselves and add to the richness of Steampunk culture.
The SF conventions I attended were very structured. There was always an author guest of honor and an artist guest of honor. There were often other guests, but those two were constant. The professional artists (usually defined as either cover artists or graphic novel artists) had signing events and presentations. Their work was featured in the art show. What do you mean, “Art Show?” I hear you say. That brings up one of the biggest differences I found between the SF conventions I attended and the two Steampunk events was how artists sold their wares. In most SF conventions there was a large room set aside as an art show. While artists were free to acquire tables in the dealers’ room, the main focus of art was in the art show and, starting in the 1980s, the print shop. Art in the art show typically had bid sheets attached and attendees could enter bids on them until the show closed. Art with enough bids (varied from event to event) would go to a live auction. Individual pieces could easily sell for hundreds of dollars and, in a few cases, even more. The auction was a major social event at the convention and vied with the costume contest for the largest audience. The print shop was exactly what it said. Artists supplied prints prepared for sale with prices attached. Typically each artist would volunteer to work a set number of hours and convention staff filled in the rest. It operated like a store with people coming in, selecting their purchased, paying for them, and leaving. The people taking the money recorded each sale. In the Steampunk events, artists are treated like any other maker. They sell their work according to the rules of the event, whether in dealer’s rooms, stand-alone booths, or out of their hotel rooms.
This leads to the next topic.....
The variety of products sold at mainstream SF conventions tended to be a lot of commercial products purchased in bulk and resold, followed by individual artists and those selling recorded music. The actual products tend to focus most heavily on the guests of honor at the particular convention. At the Steampunk events you find a much greater scope of merchandise catering to more active participants, not just passive consumers. Besides fiction books and music I have purchased parts for my own craft projects, clothing suitable for the Steampunk look, walking sticks, gourmet teas, Steampunk chocolates, and non-fiction books (thank you, Mark Donnelly) useful in researching period events suitable for incorporation into Steampunk fiction. Getting home from one of the Steampunk events involved lots of unpacking and a strong desire to get to work, and I don’t mean my regular job. So let’s look at another creative aspect of the Steampunk culture, and that is....
During my time attending SF conventions, I participated heavily in Filk Music events. I am a musician and started bringing a portable keyboard and writing my own songs. It was a fun social activity, but I didn’t know more than one or two people actually capable of earning a living as musicians, and nobody was making a living as a Science Fiction singer/songwriter. The Steampunk music scene is radically different. There is a lot of diversity with many groups having clearly identified storytelling themes and vocal styles.
Some of these groups, like Abney Park, Steam Powered Giraffe, Eli August and the Abandoned Buildings, Unwoman and Frenchy and the Punk tour and are in demand throughout the year. Some of this may be due in part to social media and YouTube, but I still don’t see a dedicated SF band oriented to the convention scene that is anywhere near the level of Abney Park or any of the others I’ve named. So where does that leave the amateurs who would be in a bardic circle in the old SF convention scene? It leaves them to act as individual buskers. So the music scene is split into buskers and scheduled concert performances. After following some of the groups online, I decided to add a Steampunk Flourish to my main home instrument. I started off with my Yamaha Clavinova looking like the top photo and by the time I was done, it looked like the photo underneath.
When I was involved with SF cons costuming was not a major focus of my experience. I saw some, but not many, of what were called “hall costumes” which people wore throughout the con, but they were a small minority. The major focus of costuming was the costume contest. Costumes were mostly derived from existing characters and I didn’t see many original creations except a few generic samples. When I got to my first Steampunk event, it was very different. The vast majority of people were in some sort of Steampunk garb, but except for the fantasy elements (ray guns, artificial arms, etc...)
most of it was hard to categorize. Like most of Steampunk, the focus is on individual expression, individual craft, and having a good time. Steampunk clothing serves as an expression of self image for a lot of people and identifies them as part of the culture. However, even those who forego this aspect of the culture can find a welcoming atmosphere.
Steampunk is not a counter-culture. It’s an alternative culture. It is complex, vibrant, and capable of sustaining itself for the long haul. It’s the culture of the maker, not the culture of the consumer. It’s derived from a distaste of sealed products and warnings not to “void the warranty.” I decided that having a product break and deciding what to do is where I would find a clear demarcation between the consumer culture and Steampunk. Let’s say something breaks down. Here’s the consumer response:
See what I mean?