Steam Powered 2008 Report

I wasn’t expecting to attend this convention – I should have been in Calgary for World Fantasy instead – but I’m very glad that I did, because it gave me a chance to check out a new and vibrant sub-genre of SF. Steampunk is a concept that is still finding its feet, despite a literary history dating back more than 30 years. That uncertainty was encapsulated in a panel in which David J Derus attempted to define the movement (because he’s trying to write a book on the subject).

The first issue with Steampunk is that is draws together a number of different areas of interest. Derus put up a Venn diagram composed of four circles: Literature, Fashion, “Makers” and Music. All of those elements were present at Steam Powered, and Derus might have added Gaming as well. The literature dates all the way back to books such as Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable series and Jim Blaylock’s Lord Kelvin’s Machine. It can also be argued that such books are simply modern versions of the work of Verne and Wells. Victorian science, therefore, has a literary pedigree almost as long as that of science fiction itself.

Costuming is, of course, a feature at many SF conventions, but Steam Powered was more costume-focused than most conventions that I have seen. Indeed, one person told me that it had more people in costume than the recent San Jose Costumecon. The quality of the outfits was very high, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that many of the attendees were also regulars at the San Francisco Dickens Fair, an event for Victorian re-enactors that has nothing to do with science fiction.

The “maker” movement is also very popular in the Bay Area. It attracts people who like to tinker and who have an aversion to the mass-produced conformity of modern consumer products. You don’t have to be a steampunk to be a maker, but the Victorian era is one in which DIY science and manufacturing was much more common than it is today. Also Victorian engineering is very visible, whereas modern engineering is all done on a micro- or nano- scale whose workings can’t be seen by the user. Makers tend to like being able to see how clever their artifacts are.

Finally there is music. The convention featured a concert by Abney Park, a band for whom “Steampunk” is a sub-culture in the same manner as “Goth” or “New Romantic” or, of course, good old “Punk”. It isn’t at all clear what steampunk music sounds like, but it very clear what a steampunk band and its audience looks like.

So the convention attracted people who came in via all of these different routes. Some of the attendees were interested in all four aspects, others might only be interested in one or two. That, apparently, didn’t matter. There was no sense of one aspect being regarded as the “real” steampunk in the same way that some people in SF define themselves as “real” fandom. If there was one thing that drew everyone together it would be the clothing, but even there attitudes were very open. Steampunk is not Victorian re-enactment, it is Victorian science fiction. As a result it is impossible to be a costume Nazi at a steampunk convention – the whole thing takes place in an alternate reality.

(I should note at this point that, while I wore two different “costumes” to the convention, nothing that I wore save for my pirate hat was actually acquired for that purpose. It was all street clothes.)

The other concern I had about steampunk was political. If you look at some of the fiction that appears to have steampunk themes, a lot of it portrays very conservative societies. In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age the Neo-Victorians chose their lifestyle because of their “Victorian Values” (as Margaret Thatcher used to say). John C Wright’s Golden Age trilogy is pretty much a manifesto for a return to the age of robber barons. So does steampunk embody “Victorian Values”? Apparently not.

One of the things that pleased me most about the weekend is the more or less unanimous opinion of the attendees that the “punk” in steampunk was, at least in part, about adapting Victoriana to modern sensibilities on race, gender and sexuality. I did wonder whether this was just a Bay Area thing, but I was assured that it was more widespread. This is a very good thing. One thing that the world doesn’t need more of is “Victorian Values”.

But what about the convention itself? Well, there were two tracks of moderately interesting programming (including Chris Garcia talking about Charles Babbage). There was a large and well stocked dealers’ room in which I could have spent a fortune. And there were some headline events such as period dancing and the Abney Park concert. For a 500 person convention, that wasn’t too bad. I had dinner with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer on the Sunday and they professed themselves happy with the event.

This was the first convention put on by this particular group, though some of them did have con-running experience elsewhere. Andy Trembley lists some of the things that went wrong on his LiveJournal. None of this mattered very much because it was a small convention and everyone was having a great time anyway. A more serious issue may have been the lack of balance in the dealers’ room. Pretty much every stall was selling the same sort of things, and that’s bad because they are all competing with each other. A smart convention tries to have a wide variety of dealers so as to have something that appeals to all members, and to reduce the level of competition inside the room. My guess is that the dealers at Steam Powered did not do very well, and that means that some of them may not come back.

The hotel (which is to be used for Potlatch early next year) was OK. There was a lack of good sitting-and-socializing space, but Potlatch should be able to overcome that because it will have a con suite and it won’t fill the lobby up with exhibits. There is also a nice sitting space out by the pool, and if Potlatch is lucky it won’t suffer the hideously authentic British weather than afflicted Steam Powered. As Andy suggests, the hotel restaurant may prove an issue, but there is a wealth of good places to eat within a block or two and the Potlatch crowd are very resourceful when it comes to getting fed.

As to the future, like Andy I am very dubious about the convention’s plans. People who think that they can make a business out of con-running generally come badly unstuck. I hope this doesn’t happen to these guys, because they seemed nice folks, but if it does then I am sure that someone else will start up a steampunk convention. The idea is too good to die.

You can find my photos of the event here, and Kevin’s photos here. There is also some video linked to here.

3 thoughts on “Steam Powered 2008 Report

  1. Yes, Phil was there. Also Kaja and the children. I believe it was the first convention for Victor and Alex, save for ones where they were babes in arms. See Kevin’s photos.

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