A guest post by Tee Morris

Steampunk, a recent trend in literature, fashion, and music… that’s been “a fad” since the Seventies. 1979, to be exact.

People tend to gloss over that little fact, and while some sneer at it as publishing’s “current flavor of the month” the term “steampunk” was originally coined by K. W. Jeter in a correspondence to Locus Magazine:

“Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night … a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first…

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps…”

Here we are, 32 years later, and still as Pip and I were writing Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel, we were asked again and again:

“Steampunk? What’s that?”

There’s a reason why, when you jump from steampunk site to steampunk site on the Internet, there are pages that define the genre, and each website — be it this website, our own, or the Wikipedia entry featuring K.W. Jeter’s earlier-cited letter — each sport a different answer. There’s a lot to steampunk, but one thing it is not is “a fad” because by definition a fad is:

“an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze”

And what are examples of fads? Just from the Eighties, I remember…

  • Tom Cruise making classic Ray Bans shades cool in Risky Business, and then giving them repeat business for their Aviator sunglasses in Top Gun.
  • Vans checkerboard shoes, made popular by Jeff Spiccoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Parachute pants, skinny satin ties, and leg warmers. Two of these fashion statements I wore proudly. (No, I didn’t wear leg warmers.)
  • Rubik’s Cube
  • Pac-Man

When I hear fans — and even a few of my fellow authors — describe steampunk as a fad, I shake my head because this clever, creative sub-genre of science fiction has a long way to go before really being a “fad.” Being a fad insinuates it’s mainstream; and steampunk just isn’t there yet. Oh, it’s dipping its big toe in the mainstream pool, sure, but this pool’s got a wicked deep end.

So how do we take this thirty-two-year-old “fad” and make it mainstream? I’ve come up with a three-step plan for myself. So far, it’s been working for me and I’d like to offer it to Steampunk.com for its archives and its loyal readers.

Step One: Come up with an Elevator Pitch. As I said earlier, there is a lot to steampunk, and if you clobber the curious with a lot of details, you will lose them. Quickly. So, here is my own pitch that sums up steampunk:

“Picture your modern conveniences — smartphones, iPads, computers, air travel — but power them with steam and dress it with Victorian flair. Brass decorations. Wooden fixtures. That’s steampunk.”

The aim here is to give people references they can relate to. Other good references would include:

  • The TV show The Wild, Wild West
  • Disney’s classic adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • The Hugh Jackman-Christian Bale film, The Prestige [Based on the eponymous book by Christopher Priest - jrrl]
  • Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang
  • The Robert Downey-Jude Law Sherlock Holmes

Now if you are raising an eyebrow at Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, just track with me. I’ll address that in Step Three.

Step Two: Respect the Classics. Once you have attentions and curious minds, another step forward is to chat up steampunk’s most revered heroes, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. While Verne and Wells are regarded as part of the foundation of science fiction, they would be listed as “steampunk” authors if they were writing their works today. Again, you’re going with familiar mainstream territory. People know War of the Worlds (in its various adaptations), 20,000 Leagues, The Time Machine, Around the World in 80 Days, and so on. Jeter, Powers, and others drew from these classics for inspiration. You’re drawing from Verne and Wells here as a starting point.

Step Three: Don’t Get Lost in the Details. Now I address the earlier reference to Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang.

“But, Tee, isn’t Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang more dieselpunk than steampunk?”

Yeah, the hair-splitting. Already, S.M.O.F.s (Secret Masters of Fandom) are starting to rear their heads in steampunk by trying to classify everything in some nice-and-neat genre ending in “punk.” To those struggling to understand what steampunk is, dropping sub-genres like dieselpunk, ricepunk, atompunk, Teslapunk, and so-on, will grant you the curious stare soon followed by the awkward glance to their wristwatch while uttering “Wow, is that the time?”

However, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are passionate about steampunk and about the community, so it is very easy to go overboard and drop reference upon reference. We want to bring it to the mainsteam, and we want it done right. I know, speaking for myself, I want to point people to the photography of J.R. Blackwell, the music of Professor Elemental, the comedy of The League of S.T.E.A.M., and this website, and Airship Ambassador, and Catherinette Rings, and Doctor Fantastique’s Show of Wonders, and Steamed!, and… and…

See what I mean? It reminds me a bit of when I took Astronomy — a 400 Level Physics course — when I attended James Madison University. (This was for my General Studies. Friends thought I was nuts.) The professor started off the filled-to-capacity class with the physics of gravity. By the end of the first two weeks, over three-quarters of the class was gone.

We don’t want to be that professor.

Perhaps you’re seeing the pattern in this three step approach: Patience. Presently, steampunk is gaining momentum and people everywhere are trying their best to either understand or capitalize on it. Taking steampunk to the mainstream, though, will only happen with a bit of patience. (It’s been over 32 years since the term was coined, so we should all be good at that!) As much as we want to bring the mainstream into this creative community, we have to take everything one step at a time, not lose people in the diverse wonder that our genre offers. Start simple, then build.

The good news is there are many wonderful places to start. In books, two wonderful primers for understanding steampunk are The Steampunk Bible, compiled and edited by Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers; and the unassuming title Steampunk Style Jewelry by Jean Campbell. Both of these titles offer columns by musicians, artists, and seamstresses on what steampunk is, and the artwork and photography in both titles are quite stunning. In film, there are the earlier mentioned films The Prestige or Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; or for a meeting of yesterday and today, there is Time After Time where H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper through time to modern day (well, 1979) San Francisco. These are all excellent gateways into the wonderful world of steampunk.

And, of course, if you want to give someone an idea of how much fun steampunk can be, take a look at Pip’s and my book Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel.

Is steampunk mainstream? Not quite; but with beauty blogs and Horror magazines giving the genre a bit of attention, maybe that patience is starting to pay off.

Tee Morris began his writing career with his 2002 historical epic fantasy, MOREVI The Chronicles of Rafe & Askana. In 2005 Tee took MOREVI into the then-unknown podosphere, making his novel the first book podcast in its entirety. That experience led to the founding of Podiobooks.com and collaborating with Evo Terra and Chuck Tomasi on Podcasting for Dummies and its follow-up, Expert Podcasting Practices for Dummies. He won acclaim and accolades for his cross-genre fantasy-detective Billibub Baddings Mysteries, the podcast of The Case of the Singing Sword winning him the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Audio Drama. Along with those titles, Tee has written articles and short stories for BenBella Books’s Farscape Forever: Sex, Drugs, and Killer Muppets, the podcast anthology VOICES: New Media Fiction, BenBella Books’ So Say We All: Collected Thoughts and Opinions of Battlestar Galactica, and Dragon Moon Press’ Podthology: The Pod Complex.

When he is not writing, Tee enjoys life in Virginia alongside Philippa Ballantine, his daughter, and five cats (3 female, 2 males). Considering the male-to-female ratio in his house, Tee understands how General Custer felt near his end.