At a Glance

I am so over steampunk, I think I went all the way around, liked it again, then passed it by several more times.  Not that I was very into steampunk.  My enjoyment of the genre begins and ends with steam-powered robots.  I love robots in any and all of their forms, and so if you give me a robot in a top hat, I’m on board with that.  Still am.  But that’s about it.

Perhaps it’s unfair to generalize, but it seems to me that steampunk’s popularity is mostly due to its costume design.  Granted, I haven’t read much of it, but how much do I really need to read?  It’s like zombie fiction.  I don’t begrudge its fans, but it ain’t my bag.  It seems too repetitive, too predictable.  It’s an unfair complaint though because I have my share of predictable, repetitive fiction genres that I continue to love and enjoy.

But allow me to explore this thought a little more.

Cosplay is, for better or worse, a big thing among a certain group of sci fi / fantasy fans.  And some characters and concepts are going to be easier to make a costume for than others.  This might just be why zombies remain so popular.  They are, aside from possibly vampires, the easiest monster to imitate.  Put on some bloodied clothing.  Mess up your hair.  Stumble around.  There.  You’re a zombie.  This is undoubtedly why zombie walks are so popular.  You really don’t have to do much.  There are folks who go the extra mile, some truly amazing makeup and prosthetic work done by some, but for the most part, being a zombie is as easy as groaning and dragging one of your legs behind you.

Vampires, depending on the type you choose to imitate, are easier, but they also tend not to be readily recognizable.  Isn’t that one of the appeals of the modern day vampire?  They look like you and me and walk among us, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, undetected.  Vampires in cloaks with fangs or monstrous versions are scary too, but not in the same manner.  And also, more difficult to imitate at a glance.  Unless you go the full Bela Lugosi, a nice option but also not really scary anymore.  So a parade of vampires would, for all practical purposes, be a bunch of regular people walking along.

Steampunk, like zombies, is instantly recognizable.  It takes more work than playing zombie, but it still seems relatively easy.  Buy or make some Victorian-themed clothing.  Take a Nerf gun, spray paint it black, glue some extra bits on it.  And you’re done.  Like zombies there are certainly folks who put more effort to it than others, but at the end of the day, it’s not that hard to be casually steampunk.

With only a passing familiarity for the genre, I’m not implying that it isn’t worthwhile or that its sole appeal is the costumes.  But it certainly helps.  Not just because it’s easy to imitate, but because it’s easy to put on a cover and make instantly recognizable.  Just like zombies.  I don’t doubt that one of the strengths of these (and other) genres is its branding, its ability to be recognized at a glance.

We don’t talk about this enough but branding is important and pretending like it isn’t is rather silly.  In studies, if someone prefers Coca Cola and is allowed to see the Coca Cola label while drinking the soda, the pleasure centers in their brain become more active than if they are just drinking the soda.  Our enjoyment of something can (and most certainly is) affected by previous conditioning.  I am not conditioned to especially fond of zombies or steampunk, but I do love robots.  I could give some justification for that, but it seems to come down to previous experience and habits.  It doesn’t mean I can’t be discriminating.  I didn’t see the last Transformers movie because, robots aside, I had no interest in the brand of robogore and shakycam that the movie had to offer.  But if a movie has a good robot in it, I’m willing to ignore a lot of other things.

Great fantasy / sci fi characters usually have a branded quality to them.  Han Solo has his black vest, black pants.  Indiana Jones has his fedora.  Godzilla has his familiar cry, his fins.  Garrus has that eye thing he wears that serves no obvious purpose, but looks cool.  Superman has his red and blue, his cape.  Batman has his pointed ears, his cape.  Spider-Man has his . . . okay, so this is especially true with superheroes.  The question becomes sort of a chicken and the egg dilemma.  Do these characters make their costumes great or do great costumes make these characters?

The answer is probably that neither is more important the the other, and that these factors intertwine to make great characters.

The steampunk genre has the cool designs.  It’s just waiting for its defining character to arrive.  If that character ever hits the mainstream, then steampunk has a real future.  But right now, it has all the appearances of a fad.  Not that I know that for sure.  Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with it if it does end up being a fad.  I’d kill to have a character or story that was a cultural fad.

But what do I know?  I was positive the zombie genre would’ve been used up years ago, and I seem to have been right.  It hasn’t stopped it from prospering.  Maybe it’s the ease of the zombie cosplay.  Maybe it’s the success of its branding.  Or maybe I just didn’t grow up watching the right movies to appreciate it.  Whatever the reason, it seems to be hear to stay.  And maybe steampunk is the same thing.  I won’t even pretend to be able to predict it.  But as long as there are robots involved, I have no complaints.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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One Comment

  1. Kyle White
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post, Alex, but I think there’s one error in your argument: you’ve lumped cosplay steampunk and literary steampunk together. It’s been my experience that the two are completely separate obsessions.

    The cosplay folks love the clothes and gadgets and being seen. More power to them. I think goggles are cool, but don’t own a pair.

    Literary steampunk folks love the clothes and gadgets, too, but on the printed page. While I own no goggles, I own dozens of steampunky books.

    Sadly, the two – cosplay and literary – don’t always mix. At the cons, I’ve learned just because someone enjoys dressing in corsets, or knickers doesn’t mean he or she reads steampunk literature. Most don’t. As for us steampunk literary aficionados, we might dabble in cosplay every now and then, plus read the books.

    All this being said, I will agree with two of your points:

    1. Steampunk may have a limited shelf life, because there are only so many plausible ways to write stories about zeppelins, ray guns and corsets.

    2. A robot in a top hat – especially if he’s steampowered and the top hat is his smokestack – is uber cool.

    Keep up the good work.

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