Blame Jon del Arroz. I attended the steampunk panel at LibertyCon, and Jon announced that 1) he’s got the next two books in the steampunk series coming out in August and September and 2) he’s trying to revive steampunk as a genre, and is starting a #SummerofSteampunk campaign. (Scroll down toward the bottom of the post.)
I don’t tweet, twit, Gab, or whatever they are calling it this week, but I agree with Jon, and not just because I have a steampunk novel and novella available for sale.
Some of you may recall my frustration when I went hunting for cover art for “In the Vliets” and found a lot of covers that struck me as more Victorian Paranormal Romance than steampunk. As in, not so many gears and goggles and too many gals in leather corsets and crinolines. When the only women in the story are both proper Victorian ladies who don’t run around showing their shoulders over leather, well, the art might hurt sales by promising what the story doesn’t deliver.
To me, that says that steampunk as a sub-genre of fantasy or sci-fi has hit a bit of a marketing barrier. At 1600 CDT on Wednesday of this past week, only four of the top 20 best-selling steampunk books on Amazon had actual steampunk elements, and one of those books was Lovecraftian horror with some steampunk blended in by virtue of when it was set. That’s cool, but where’s my Jules Verne, William Gibson, and other “steampunk” stories? It appears there’s a problem, especially because the #1, #5 and #6 are space opera with (apparently) a few steampunk elements tacked on. Once past #20 things improve and you find the Parasol Protectorate series among others.
Granted, Amazon is not a perfect source, but if the top 20 steampunk books have fewer than 20 titles that are obviously steampunk, either the genre needs a little re-defining or people are not reading “pure” steampunk*, assuming such a thing exists aside from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
I suspect that steampunk has been folded into too many sub-sub-genres, and has been diluted by the other messages being imposed on some of those genres. To me, steampunk has the sense-of-wonder that the originals included, Verne and those Victorian and Edwardian penny-dreadful story tellers who explored their world and its technologies. Think of the original Wild Wild West TV show, but with more air ships and experimental technology. Weird West can include steampunk, but also encompasses a wider time-frame.
Steampunk is in many ways as much an aesthetic as a genre, as the song “Stick Some Gears on It” points out. It is more than “Goths in brown with goggles,” however. To me, it has to be set 1) before much electricity was in use, 2) in a steam and hydraulics world, 3) with adventure and a sense of wonder, 4) and have a neat story. I’m flexible about the first three to an extent, but you have to tell me a cracking good story, like H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne did.
*Or people are gaming the keywords to bump their ranking, which is a whole ‘nother mess entirely.