To be honest, the whole Steampunk thing kinda snuck up on me. Which of course sounds rather like saying in wide-eyed innocence, “What elephant?” — when there’s one standing right behind you, flapping its ears to stir up a gale-force breeze. As my good friend, the multitalented writer Paul Di Filippo has noted, Steampunk seems to have become a cultural juggernaut, crushing everything in its path. To have not noticed its hissing and clanking approach, as I actually managed to do, indicates a blithe disconnection with the real world on my part, much commented upon by my wife Geri over the years, though to little avail. But then, I’ve always aspired to raising solipsism — Latin for utter self-absorption — to the status of an Olympic event.
That all this happened while I was gazing out the window, thinking about something else — or not thinking at all, which would be more likely — was brought home to me recently, while we were in England last year to attend the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. Before Geri and I headed down to enjoy the balmy pleasures of the British seaside in November — actually, the weather was frickin’ miserable. I think we only left the hotel twice in six days, once to nip across the back alley to a closet-sized pub with our friends Jim and Viki Blaylock and another for a two-block walk for dinner.
Anyway, before we went to Brighton, we were staying in the Colliers Wood neighborhood in South London for a few days. After a raucously successful signing event at Forbidden Planet, the UK’s premier genre bookstore, a radio journalist from Poland came out to interview me. At least, I believe he was Polish — my memory’s a little blurry on the subject, as we wound up talking at the pub next to our hotel, and the whole process was lubricated by several pints. (A shout-out to the establishment in question, the historic and cheerful Charles Holdon pub literally across the street from the Colliers Wood tube station; worth a visit if you’re in town, especially for the Sunday roast lunch.) At some point during the discussion, my interlocutor asked me what my master plan had been many long years ago when I had first been developing The Genre That Conquered the World —
Which, of course, is like asking a dog what it had been thinking when it scratched behind his left ear rather than his right ear. There are some things in the world that are not greatly premeditated acts, no matter how awesome their consequences. And the creation of Steampunk is one of them. The image of me in some sort of Dr. Evil-like lair, surrounded by smoking test tubes and lethal electrical apparatus emitting Jacob’s Ladders of sizzling sparks, while I painstakingly stitched together my literary monster, has little basis in reality, however amusing it might be to contemplate.
I told the Polish interviewer what I’ve told others before: that my only objective was to write an amusing fantastical novel, after writing a long string of the opposite sort, which had created the public impression that I was rather a grim personality instead of the sunnily dispositioned Pollyanna that I actually am. (Don’t laugh.) At the corner of my desk, I had a copy of the Victorian social researcher Henry Mayhew’s London Labour & the London Poor — rather hard to find back then, but which admirably suited my modest ambitions. And so I set to work on my Infernal Devices…
All the rest that’s happened since? In my defense, I plead that it’s not so much my doing as that of all the others who have gleefully piled into the Great Steampunk Lunatic Asylum since then. The party that’s going on in there, which seems to grow larger and noisier day by day?
I just like walking by every now and then, as the immense building sways from side to side, emitting clouds of vapour from every crack in the stone walls.
Carry on, ye goggled and rivet-corseted maniacs. You have my blessings.