Last year, we were lucky enough to be invited to the Steampunk World’s Fair. Besides having a wonderful time meeting everyone and just experiencing the festival, we were struck by the high level of creativity throughout. Many were looking to make a profit (nothing wrong with that); some were not. However, all were joyously sharing their creative output.
But how many are giving thought to safeguarding their creative efforts? The Steampunk community is stuffed with inventive and imaginative types. Musicians, performance artists, writers, visual artists, jewelry designers, milliners, costumers of all varieties — the list goes on. After all, a lot of work goes into making these wonderful things that have become the Steampunk experience.
Why should you even think about this? Well, here is what happened at our house.
Steampunk is something that came upon my family in gradual stages. Many of you know that I am married to the writer K. W. Jeter, the person who coined the term Steampunk. So full disclosure here — I have more than a casual interest in the movement/genre/lifestyle.
Back when K. W. first coined the term, it was, at most, an amusing aside to describe a few fun books written by him, Jim Blaylock, and Tim Powers. All three were students at Cal State Fullerton in Southern California and, like most college friends, spent a considerable amount of time drinking beer and settling the great issues of the day. And, like most things people eventually take seriously, they talked about all their writing, the Victorian-influenced stuff they were or might be doing, and the publishing industry in general — but in a pretty larky fashion.
So when all the hype was happening around the Cyberpunk label, K. W. wrote that 1987 note to Locus magazine, which said:
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 ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
He thought it was fun that the magazine actually published the letter.
Our life was extraordinarily busy in 1987/1988 so we pretty much forgot about the entire issue until the publication of The Difference Engine (1990) by Bruce Stirling and William Gibson. As the work was billed as a “Steampunk” alternate history, I took notice. K. W., as usual, just kept working on his current projects and paid little, if any, attention. Then Paul di Filippo’s 1995 book The Steampunk Trilogy appeared using the term in the title.
K. W.’s only reaction was that it was interesting the term was being used at all.
However, I was beginning to see on various science fiction bulletin boards (remember bulletin boards) and in the rudimentary search engines prevalent in the 1990s’ version of the Internet that the term’s origin was being attributed to everyone but K. W. So I decided to fix that. After all, he coined a cool word, so I thought people should know.
A quick look through the writing files, a run to the copy shop (no home scanners back then), and a few years later, an upgrade from a photocopy to a photograph and JPEG, and I was armed and ready. I periodically ran a search for “Steampunk,” checked out the entries, and emailed the site or bulletin board manager with the correction. Some asked for a copy of the letter, others were fine with just the verbal correction, but all were welcoming of receiving the correct information. As true fans, they just wanted to “get it right.” (Well, except for the muggles at The New York Times. But that’s another story.)
Fast forward to a few years ago. Suddenly Steampunk was a “thing.” And a really nifty thing, at that. Who knew?
Television shows like Sanctuary and Warehouse 13, and the wildly popular Dr. Who, lean heavily on the Victorian “look.” Also, films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The City of Lost Children, and the award-winning Hugo are Victorian in design and period. And Steampunk-related books now make up a strong percentage of the fantasy market — how sweet is that?
Did K. W. go after those who pitched their tents in the Steampunk campground? Heck no. But it is a terrific community, and his verified history with the genre has allowed for him to be involved — to have a good place at the table, so to speak. And he is appreciative of the people who have adopted Steampunk as an integral part of their lives.
It’s a long way from a more-than-slightly flippant letter to a magazine.
So, Steampunk artists, makers, and creators! Are you protecting what is yours? Or do you say to yourself, “I’m only a small player. Why would it matter to me?”
My answer to that is, “You just never know.”