Sunday, December 18, 2011

Steampulp vs. Steampunk

This is one of those articles which may cause me to lose some readers, but the topic has been burdening me for a bit so I figure it's best to get it off my chest.

Recently I decided to participate in Nevermet Press's Krampus Christmas Carnival. Blog carnivals link blogs and websites together for a common monthly theme. The theme of this carnival is the Krampus, an anti-Santa that inflicts harm and scolding upon the children on the naughty list. It sounded like fun, so I added my blog to the list of participants.

When I write something, anything really, I perform research to give the story depth. I read the Krampus wiki and asked coworkers of various nationalities about the creature. Most called Krampus by the name of Black Santa, a shadowy being that entered the bedrooms on Christmas Eve to punish bad children. You could tell the memories of Black Santa were not found ones.

Since I write Horror/Adventure books, the Krampus makes a good fictional creature. My plan for the blog carnival is to write a short story about Thomas Gunn who, as a child, encounters Krampus and plays Encyclopedia Brown to stop the Yuletide Punisher in his tracks. I ran into plot issues since the story happens all in one night and communication in 1910 was difficult. The ending never jelled in my head so I abandoned it.

Since that path failed I decided to try another track. The carnival called for a Steampunk setting so I started researching exactly what that meant. I call the Space 1889 setting Steampunk but have discovered how very wrong I am. Apparently, the appropriate title for 1889 is Steam Pulp. I agree with that name now that I've investigated Steam Punk a bit more.

Steam Punk, as detailed in the SteamPunk Magazine, is a movement akin to anarchy working against Victorian Society to bring that social structure down. As they state: "it's more than just adding brass gears to equipment." Below is a quote from their magazine.

BEFORE THE age of homogenization and micro-machinery, before the tyrannous efficiency of internal combustion and the domestication of electricity, lived beautiful, monstrous machines that lived and breathed and exploded unexpectedly at inconvenient moments. It was a time where art and craft were united, where unique wonders were invented and forgotten, and punks roamed the streets, living in squats and fighting against despotic governance through wit, will and wile. 
Even if we had to make it all up. 
SteamPunk Magazine is a publication that is dedicated to promoting SteamPunk as a culture, as more than a sub-category of fiction. It is a journal of fashion, music, misapplied technology and chaos. And fiction. 
It just may be the most spectacular magazine to ever fight against the spectacle, and it is free. Or as cheap as we can possibly get it to you. Using the latest in Creative Commons technology, we undermine the fascism of copyright while protecting ourselves from direct co-option. 
We sell the magazine for as close to cost as we can manage, and we offer it for free PDF download for printing at home.

They lost me at 'tyrannous efficiency of the internal combustion engine' and more so at 'the fascism of copyright'.

I read several articles and disliked each more than its predecessor. Apparently it's the Punk aspect they cling to, ala the Punk Rock phenomenon where thrashing singers puked on their adoring fans. How shall I say this? Punk was never my cup of tea.

So, after researching Steam Punk I realized I had nothing to offer for the Carnival. That genre is never one I would enjoy the way the purest enjoy it. On the flip side, this is just one opinion but one I saw several times. I've read stories that were supposed to be Steam Punk but had none of the 'screw technology and laws' aspect to them. They were just pleasant stories about semi-magical steam and brass devices.

So, what to do?

Basically I decided to ignore them. It's akin to changing the channel if you don't enjoy a TV show. I play games as an escapist. I have no desire to fight old ideologies of colonialism and stratified social structures. The equipment and period settings attract me to Victorian game Savage World settings like Space 1889 and The Kerberos Club.

I eventually stumbled upon Frank Chadwick's blog, where he states that Space 1889 is actually Steam Pulp. I now realize that most of the Steam Punk fiction I enjoy is actually Steam Pulp fiction. Everything slid into place in my head like a metal gear turning to advance an 1890's clock.

I love writing pulp. The pulp genre has a few rules: good is clearly good and bad is clearly bad, people seldom die unless it advances the story in some way, and the villain always gets away. Even these rules aren't set in stone but act more as guidelines. Pulp is a genre I can get behind and enjoy. It's not that the character's can't be complex with foibles aplenty, it's just you can empathize with them.

So, I sat down to write the short story and stared at my empty Scrivener window. Nothing came. The curse of the blinking cursor dogged my every thought. Once more I'm left with the question: what to do?

Eventually I decided to resurrect an old character of mine that is truly twisted. Tomorrow you'll see a Savage Worlds version of my were-Santa along with his punishing sidekick Krampus and a drunk Fairy named Tinkler Girl. I hope you enjoy it. It's about as Punk as I get.



  1. Not exactly the scathing retort I expected but the comment is appreciated all the same.

  2. Oh man I was just thinking about what Savage Worlds stats for the Krampus would be like. I can't wait to see what you come up with! I may have to inject him into my Deadlands game.

  3. I like the term Steam Pulp. I'd say Steam Pulp (and Steam Fantasy) have been more popular then Steam Punk almost from the beginning - at least in literature and RPG's. Music and visual stuff has favoured the punk a little more.

    Good luck changing the name, though.

  4. I played Space: 1889 for years. I love that setting. I was ecstatic when it came to Savage Worlds. Since that's called a SteamPunk setting, I just assumed that's what SteamPunk was. Apparently I've been living a lie all these years.

    It's true that most of my Victorian characters flow against the societal grain. We are much more egalitarian these days and my characters reflected that. Red Captain Robert Anderson, Sky Captain of Mars, left Earth in search of adventure. Is that Punk or Pulp. My detector needle points to Pulp. True, he fought the Belgians and their raping of Mars. That might be considered Punk but it seems more Pulpy.

    I guess my problem with Punk is that is seems more like a character trait than a genre. That said, Pulp was more of a delivery medium than a genre, but gamers have effectively taken over the word.

  5. Dear Mr S Troll

    I'm a dabbler in Steampunk, and I have to say the impression that you've got from your research most certainly does NOT gel with my personal experiences. It sounds like this Steampunk magazine is run by a small clique who are trying desperately to be "hip" and "edgy", and most certainly do not represent the larger steampunk community.

    Steampunk is in fact a fairly broad church that prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming to all. The core element is the appeal of a bygone, romanticised age and applying nineteenth century aesthetics to modern day life and technology. The 'punk' element is there, in the form of a rebellion against the ills of the 21st century - mass marketing, rampant consumerism, lack of interpersonal manners.

    People with far too much time on their hands have tried to argue fine points of definitions of steampunk and it's related genres, in the same way that they've argued what it takes to be a "proper goth" or a "true American". Such people are largely arguing just for the sheer joy they get from hearing their own voices.

    That's not to say that all the various terms aren't useful, it's just that they all tend to describe elements and flavours of the same overall thing. I think you can still call Space 1889 steampunk, just as well as you can call it Victorian Science Fiction or Steam-Pulp. It's not an either-or proposition, as each descriptor focusses on different elements of the whole.

    Earlier in the year I attended The Asylum Steampunk Festival at Lincoln, which was my first real taste of the Steampunk subculture. Attendees were a wide range of ages (from greybeards to mere coglings), social backgrounds and levels of dedication. People were there with the most intricately designed and built costumes, my group were there with some hastily cobbled together outfits with bits of brass stuck on. Everyone was welcoming and friendly, we promenaded around the streets, tipping hats to ladies, attending presentations by notable guests and generally partying like it's 1899. Airship pirates rubbed shoulders with redcoated officers of the 3rd Foot & Mouth and members of the Royal Dirigible Corps. The evening musical entertainment ranged from music-hall standards through an eclectic mix of styles to chap-hop. Even at the one genuinely "punk" music gig, my friend DeadEdd spent the evening moshing in top-hat and tails and still managed to arrive back at the hotel with an impeccably tied cravat. Over the whole weekend, nobody to my knowledge was puked on, only one person became the worse for drink and was ejected swiftly and silently by the security staff, and despite several hundred steampunks descending on the town, many of whom were openly carrying replica firearms and swords, I didn't once see a single policeman or hear of any trouble. Everyone was simply Splendid.

    The point I'm trying to make is that to most of the people I met at The Asylum would have no interest at all in the exclusive, anarchistic steampunk that the magazine you found seems to subscribe to. And so while you're free to label your games and writing however you want, please don't judge and reject all things steampunk based on the dickishness of a vocal minority.,0s712x350.jpg
    (Back row, just to the left of third pillar from the left - that slight smudge of white is my pith helmet.)

  6. Good to hear from you Dr. V.

    Up to this point, your experience has been mine. The items labeled Steam Punk have been, for the most part, about a politer society in a simpler technological time with a bit of Aether or Steam magic thrown in for good measure. My problem began when I found other, sympathetic voices to the magazine listed.

    There are some great Victorian era games: Rippers, Kerberos Club, Deadlands, and Space: 1889 just to name a few. I love each of these settings and had considered each to be Steam Punk. Even Frank Chadwick, the King of Steam, called 1889 a Steam Punk setting.

    Perhaps I'm making a bit much out of a few out-spoken anarchists. Perhaps they're the ones who hijacked Steam Punk and not the rest of us.

    (great photo, BTW. It was easy to pick you out)

    As always, thanks for the feedback.

  7. Dear Troll,
    Always good to hear folks thinking about things like this although, as with most things, it never does to think about them too much. Wear out your brains, you know.

    I'm surprised you learned about Steampulp from my blog; I can't remember using it myself, but someone else may have. Hard to keep track. (Too many words!) I've never had a problem with the term Steampunk itself as I figure the fellow who made the term up in the first place, K. W. Jeter, gets first shot at saying what it means, and in his original letter to Locus magazine way back when he 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 "steampunks", perhaps.'

    To me, the key point is that the defining element of the term is centered on "the technology of the era," to which the "punk" appelation was added as playful afterthought. Making punk the defining element misses the point, and demanding that it invariably must be deathly serious social commentary takes the original term and blows it from the mouth of a cannon. I think, at the very least, it puts the cart before the horse.

    But all of that said, Steampulp is a perfectly fine term, and right now people seem bent on dividing the genre up into Lacepunk, Clockpunk, Dieselpunk, Clockwork Romance, and any number of other subdivisions. I'd say there's plenty of room for Steampulp as well.

  8. Given that the originator of the term meant it to mean what I've always thought that it means, I'm comfortable with the Steam Punk label and will ignore the attempts to hijack it.

  9. "Steampunk: When Goth's discovered Brown" - @jessnevins

    LOL.. in all "seriousness" though I have to echo the above commenters. Steampunk is not about tearing down society - but more about redefining for yourself. The "punk" in steam is more a reference to a DIY approach to things such fashion, design, technology, and other aesthetics.This may be why you'll read/hear people say "it's not just about putting cogs on things". And.. while I would say that's true, I might also say that putting the "cogs on things" is a symbolic representation that says "Hey - this here thingamabober is steampunk, OK?" It's like a nametag.

    But I'm not a LARPer or a COSPlay fan - so I can't say that I would look forward to playing dress up at a Con looking like a Mad Hatter (although I might be convinced...). For me Steampunk is about the Story. In gaming - its pulp horror mixed with victorian fantasy. In literature - the same. Zombies? sure. Airships? whynot. Romance? A little - but I know there's a huge fan base of people who are into steampunk erotica. Ray guns? That's pushing it. It's a mixing of genres with lots of potential.

    It's not an antiestablishment movement that targets "fascism". In fact - some DeiselPunks look pretty friggen fascist already.

    don't get me started...

    (BTW - thanks for the links!)

  10. Thanks for the comment, Jonathan.

    For those who don't know, Dr. Jonathan Jacobs runs Nevermet Press ( He provides a venue for SciFi, Fantasy, and SteamPunk stories called Tales from the Ether. I recommend giving it a read.

    I'm diving back into research mode again. I've found some great stuff on the SteamPunk, Punk, and DIY movements. Expect another article on this subject after New Years.