Let me start this post by telling a little story.
I knew a guy in college who went to GenCon every year. He would go dressed as the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride film. He told me that he would find people dressed up as “Steampunk people” and ask who they were. When they inevitably responded “Steampunk”, he would ask them who Steampunk was. According to him, they never had an intelligent answer.
His point was that they were not dressed as recognizable characters from beloved franchises, which, in his mind, was the point of dressing up at GenCon. Even the crappiest Jedi costume was at least trying to evoke the Star Wars franchise and the positive memories many have of it.
Basically, what he is saying (and I mostly agree with), is that Steampunk is a fashion. It is a specific visual design, but that’s it. The pocketless Star Trek uniform is also a specific visual design, but it points to something (in this case, Star Trek). The Steampunk outfit does not point at anything. It’s just a funny outfit. Imagine if a man went to a convention with a full body spandex suit, a helmet, a jetpack, and a lasergun and said they were a “Spaceman”.
While I like the Steampunk visuals and the potential of great stories that could be told in a Steampunk world, it does not seem to have happened yet.
What is wrong with Steampunk is that there is no central media that all Steampunk can get around. For example, in sci-fi, you have the two big franchises: Star Trek and Star Wars, along with a bunch of other media properties (Doctor Who, Stargate, Bablyon 5, etc). These franchises all have something in common. They exist in a visual medium. I believe that is the key for Steampunk to break out.
For better or worse, movies / television shows are the rulers of mass pop culture media. If Steampunk is to become anything other than a reason to glue gears to otherwise normal objects…
… there will need to be a strong Steampunk movie or television series. Or possibly even a book / comic book that is immensely popular. If nothing else, this particular piece of media must have something recognizable among not just the majority of Steampunk fans, but also non-Steampunkers. Right now, I do not think that piece of media exists. There must be a strong, striking visual element that grabs the imagination. I know I am sounding anti-Steampunk, but I desperately want it to work. I think that there is some real potential to tell some really interesting stories in a Steampunk setting.
For instance, I had high hopes that Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura would be that breakout media, but it was not. The magic vs technology inherent in the setting (compared to the materialism found in most Steampunk), as well as being a PC-only isometric roleplaying game probably had something to do with it not lighting the fire of the Steampunk movement.
Another factor I have not mentioned yet, another hurdle that Steampunk will need to leap over, is the “realism” concern. Allow me to explain:
In a magical fantasy or a high-tech sci-fi future, it is easy to suspend disbelief because as long as the rules of magic / high-tech stuff is consistent, many readers will not notice or care about the unrealistic nature of it all. Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel is pretty much impossible as far as we know, so any sci-fi story with it is un-scientific and un-realistic. However, as long as the rules regarding the FTL are consistently adhered to, the reader/viewer won’t care. For example, if it takes 3 days to get to Earth from Alpha Centauri via FTL and the protagonist must get to Earth to save the damsel from being eaten by mutant roaches that wander the nuclear-blasted wilderness, don’t suddenly allow him to arrive in 2 hours (unless you have introduced a character earlier in the story that is working on a Mk. Two FTL drive that the protagonist is friends with)! Re-write the story so that she has to hide out from the roaches!
With Steampunk, there is just barely enough knowledge in the public mind about why it is an unworkable technology. Since Steampunk is generally on an alternate history Earth, the small amount of knowledge about real world history that the public schools allow to be taught makes it more difficult to believe a Steampunk story.
Where are all the trees required to keep the engines powered? Why aren’t all the gears exposed to the elements stopped up? In the real world, a lot of steam technology was replaced by more efficient technology, so the Steampunk author must figure out how to deal with why people have not searched for more efficient technology than steam. Maybe a genius created a more efficient steam engine. Maybe Gary’s Gear-Gunk-Be-Gone only needs to be applied once a week to keep all the gears turning. In any case, this needs to be figured out and consistently applied before the disbelief can be properly suspended.
So how does this get fixed? How do we create some sort of media that will visually inspire people? The point of this post is not to criticize, whine, and nag. I merely want to point out the issues and then try to brainstorm some ways to overcome them.
Step # 1) Someone needs to write a great Steampunk story. Not a story that completely ignores Victorian values and is just a modern-thinking lady in a corset trying to decide between a werewolf and a vampire boyfriend, but an actual story that takes the pseudo-Victorian values assumed in the Steampunk setting and honestly engages them.
Step # 2) The story, if a book, needs great cover art that catches the eye, in order to lead to …
Step # 3) Someone creates a movie based on the book with striking visual design that DOES NOT OVERLY RELY ON CGI.
Step # 4) More people will know about Steampunk and appreciate it.
Steampunk will be a success, in my not-so-humble opinion, when someone comes to a convention covered in gears and a top hat and everyone there says, “That is a great Engineer Edward cosplay!”.
P.S. While writing this post, I had the Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura soundtrack on repeat. I am musically inept, but the string quartet featured is mesmerizing. Take a listen:
P.P.S. If there was a mod for Divinity: Original Sin to replicate Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (minus the real-time combat), that would probably make my brain explode in joy.