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Has Steampunk Jumped the Shark?

30 January 2012 by

I picked up a copy of Jeff Vandermeere and S.J. Chambers’ The Steampunk Bible the other day and came across an interesting quote from Libby Bulloff in one of the articles (“The Future of Steampunk: Will Clockwork Gears, Mechanical Corsets, and Dirigibles Be Enough?” )

“Steampunk jumped the shark way back in 2008. A) Madonna appeared in the American Airlines magazine in Steampunk garb. B) That’s when I started seeing fetish/erotic Steampunk-themed club nights. That’s also about the time when the voices of the people trying to define Steampunk overtook those who just wanted to describe the aesthetic. But, hell, what do I know?”

- Libby Bulloff

Personally, I knew steampunk was mainstream when I found a small press dinosaur magazine with a steampunk cover (a Wellsian traveler and his machine menaced by a T-Rex, sadly way more interesting than the mag’s actual contents). It had never occurred to me that the genre may have passed it’s cultural sell-by date. Though, I confess to wondering if the genre would eventually share cyberpunk’s fate.

It’s such an interesting question I thought I’d see what other people thought about it.

And Steampunk Empire Laughed

Intrigued by what members of the retro-futurist community thought on the topic, I posed the question on Steampunk Empire’s forum. The responses were pretty solidly in the “how can it be declining if it’s gaining in popularity” and “the subculture may change but that’s because it’s alive, silly” camps.

My Favorite Replies to the Question of Whether Steampunk has Jumped the Shark

Dr. Fidelius replied on 1.22.12:

What shark? There was a shark? Was it a Megalodon? That would be cool, with gears glued all over it.

(“Jumping the shark” can only be applied to an idea or genre which has been popular, and then did something so ridiculous that even its greatest fans could no longer take it seriously. Steampunk is still such a fringe artistic / social / whatever movement that it has not yet made any impression on the teeming millions. And anyone who says “steampunk was better before [blank] did [blank] ” is a rose-goggled elitist who is jealous that other people have found our playground.)

Now, this is not to say that Steampunk is what it was five years ago, or ten. I have seen it change from a sub-genre of alternate history stories to an art style to a social group, I can hardly wait to see what else other creative people bring to it.

Sebastian Vess replied on 1.22.12:

If it has, who cares? I just left the first Steampunk Convention in Austin Texas. The attendees were fantastic in their outfits and personae. If Steampunk has “jumped the shark” it wasn’t evident today. I think the world has become so huge, a style or genre can exist forever. Rock and Roll has jumped lots of sharks and it is still around even after Whitesnake and Poison. Steampunk will continue as long as there are people who like it and people who enjoy getting dressed up and acting out roles. I personally hope more people get into Steampunk, Hasbro obviously employs a bunch of ‘punkers. The more the merrier.

I don’t think Steampunk is anywhere near the shark tank.

The Hon. Miss Primrose C Leigh replied on 1.22.12:

I thought that jumping the shark referred to the ridiculous actions of those trying to revive interest in a dying genre/show/etc. If there are people jumping on our bandwagon then steampunk is hardly dying. It is true that there are steampunkers who are considering jumping ship because of the changes they see in the genre but those very changes are proof that steampunk is alive. Only a living thing grows. Doubtless there are those who will jump all over me for saying this but it is possible that the mainstream’s interest in steam may prove to be a jumping off point that leads to even greater creativity. Don’t jump to the conclusion that steampunk is over. In fact with the economy as jumpy as it is a knowledge of steam power and DIY might just give us a jump on the rest of society after the crash.

And, my favorite of the best replies to the question of whether steampunk has jumped the shark…

SD replied on 1.22.12:

Abalone. Forget about jumping sharks. We’re barely harassing plankton.

1. There are far too many classic elements in Steampunk. Brass, wood, leather, glass, overly complicated gadgets, guns, and pirates. These are all pretty timeless elements on their own. No matter how fast technology advances, these will always be popular elements used by discriminating artists, do-it-yourselfers, gamers, writers, as well as decorators and fashonistas… I think the culture is still gaining steam precisely because it is steeped in classic beauty and timeless elements.

2. I wouldn’t worry too much about what the stars do, or what is on a magazine cover. Steampunk offers a very unique perspective into so many aspects of life that you almost have to expect everyone trying to make a buck to experiment with it from time to time. Madona wore 1 outfit. The Biebs did 1 video. Half a dozen magazines have done 1 article. I think I can safely say that Steamunk has probably had less impact or influence in popular culture than Danny Bonaduce has had on the television industry.

3. Obscure example: You will find more movies that have a man wearing a dress than movies with easily defined elements of Steampunk. These scenes are almost never serious, and in a way they poke fun at the very idea. Even in these politically correct times, you don’t hear the crossdressers and transvestites up in arms about that one, do you?

So, Steampunk has not even reached the level of cultural popularity as poking fun of men in dresses… I think we’re safe for a while.


Culture Shmulture

It seems that the steampunk community itself fairly solidly agrees that the subculture is in no danger. Opinion seems to be that if the swell of popularity reaches a highwater point and recedes the ocean will still be there, so to speak.

But all the responses seem focused on the culture of steam with not much on the topic of retro-futurist works of print. It seems that steampunk is like an Indian deity, one identity but multiple avatars with their own paths; the culture and the written word.

So what about the literary genre, the font from which the steampunk subculture springs? Has steampunk lit perhaps jumped the shark? While the consensus is that there isn’t a shark of any kind in the community’s future I think there may be a piscine one on the print industry end. I spend a lot of time in book stores and have, consequently, perused a great many works with the “steampunk” marketing moniker slapped on them. The ‘shark’ looming on steampunk lit’s future may well be the tendency of editors/agents/et. al. to tell writers, “say gears a few times and we can say it’s steampunk”.

Shark-based Water Stunts. Discuss

So, what do YOU think, oh CFB readers? Has steampunk jumped the shark? Does steampunk literature have a fishy future? Is there even a shark?

As an aside: Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, NPR’s hilarious news quizz show, had Henry Winkler as their Not My Job segment guest September 10, 2011. Take a listen to hear what The Fonz’s actor thinks about being responsible for the whole ‘jumping the shark’ thing.

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