Steampunk Year in Review: 2018
A look back at the top steampunk stories of 2018, plus the most-viewed stories on this website
Monday, January 7, 2019
Let’s be frank: 2018 was a tough year for steampunk, especially in North America. It began with serious and disturbing allegations of sexual and business misconduct against Jeff Mach, organizer of The Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey. Those allegations eventually led to the demise of the event, one of the largest steampunk happenings in the U.S.
The year ended with the much-anticipated film adaptation of Mortal Engines, which proved to be a box office flop. Though it was based on Philip Reeve’s post-apocalyptic steampunk novel, the movie de-emphasized the book’s steampunk elements. This didn’t keep critics from describing it as a steampunk work, and many (including our own guest reviewer) panned it for flaws in its script and storytelling.
In between were other troubling signs. In August, the chair of the Grand Canadian Steampunk Exposition announced the postponement of the 2018 event, citing family issues affecting members of the Executive Committee. In October, organizers of Steamposium canceled the Seattle event just a few days before its scheduled opening.
These could be viewed as isolated happenings, but “pretty much everything is down this year,” said TeslaCon founder Eric Jon Larson in an interview. We spoke with him prior to that event, which took place Nov. 15-18 near Madison, Wisconsin. Citing conversations with steampunk vendors and other convention organizers, he estimated that people were seeing revenue declines of 10 to 15 percent. He placed part of the blame on economic anxieties among steampunk enthusiasts, and he was hopeful about a rebound in 2019. But “steam is waning, like it or not,” he said.
Despite the headwinds, the steampunk community showed lots of resilience. After the demise of The Steampunk World’s Fair, a volunteer group organized C.O.G.S. Expo, a smaller event at the same time and place. The Key City Steampunk Festival in Frederick, Maryland, stepped into the breech with ambitious plans for expansion.
In Seattle, steampunk fans responded to the cancelation of Steamposium by establishing a Steamposium Refugees Facebook group and organizing their own impromptu activities that same weekend (shown above; photo from Amanda Martindale). Shortly thereafter, Larson discussed plans to launch a Seattle version of TeslaCon, likely beginning in April, 2020.
Other steampunk events made their debuts in 2018. They included Aethertopia in Tampa, Florida; Steampunk Showcase near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and the Compass Rose Steampunk Festival in Woodstock, Connecticut.
Numerous North American cities hosted free outdoor steampunk events: The Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts; Cogs & Corsets in Bloomington, Illinois; Steampunk Honesdale in Pennsylvania’s Poconos region; the Amherstburg Uncommon Festival in southwestern Ontario; the Coldwater Steampunk Festival in Central Ontario; Big River Steampunk Festival in Hannibal, Missouri; Enchanted City Steampunk Festival in Troy, New York; and the Jewelry City Steampunk Festival in Attleboro, Massachusetts. These were not new events, but they’re especially important for the steampunk community because they expose the genre to a much wider audience.
Outside North America, steampunk still appears to be going strong. The steampunk calendar is particularly full in the UK, ranging from relatively small regional events to the huge Asylum Steampunk Festival in Lincoln, which drew “hundreds of thousands” of people in 2018, according to a local newspaper report. Another steampunk hotbed is New Zealand, which hosts the Steampunk NZ Festival in Oamaru and Steampunk The Thames in Thames on the North Island.
New Events for 2019
VampireFreaks, the company behind a large social network for the goth community, announced a 2019 debut for Steampunk Con, a new convention set for June 21-23 at the Radisson Piscataway-Somerset in New Jersey. The Radisson happens to be the same venue that hosted The Steampunk World’s Fair and C.O.G.S. Expo. The new event forced C.O.G.S. Expo to seek a different location for 2019. It is now scheduled for May 17-19 at the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel in Parsippany, New Jersey.
Some folks in the Northeast U.S. steampunk community have alleged that Jeff Mach is involved with Steampunk Con, but VampireFreaks founder Jet Berelson has stated that “we are not affiliated with Jeff Mach / JME [Jeff Mach Events] or any JME employees. . . We have no interest in working with Jeff Mach or JME or any subsidiary companies.”
Other new events announced for 2019 include the Bull City Robotic Rodeo, Feb. 1-3 in Durham, North Carolina; the Michigan Steam Expo, May 26 near Detroit; PA Steam Fest; Aug. 31 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and the Chicago Steampunk Exposition, Sept. 27-29 in Rosemont, Illinois. Oddball Newt announced “12 Months of Steampunk,” a series of steampunk events large and small in Connecticut.
Books and Comics
Of course, steampunk isn’t just about events. The literary market appears to be waning, at least among the major publishers, but self-published authors and independent publishers continued to crank out steampunk titles. Notable releases from majors and independents included Gail Carriger’s Competence, Book 3 in The Custard Protocol series; The Spectral City by Leanna Renee Hieber; The Dancer Wore Opera Rose by Shelley Adina; Boston Metaphysical Society: A Storm of Secrets by Madeleine Holly-Rosing; Owl Riders by David Lee Summers; The Clockwork Oracle by Drake, Morse, Sikes, Sikes, and Whitecliff; The Witches Rede: Prophecy by Jewel E. Leonard; and Wolves and Daggers: Steampunk Red Riding Hood by Melanie Karsak.
Steampunk is a highly visual medium, and several publishers released comic book treatments of steampunk tales. These included three from Titan Comics based on George Mann’s popular Newbury & Hobbes series. Also of note: Hiroshi Unno’s The Art of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Steampunk, a large and gorgeous collection of images, including historic artworks that inspired these genres.
Developers of video games continue to draw inspiration from steampunk. Some notable examples from last year: Frostpunk from 11 bit Studios; an early-access version of Volcanoids from Czech developer Volcanoid (shown above); Lamplight City from Application Systems; The Watchmaker from Micropsia Games; and Tesla vs Lovecraft from 10tons Ltd.
Augmented-reality developer Magic Leap announced Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders, a steampunk-inspired AR experience that works on the company’s headset. Also in the immersive realm, Martov Co. released Chiaro and the Elixir of Life, a steampunk virtual reality adventure for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality systems.
Several museums and galleries hosted steampunk-inspired art exhibits. Perhaps the most notable was “Steampunk with a Retro Twist” at the San Diego Automotive Museum, featuring steampunk- and dieselpunk-inspired vehicles and other artworks. The Ohio Valley Art League (OVAL) in Henderson, Kentucky hosted “Steampunk’d,” an exhibition of 2D and 3D steampunk works, and the High Hand Gallery in Loomis, California (near Sacramento) presented a month-long exhibition in conjunction with its Steampunk Victorian Holiday Faire. The Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey invited submissions of kinetic artworks for “Simply Steampunk,” which runs March 15 to Aug. 11, 2019.
One other development in 2018 deserves mention: The launch of this website in March. We’ve been gratified by the response, which has exceeded our most optimistic expectations. Each month on our Facebook page, we list the most-viewed stories of the previous month. Here are the most-viewed stories of the year.
1. Most Steampunk City? (April 18) — This story began with a snarky comment about the “Best Places for [insert activity]” lists you see on so many websites. We quickly learned why they’re so popular: People can’t resist seeing how their locales compare with other regions, and this includes steampunk. In hindsight, here are some other U.S. regions we should have included: Denver; Detroit; and Portland, Oregon; and two states: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
2. Steampunk Inspiration: A World Tour (September 9) — At Worldcon 76 in San Jose, we asked a group of authors to suggest their top travel destinations for steampunks. The story includes a photo gallery of those locations.
3. Steampunk in the Poconos (June 27) — A preview of Steampunk Honesdale in Pennsylvania.
4. Steampunk Meets the Big Top (April 21) — A preview of the Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts.
5. Steampunk Immersion in Florida (May 21) — A preview of Aethertopia in Tampa.
6. Steampunk Fest Returns to Maryland (April 28) — A preview of the Key City Steampunk Festival.
7. Steampunks Set to Invade Hannibal (August 21) — A preview of the Big River Steampunk Festival in Hannibal, Missouri.
8. Steampunks Abound at Worldcon (August 23) — A look at steampunk activities at Worldcon 76 in San Jose, including panels, cosplay and Gail Carriger’s fabulous teapot purse.
9. Midsummer Night at Obtainium Works (August 28) — A behind-the-scenes look at the art cars and mutant vehicles of Obtainium Works in Vallejo, California. The arts organization is best known for the Neverwas Haul, a self-propelled three-story Victorian house.
10. Cogs Are Back in Bloomington (May 10) — A preview of Cogs & Corsets in Bloomington, Illinois.
11. Omaha Con Brings “the UK to the USA” (July 28) — A preview of Britishfest in Nebraska.
12. Steampunk Digest - July 20, 2018 (July 20) — This news roundup included the release of Gail Carriger’s Competence, plus items about Motor City Steam Con, Steam Highwayman, Art Donovan, Bruce and Melanie Rosenbaum, and a steampunk-themed ballet performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
13. Ancient Mysteries of Rosicrucian Park (August 13) — A visit to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and its alchemy exhibit in San Jose.
14. Steampunks Over Red Hook (September 22) — A preview of Flights of Fancy at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York.
15. Steampunks Set for Perilous Adventure (May 29) — A preview of the Brass Screw Confederacy steampunk festival in Port Townsend, Washington.
16. Steamposium Is Canceled (October 14) — This was two stories in one. It began as a preview of Steamposium, and was later updated after the organizers announced the event’s cancelation.
17. Wild West Steam Fest Comes to OC (April 29) — A preview of the Wild West Steam Fest in Santa Ana, California.
18. Exploring the Mission (July 4) — A steampunk tour of San Francisco’s Mission District.
19. “Saving the Mothers of Invention” (May 18) — A preview of Vandalia-Con in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
20. Letter from Manchester (March 17) — A look at Oddball Newt’s efforts to establish a steampunk hub in Manchester, Connecticut.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the new dates for Steampunk Con in Piscataway, New Jersey. It was originally scheduled for June 7-9.