Year in Review: Steampunk in the News
In Part Two of our retrospective, we look at the biggest steampunk news stories of the year
Tuesday, December 31, 2019
“Who Killed Steampunk?” asked one writer, pointing his finger at a handful of authors and bloggers. No, declared another observer, the iPhone was to blame. Or perhaps it was Colonel Mustard in the library with a teapot?
Meanwhile, steampunk enthusiasts offered plenty of evidence that the genre is alive and kicking. On most weekends, someone somewhere in the world was hosting a steampunk event. The genre continued to inspire creators of all stripes: Writers, painters, sculptors, makers, musicians, costumers, game designers, and more.
Sure, steampunk has ebbed since hitting a high point about five to 10 years ago. But even then, it was a mystery to much of the general public. That’s why media outlets, when covering the genre, often include a “What is Steampunk?” section in their stories.
Yet many folks who have never heard of steampunk find the the aesthetic to be irresistible once they’re exposed to it. Watch the reaction of the judges in The Masked Singer, a reality singing competition, as a steampunk-clad fox performs on stage. The costumed singer, later revealed to be actor and comedian Wayne Brady, was declared the overall winner in the season-ending episode.
Here’s more evidence of steampunk’s appeal as we look back at news happenings in 2019:
• Universal Studios announced plans to open a Hollywood location of the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, a huge steampunk-themed eatery that opened in Orlando in 2016. The Orlando restaurant features steampunk characters who walk the floor and interact with guests. The California location is set to open in 2021, replacing a Hard Rock Café.
• The Oregon Coast Aquarium opened Seapunk: Powered by Imagination, an exhibit that combines fanciful steampunk contraptions with tropical marine life. Set aboard a fictional 19th century submarine, it has a back story involving a genius scientist, a mechanical octopus, and other inventions that serve as tanks for exotic sea creatures. As we wrote back in July, the New Jersey company that conceived and built the exhibit hopes to bring it to other locations after it finishes its run in Oregon in Dec. 2020.
• Moody Gardens, a non-profit tourist destination in Galveston, Texas, opened 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: An Interactive Adventure, an immersive experience set aboard another steampunk submarine.
• Fairfield, Iowa, dubbed “America’s Most Unusual Town” by Oprah Winfrey, adopted a steampunk theme for “Geared for Weird,” a music festival held in conjunction with a huge bicycle ride across the state.
• The Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey hosted two steampunk-themed exhibitions. Simply Steampunk, which ran March 15-Aug. 11, was a juried exhibition featuring 18 kinetic sculptures by 12 contemporary artists. It was the second installment in A Cache of Kinetic Art, a four-year series of exhibitions associated with the museum’s Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata. Steampunk Fashion, featuring works by three costume designers, ran April 3-Nov. 17.
Rust in the Ointment
Not everything was peaches and steam. Several events were unexpectedly canceled, including Aethertopia in Tampa and Gearcon in Portland, Oregon. The Enchanted City Steampunk Festival, a large street fair held annually in Troy, New York, announced in May that it was seeking a new home after failing to negotiate a deal with the city. The organizers later produced a smaller indoor gathering shortly before Halloween, and said that they would be announcing other events in the future.
However, the biggest loss was Maker Media, the company that produced Make magazine and flagship Maker Faires in San Mateo, California and New York City. The San Mateo event, which drew more than 100,000 attendees each year, featured an area devoted to steampunk projects, and was also a showcase for art cars and installations first seen at Burning Man. It gave many folks, including yours truly, their first exposure to steampunk as a living, breathing culture.
The company, which shut its doors in June, was later revived in a smaller form as Make Community. It’s led by Maker Media founder Dale Dougherty, who acquired the company’s assets and rehired many of its former employees. They plan to continue publishing the magazine and will assist organizations in other places that want to produce their own Maker Faires. But it’s unlikely that we’ll see future events on the same scale as the ones in the Bay Area and New York.
Here’s a look at other steampunk news from 2019.
The year was a mixed bag for steampunk events. Several bit the dust, but high-profile public gatherings such as the Asylum Steampunk Festival in the UK, Steampunk NZ in New Zealand, Watch City Steampunk Festival in Massachusetts, and Big River Steampunk Festival in Missouri appear to be going strong. The leader of the Asylum festival reported that this year’s edition “was the smoothest and safest event to date.” It drew an estimated 100,000 attendees, according to a report by the BBC.
In the U.S., New England remains a hotbed of steampunk activity. The Watch City festival, which draws upwards of 10,000 visitors, enjoyed sunny weather as it hosted a performance by Professor Elemental and staged its first Mad Science exhibition. Meanwhile, event producer Oddball Newt announced “12 Months of Steampunk,” a series of smaller gatherings in Connecticut, including the new Book Fiend Readers Fest, held Nov. 9 in Norwich. Other major events in the region included the Railway to the Moon Steampunk Festival in New Hampshire, Springfield Steampunk Festival in Vermont, Compass Rose Steampunk Festival in Connecticut, and Jewelry City Steampunk Festival in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
In the Mid-Atlantic region, several events filled the void left by the demise of the Steampunk World’s Fair, including C.O.G.S. Expo in New Jersey, the Key City Steampunk Festival in Maryland, and the Steampunk and Fantasy Showcase in Central Pennsylvania.
VampireFreaks, which produces a social network for the goth community, launched a new event dubbed Steampunk Con. It was held June 21-23 at the Radisson Hotel - Piscataway in Piscataway, New Jersey, the same venue that once hosted the Steampunk World’s Fair. However, VampireFreaks owner/founder Jet Berelson told us he won’t be producing a similar gathering in 2020.
Aloysius Fox, producer of the International Steampunk Symposium in Cincinnati, launched a new event, the Chicago Steampunk Exposition, held Sept. 27-29 at the Westin O’Hare Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois. He announced in November that he will skip a year and aim for a second Exposition in September 2021. “However, it is also our plan to organize a one-night event in September 2020 to keep the cogs and gears of the Exposition in motion, and have an evening of retro-futuristic enjoyment,” he wrote.
The International Steampunk Symposium is still on track for March 27-29, 2020, with a guest roster that includes Unwoman, maker Brett King, and authors R.S. Belcher and Leanna Renee Hieber.
See our calendar for a more complete look at upcoming steampunk events in North America and the UK.
Movies and TV
Some steampunk fans have been hoping for a blockbuster feature film that will help raise awareness of the genre. Those hopes were dashed in 2018 when Mortal Engines proved to be a critical and box office flop. But it appears that steampunk might have better prospects on the small screen.
Exhibit A was the August 30 premiere of Carnival Row on Amazon Prime. Starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, the fantasy series is set in a Victorian-style alternate world where faeries, fauns, centaurs and other mythical creatures form an immigrant underclass. It drew mixed response from critics, but scored well with viewers. And it was hard to deny the appeal of the show’s Victorian/steampunk aesthetic.
Another highly anticipated series was His Dark Materials, an HBO/BBC production based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy. It’s set in an alternate world where humans have talking animal companions known as dæmons that embody part of their inner selves. The Golden Compass, an earlier film adaptation, had strong steampunk elements, but they’re less prominent in the new production. Passenger airships travel the skies, and some of the gadgets, such as the Alethiometer, have a steampunk aesthetic. But fashion and architecture range from 1930s designs through contemporary styles. Unlike the film, which received mixed reviews, the TV series scored well with critics and viewers.
Aside from Carnival Row, the steampunkiest show of the season was probably Episode 9 of Matt Groening’s Disenchantment, an animated series from Netflix. The series is set in a medieval fantasy world, but in this episode, heroine Princess Bean travels to Steamland, envisioned as a steampunk version of Manhattan (watch out for “Verne’s Jewels” and the news ticker headlines). You can get a glimpse at 1:48 of the YouTube trailer.
Also of note was the BBC’s three-part adaptation of The War of the Worlds, based on the H.G. Wells novel. Starring Eleanor Tomlinson and Rafe Spall, the series was set in Edwardian-era England, in contrast to earlier versions with contemporary settings. It has aired in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and mainland Europe, but distributor ITV Studios has not yet announced a deal in the U.S. The series earned generally positive reviews from TV critics.
Meanwhile, steampunk fans are looking forward to The Nevers, an HBO series conceived, written, and produced by Joss Whedon. It’s described as “an epic science fiction drama about a gang of Victorian women, known as ‘The Touched,’ who find themselves with unusual abilities, relentless enemies, and a mission that could change the world.” The cast includes Laura Donnelly, Olivia Williams, James Norton, Nick Frost, and Denis O’Hare.
On the big screen, several films made watchlists for steampunk fans even if they didn’t fall squarely within the genre. They included The Current War, which told the story of the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over electric power transmission in America, and The Aeronauts, about a record-breaking balloon flight in 1862.
Gail Carriger, likely the top-selling steampunk author these days, had a busy year that included the release of two books set in her Parasolverse. Reticence, the fourth and final book in the Custard Protocol series, takes the crew of the airship Spotted Custard to Japan in search of shapeshifters. Fan Service, a limited-edition collection of three new Parasol Protectorate stories, sold out prior to its October release. In her alternate guise as G.L. Carriger, she penned The 5th Gender, a non-steampunk sci-fi mystery/queer romance novel.
Other notable releases in 2019:
• The Revenant Express, the fifth Newbury & Hobbes steampunk mystery by George Mann. The author also penned Newbury & Hobbes: The Undying, a graphic novel from Titan Comics with artwork by Dan Boultwood.
• The Sky Done Ripped, the third and final book in Joe R. Lansdale’s “Ned the Seal” series.
• Pimp My Airship by Maurice Broaddus.
• The Haunting of Tram Car 015, a novella by P. Djèlí Clark.
• Miss Violet and the Great War, Vol. 3 in Leanna Renee Hieber’s Strangely Beautiful series.
• The Clockwork Detective, the first book in the Constable of Aqualinne series by RA McCandless. The novel from Ellysian Press earned praise from pioneering steampunk author James P. Blaylock.
• Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon, a young adult steampunk fantasy by Mary Fan.
• The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, Book 3 in Shelley Adina’s Mysterious Devices steampunk series. The author also released two short novels in her Magnificent Devices series: Holly Cottage and Gwynn Place.
• Stoker & Wells: Order of the Golden Dawn, a graphic novel in which a young H.G. Wells teams up with Bram Stoker in an adventure that inspires each to write a novel. Published by Our Gal Pictures, LLC, it was written by Steven Peros and illustrated by Barry Orkin.
• Willoughby’s World of Wonder, purported to be a reproduction of the 1882 Field Guide to Strange Beasts & Curious Creatures by “noted cryptozoologist and naturalist” Angus Willoughby. It features black-and-white Victorian-style engravings of 136 fantastical creatures, including the Land Kraken, Beelephant (tiny winged elephants), and Sky Rat. The book was actually written and illustrated by Stephen Barnwell.
Chap hop artist Professor Elemental racked up lots of frequent flyer miles in 2019 as he traveled to three steampunk events in the U.S., in addition to his many appearances in the UK. He also released a new album, Professor Elemental and His Amazing Friends: Part 2, as well as a story collection entitled Professor Elemental’s Tales of Wrong. Somehow he also found time to contribute commentary to a certain steampunk publication about all those rumors alleging that steampunk is dead.
Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, the Professor’s erstwhile colleague and competitor, had a new “long player” release of his own: Dandinista, featuring ditties such as “Waiting Room Etiquette,” “Bertie’s Truth Bombs,” “Barmy Fluid,” and “The Mystery of Bingocricket.” It’s available on streaming services and directly from his website.
Steam Powered Giraffe has plans for a new album, and rather than making its fans wait, the band will be releasing singles and music videos every few months. First up: “Shattered Stars,” “Latum Alterum (Ya Ya Ya),” and “Hot on the Trail”. Singles can be purchased directly from the band as well as iTunes and Bandcamp. You can view the videos on their YouTube channel.
Julia Scott, the UK musician who performs as Alice’s Night Circus, starred in four music videos from her 2018 debut album, Metamorphose: “Penny Dreadful,” “The Show Must Go On,”, “The Machine” and “War of the Worlds.” She also released a digital version of the album, previously available only as a CD or LP. It’s available from Amazon and Apple Music.
Other notable releases this year included:
• Two albums from Abney Park: New Nostalgics and Iconoclast.
• Hidden Gems Chapter II: Circus of Morality from Captain of the Lost Waves.
• Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5, a 2-CD set of cover songs from Unwoman. She also licensed an instrumental track for use in a TV commercial in South Korea, which will help her pay for a new recording studio.
Steampunk concepts and aesthetics continue to have allure for developers of video games. Here were some major releases in 2019:
• Sunless Skies is a “Gothic Horror” roleplay game from Failbetter Games. Set in the same universe as the developer’s Sunless Sea and Fallen London, it features spacefaring steam locomotives in an alternate early 20th century that battle a variety of Sky-Beasts. It was released January 31 in versions for Macs, PCs, and Linux systems.
• Close to the Sun from Storm in a Teacup is a single-player horror adventure game set in 1897. Available in versions for PCs and consoles, it takes place aboard a ship that’s home to wild inventions by Nikola Tesla. Release date: May 2.
• Age of Grit from IQ Soup is a turn-based roleplaying video game that combines steampunk and Wild West elements. Players take the role of airship captains who seek work as smugglers, bounty hunters, gun runners, and “maybe even a little train robbery if yer so inclined,” the developer says. It runs on PCs, Macs, and Linux systems. Release date: Sept. 10.
• Nauticrawl: 20,000 Atmospheres by Armor Games Studios places you at the controls of an alien submersible with a steampunk aesthetic. Much of the gameplay involves figuring out how to operate the vessel. “It’s likely to kill you, but so will the hostile planet you’re escaping,” the publisher says. It runs on PCs and Macs. Release date: Sept. 16.
• They Are Billions from Numantian Games is a steampunk-themed strategy game in which a few thousand humans struggle to survive after a zombie apocalypse. It was released in June after a year-and-a-half in a beta version. It’s available on the Steam platform for Windows PCs. Release date: June 18.
• SteamCraft from Last Level is a multiplayer shooter game in which you build your own steampunk-styled combat vehicles from more than 600 components and 40 weapons. It’s available on the Steam platform for Windows PCs. Release date: April 25.
• Grindwheel Games released three interactive adventure novels in a series dubbed The Hunters Journals. Pale Harbour, Vile Philosophy and Blissful Ignorance are set in a “Lovecraftian, Steampunk world of danger and malice.” All three are available in versions for Windows PCs and Android devices.
And two new board games. . .
• War of the Worlds: The New Wave from Grey Fox Games is a tabletop deck-building game set several years after the events of the H.G. Wells novel. It’s designed for two players, one commanding the Martians and the other leading the UK defense units.
• Eberron: Rising from the Last War from Wizards of the Coast is a sourcebook that lets you play Dungeons & Dragons in the steampunk fantasy world of Eberron. It’s described as “a war-torn world filled with magic-fueled technology, airships and lightning trains, where noir-inspired mystery meets swashbuckling adventure.”
Also see: The year’s most popular stories in The Steampunk Explorer.