Full Steam Ahead

Reacting to IBM’s prediction that steampunk will reach the tipping point in 2013, Alternate History Weekly Update notes that, like it or not, corsets and goggles are the visible standard-bearers for the entire genre of historical what-iffiness:

Business News reported that IBM predicted steampunk will be the next major fashion trend in 2013. They based their prediction by having a supercomputer (presumably not a steam powered Babbage Analytical Engine) analyze “more than half a billion public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources.”

IBM and, frankly, most people don’t distinguish between steampunk the visual-arts movement, steampunk the sartorial movement, and steampunk the literary movement, nor consider how much overlap between the three really exists. Cinematically I think saturation has already occurred; just as time travel was once a very explicit subset of science fiction but is now a common plot device in mainstream television,¬†tropes like airships in the sky to telegraph an alternate reality (e.g., Doctor Who, Fringe) will continue to be absorbed into popular consciousness. I certainly welcome renewed interest in Nouveau style and Craftsman architecture and furnishings, but those stand on their own. As for fashion, I’m skeptical of who’s chasing whose tail. Designers may embrace Victorian callbacks like high boots and snug bodices — or even mirror steampunk’s notorious mix of 19th-century d√©colletage with 21st-century gam — but looking around at the women of New York and Connecticut, I’m certain any similarities occur independent of a cosplay community. Using steampunk as a marketing gimmick is different than drawing inspiration from it — an obvious deficiency of a metric designed simply to count buzzwords.

But will supposed popular interest in steampunk extend to what initially began as a literary trend? Magic 8-Ball says Outlook not so good. I doubt I’m alone when I question if alternate-history’s poster child has sunk to self-parody; for every VanderMeer collection, twenty girl-on-girl steampunk anthologies inundate Amazon. Meanwhile, some editors report a scarcity of appropriate material for their pubs. Would anyone not already a heavy spec-fiction reader pick up a Cherie Priest novel? Forget Main Street — has anyone already involved in steampunk ever read a Jeff Barlough novel? My guess is that the biggest in-roads are being made in the Young Adult market.

I’ve no reason to complain if steampunk as a whole has raised the profile of alternate history, regardless of whether the written variety — or at least, the inventive written variety — will ever be ubiquitous enough to reach a general audience. So chatter it up, Internets! And then go hit the Kindle store.

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