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An interview with Diana Vick from Steamcon

Many of you know Diana Vick, aka artvixn,  from steamcon, Norwescon and other local events and her passionate drive to promote and educate the public about all the nuances of steampunk. I was delighted she had time to sit down over coffee and grant an interview to NWSFS!

Steampunk seems to be evolving; as I've heard the terms “dieselpunk,” and “atomic punk,” being bandied around - not to mention more specific terms like gaslamp fantasy etc.. I'm all for evolution; but is it possible steampunk might morph into genres seemingly unrelated to their parent? While interesting to contemplate, is this a good thing?
It seems there are two distinct camps when it comes to the use of the word “steampunk”.  Those of us who feel that steampunk refers to a genre of science fiction/fantasy occurring in Victorian or steam-age times,  and those who believe steampunk is a feeling or aesthetic that refers to anything grungy, faux industrial and “old” i.e. earlier than the 1950’s.  Actually the latter camp generally decries there being any definition whatsoever, often saying “it’s whatever you want it to be.”  I feel that the “anything” crowd are using the term incorrectly, and perhaps “retro futurism” might better suit the huge umbrella they are describing.  Steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, atomicpunk, etc would then all be found underneath that term.  It makes no sense to say that dieselpunk is a child of steampunk.  They are brothers with different technological levels defining them. Gaslamp fantasy was merely a term thought up so that they didn’t have to call themselves steampunk.

The confusion here lead me to write my Steampunk Litmus Test so I could have some way of vetting all the things people wanted to call steampunk.  It’s not perfect, but it helps me when trying to decide if something really fits in the genre.
And do you have your own favorite niche?

Creativity.  I love that when I dress steampunk, no one expects me to be a particular character.  I love that when I tell people about steampunk, they get a gleam in their eye and go off to do their own thing.  It’s inspiring to folks and that’s what I love about it.  It has a wonderful aesthetic.  It has imagination.  It has creativity.    

So tell me more about your intense schedule prior to Steamcon; I understand you have quite the itinerary going.

RainFurrest is first; I will be showing in their art show as well as having a table. Then Vcon , which has a steampunk theme; a friend offered to go up with me and promote Steamcon, doing steampunk some good. The third con, Congaloosh, has been a dream of mine. Disneyworld used to have the Adventurer's Club which got closed.  Dedicated fans started a club. Their first convention was last year, but it was too close to Steamcon, This year they moved it and I can't wait to go! The Friday night banquet is in the Indiana Jones Adventure Stunt Show.  Disney's involved this year; and between the guests who have been invited and the energy of the fans, I'm really excited.  Imagineers and original cast members will be there.  I'm going on the Jungle Cruise, complete with a talk from one of the original cast.  The name Congaloosh comes from the secret club salute: wiggle, drink, and wave – then say “congaloosh.”

Last is Orycon which is the weekend before our convention; attending this year was a real debate for us. But since it's local, we felt we should be there. I won't have a booth; but will be doing several panels. But most of our energy energy will be devoted to Steamcon promotion as it right around the corner.

Wow, that's one heck of a schedule. And in addition, there are steampunk events between now and the convention, aren't there?

There are Steamcon meetings as well as the swap meet on September 18th..

We wanted to have more summertime steampunk activities, like Steampunk University; but spring worked out better. We had someone express interest in running activities this summer; but since he'd already committed to his fair circuit, he really didn't have time.

The hardest thing for these events is finding a venue. Speakers, topics, workshop ideas are easy in comparison. Martin was looking into Magneson Park because it is large and we need ventilation for many of the workshops. So far, the Universities have tended to be academic in focus; and Martin wants to see more technical and how-to programming. Even at Steamcon we can't have demos because we're indoors and the lack of ventilation and possible damage to hotel space is a real concern. We can always used more dedicated help planning these events.

What are some of the demos that you're really excited about?

The Iron Bodger contest. 'Bodgering' is a term for making. Give each person a bucket of bits and two hours to make a “thing.” Currently, having it would require a booth in the hotel parking lot and lots of space – which isn't practical for a fall, indoor convention.

I didn't do classes at Dragoncon; but since I mentioned it in my costuming class, I had a lot of people come up and ask questions about gun moding. More than about costuming actually, because I was the only one who mentioned it on the panel.  

BTW, thanks for the gun modding posts on the blog. Good pictures of the entire process and easy-to-read, thorough instructions make life easier.

Two things for newbies to gun moding. Be sure to sand off the logos on their guns; and be sure to antique their guns. I saw both guns for sale and homemade guns with these problems at Dragoncon.  You mods shouldn't look so right out of the package.

Yes, consider antique guns – polished good iron buildup with the patina of long use and care.

Yes, ones that haven't been antiqued look flat.

You're more of an A & E (assemble and embellishment) costumer than a sewer. How does that affect how you approach your looks?

I can't sew and have no interest in it. Most tedious thing on the planet. I like thrifting then changing things out like buttons and adding accessories.

One lady a Dragoncon told me about her first steampunk outfit; it was also her first corset and it literally fell off her body, so it was a learning experience. And she's continued to make steampunk costumes so there you are.

That would be so embarrassing. Good for her sticking with it. We all have our costuming horror stories. During our email conversations, you mentioned the Steampunk Litmus Test – which I went and re-read since it had been a while. Thanks for creating an easy checklist for steampunk. Care to comment on why you created it?

Again, the steampunk label gets put on so many things; and sometimes I get like the RCA dog and go   “Huh?” The test gives me a box. Inside the box, it is steampunk; outside the box, it's not steampunk.

I love your quote, “steampunk needs historical accuracy like a dirigible needs goldfish.” I would argue that historical accuracy is a continuum with say, alternate history at one end and pure fantastical creation at the other. I think being historically accurate (within reason) is good for literature in that it (usually) forces a writer to become creative within the system they've set up rather than relying on the magic doohickey or miracle to get 'em out of trouble. Yet one can go overboard and become a Historical Nazi. What are your thoughts on this seeming conundrum?

I've touched on this in my talks about steampunk costuming, but I think it applies to stories as well,  I often create a scale of steam to punk, where “steam” is Victorian recreation and “punk” is the furthest from that reality that you can get.  At the Victorian recreation level, you aren’t really doing any of the work.  The trick to making something steampunk is adding the “punk” and it has nothing to do with punk rock.  Envisioning what aspects of the character or world could be changed by science fiction or fantasy is key.  I feel the middle of the scale is best, but to each his own.   I can see your point, but on the other hand, if you are not changing things, you are not doing steampunk. Sherlock Holmes is wonderful, era-appropriate fiction, but the point of those stories is that there is a perfectly mundane explanation for everything.  They are NOT steampunk.

My goldfish quote was to point out that we are making it up.  No one should be upset about the length of a jacket or any other small anachronisms.  I know that flight helmets are not Victorian, but if we dabbled in flight earlier, why wouldn’t we have designed them earlier?  They are a very sensible accessory.  Dirigibles aren’t really era-appropriate, but what would steampunk be without airships?  I do think that steampunk has boundaries.  I feel that World War I is generally the edge, because unless you have really tweaked history, diesel power comes into dominance and steam goes out, hence dieselpunk.  

What inspired this year's theme of the weird, weird west? Was it the old TV show Wild, Wild West, RPG's like Deadlands, or something completely different?

When explaining steampunk to the average person on the street with no knowledge of science fiction, I often say “Do you remember the giant mechanical spider from Wild Wild West, the movie?  That is steampunk.”  It may not be a great movie, but that spider is a perfect example and it’s memorable.  There have been discussions online about whether it’s steampunk if it exists outside of Victorian London.  Well, considering that spider was my best example, I couldn’t believe people could think that.  The little known television show Legend is a perfect example of steampunk in the west; a mad inventor in the west creating gadgets to fight crime.  Even the Wild Wild West television show, and the third installment of Back to the Future are good examples, so I thought I am going to do something a bit more decisive and make it Steamcon’s theme.  Captain Robert of Abney Park commented that he felt it was a very timely choice.  Strangely, when it came to finding fiction to back it up, I ran into trouble.  Most weird west fiction is about supernatural topics, not steampunk.

I'm finding more steampunk in the visual arts and music rather than in literature. Have you found that to be true?

I was approached by a woman writing an article for Marie Claire magazine about steampunk romance; the article was never actually published, but she told me I came up came up with good sound bites. The genre certainly lends itself to romance – think of all those dashing airship pirates; but I want plot with my romance.

I despise Kate McAllister (Steamed) I tried to read it and stopped at the phrase, “he had nummy muscles.” I threw the book across the room won't try it again.

I tried to read it as well. I couldn't finish it myself; felt like she had some good ideas, but execution was poor. And we won't talk about Steampunk Palin.

Yes, I saw that (rolls eyes) that isn't steampunk either.

There's a great deal of misunderstanding about what steampunk is. You have the “anything goes” camp vs. the people who feel it should be derivative of the genre, Victorian-era SF/F.

But back to music, I was delighted to hear that Mister Bodewell's Cabaret will be back for Steamcon II, with some of my faves and some hot new talent.  I am sooooo loving Ghoultown.  Also, how do you (meaning the con) decide on which performers get to play? Is it a juried competition?

When I started to work on Steamcon, I did a little research about steampunk events that had gone before.  For the most part, they were music festivals.  I had no interest in running a music festival, because I know nothing about music.  I wanted to run a steampunk focused science fiction convention.  Music was going to have little if any presence.  Then along came Jordon Block of Sepiachord.  He wanted to run gaming, but that was taken so he got roped into doing the music.  Just a concert.  Nothing big.  I was happy to not have to deal with that aspect and he was well versed in it.  In fact, I think you could say he is the most knowledgeable source for steampunk music in the world today.  He is the one responsible for getting the musicians.  We are very lucky to have him.

I recall hearing about a “steampunk” item on Regretsy where the only steampunk about it was the label?

Really there are three reasons why steampunk is mislabeled: ignorance, greed and malice. I have had arguments with people in the “anything goes” camp; they seem to feel that if anything anyone wants to be steampunk is steampunk then no one's feelings will be hurt. But if steampunk is everything, it becomes a meaningless term.

I agree. Goth, Lolita and some Post-Apocalyptic can be Victorian; but not necessarily steampunk.

Yes, I especially have problems with a lot of the post-apocalyptic literature that purports itself to be steampunk. If you were in such a scenario, you would scrounge from what is there rather than build a steam engine. Think Mad max; you simply wouldn't have the time to build a steam engine.

But the genres are kissing cousins.

They're all SF/F genres; but they aren't the same genre.

IMHO, steampunk should be purely science fiction because fantasy is too easy and can be a cop out. Consider airships. I've been toying with writing some steampunk stories and am doing research about zeppelins - and came to conclusion that they simply couldn't carry large numbers of people. Might be able to use them for reconnaissance, as a postal or shipping service or perhaps troop transport if done in short hops.

I'm not a scientist, though they keep putting me on the science panels (shrugs). Fantasy is much easier to write than SF.  The gondola to airbag ratio in most steampunk isn't workable. We fudge the perspectives a lot  so you can see the detail.

Airship pirates would most likely have a hidden base where they could launch raids from.
Captain Robert from Abney Park is writing a book. I'm curious to see what happens

It's all what-if, so don't get bogged down in history as that isn't steampunk. Victorian recreation costuming isn't steampunk. Someone dressed in a Victorian recreation is like the guy on the street in a Spiderman comic. It's a great place to start; but move on from there.

There are people who say dressing up Victorian is perfectly fine. I think you should have a gun, goggles..something that indicates you're living in a world that isn't actually the Victorian era.  Likewise, post-apocalypse stories are not steampunk unless the apocalypse occurred in the Victorian era as in the RPG Unhallowed Metropolis.  I personally love that genre, but it is its own genre.  It shouldn’t be lumped in with steampunk

The “punk” in steampunk is a play off of the term cyberpunk and does not mean there is any punk rock culture or music required in steampunk.

One of my favorite steampunk accessories was done by my friend Janet for her chrononaut costume. It's a watch fob pin cushion. After all, every well dressed chrononaut has to have a kit for repairing rips...what are your must-have accessories?

I have a brass sextant, sundial and such that hang off my belt in almost every costume. I you were to create an aristocrat persona; you will need some sort of anachronism, because this will be  steampunk not merely recreation.
Talk to me about keys and why they're important to steampunk. Goggle and gears I get; but why keys?

“Goggle, gears and keys, oh my” is the name of a panel I've done at various conventions (chuckles) Keys start machines. Keys make sense because they are tied into opening things and secrets. And because they've morphed over the years, they speak to the past as well as the present.

I would have thought timepieces more so than keys.

Wind up keys are different from regular keys; but it's all interconnected.

My first steampunk outfit had little silver keys all over it. I wore it to Norwescon two years ago. After that, I started collecting keys. I have one from Japan, another from my own wedding reception. Those are two of my favorites.

I know I found a treasure trove of interesting bits on a family trip to Ocean Shores. Where do you find many of your outfits and accessories?  

I shop at a number of places. I love thrift shops, and stores like Marshall's, TJ Maxx, etc... thrift stores especially tend to be hit or miss. We do a round of our favorites monthly. I also have found good stuff online at Newport News, Metro Style and other stores. I'd say it runs about 50/50 between thrifting and online shopping. And if I have extra funds, I love to shop at Recollections.

Coming back from a trip to Victoria BC, we got back into the states and hit Monroe's Goodwill and Value Village. I found an aviator hat from Disneyland, complete with ears, for $2!


steamfashion is a good LJ community which will keep you abreast of all sorts of cool things out in the world. steamy_stiches is another LJ community, sort of a steampunk Etsy.

These are where you should go for merchandise and fashion tips, as our community exists strictly to promote Steamcon itself. We don't promote anyone except our GoH's and the con itself. The LJ community is moderated; because if it isn't steamcon-related, it's not appropriate.

I had a girl come up to me at Dragoncon wearing a really nice dieselpunk outfit and she came up to me after my panel , saying “I thought I was steampunk.” I complimented her on her outfit, which was really well done; she was a bit crestfallen and wanted advice on how to steampunkify it. But she really did think at first that was she was doing was steampunk (sighs). Steampunk has become this blanket umbrella where people shove everything under the sun and call it steampunk. I remember seeing a picture of a car from the 20's on a website and the person who posted the picture wrote “Look, it's steampunk!” And it really wasn't. Wasn't even dieselpunk. Just a picture of a car.  Nothing science fiction about it at all.

Has the umbrella effect been a problem for the convention?

Someone created a Wikipedia page for Steamcon and that original author put cyberpunk all over it.(sighs) Cyberpunk is a distinct genre of it's own; and one that's completely separate from steampunk. The two are not related. I edited the Wiki page and asked the author not to put cyberpunk content in.

You mentioned you want to start writing?

I often get a kernel of an idea as I go to sleep, and wake up with a full-fledged story. I have some steampunk concepts I want to work on. After Steamcon I may take some time off and devote myself to writing. I have three steampunk short stories plotted; two are related and with a bridge tale I might get a short novel out of it.

More SF or fantasy?

More towards fantasy. The three stories I mentioned are very steampunk. The two related ones are tragic;  and the other one is a comedy involving time travel.

And I've noticed steampunk influencing your anthropomorphic art as well.

Yes, many of anthropomorphic images have coalesced into an airship crew Storm Chaser is the captain. Rocky as pilot, and Steam Bunny as the engineer. I will have an Artzone book by Jarlidium Press available at Rainfurrest.

I have been doing anthropomorphic art for a long time now, so adding steampunk to it was just my way of combining things I enjoy.  I used to do illustration for a living and now I do it for fun.  So, if it isn’t fun, I don’t do it.  I also do steampunk and Victorian inspired gifts and art, although my wrists have been slowing me down a lot lately. I am also very inspired to do some fiction writing and have stories ideas piling up.  My work on Steamcon takes precedence most days, but eventually I plan on doing a lot of writing.  You have been warned.

Speaking of writing, will there be booksellers at Steamcon?

No one has applied as yet. I had one person tell me he wanted to collect all the steampunk books he could find to sell at the convention. It would also be neat to have an antiquarian bookseller. One idea  we are considering is the Author's Row. Each participating author gets half a table where they can sit and sell books. Only two authors have applied thus far – most don't want sit behind a table for the duration of the con.

Gail Carriger will be there besides Cherie Priest. I've enjoyed her books; but overall, I don't know how I feel about the supernatural in steampunk. It really has no scientific explanation; and while I enjoy it, I don't feel it completely fits within the steampunk genre.

I don't know if Blaylock's Homunculus will be available at the convention. I know that K.W. Jeter is being republished by Angry Robot, so perhaps they will also pick up Jim’s books.  His work would be a great addition to the Authors’ Row.

Currently on my reading list is an anthology titled Steampunk Reloaded edited by the Vandermeers.  I have also heard about an interesting collection of original Victorian SF; supposedly the illustrations are atrocious; but it still sounds interesting.

I'll be eager to hear about that last. I know I've found a ton of Victorian-era SF on Project Gutenberg, which has been wonderful. Anything you can tell us about Steamcon III?

I am excited to announce the theme for Steamcon III: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

Wow! How exciting!

Yes, I was chatting with Cherie Priest about submersibles. Apparently our minds work similarly as we came up with this concept at roughly the same time.

Well, I'm already looking forward to attending!

Find out more about Steamcon here as well as on LJ.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jan. 18th, 2011 09:36 am (UTC)
provides access
Cool post…can you tell me where Overlay.TV showed up on that list? We were trying, but also trying not to be spammy…
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )