DragonCon and Genre Futures

Posted on 09 September 2009

This is the first of two posts inspired by Dragon*Con.  That’s right, a con so mighty, so massive, that I decided it needs to be broken up into two posts, the first of which is “The Future of SFF.”

Now, I’ll digress at the start and say that I did not get a chance to attend much in the way of panels and the like.  The majority of my time was spent helping to run the Errant Story booth, and while that was a blast, it gave me a bit of tunnel vision as far as what my pictures had for a background—such as the Bud-K booth across from me.  But, I did manage to slip away to a few interesting panels, and the first of them was called “Looking into the Crystal Ball, the Future of Science Fiction.”

Going in, I expected to hear “who knows” out of each and every editor’s mouth, and I was not disappointed. After all, I’m sure ten years ago no one would have expected the Twilight phenomenon.  But, in a more immediate foresight, the editors did have some ideas.


Steampunk is the quickly becoming the new thing, and my pictures can easily be said to represent that. Heck, one of my friends even commented that “steampunk is the new goth.” Now, I’m going to admit something here: I still don’t really have my head around steampunk.  Mind you, I’m saying this after having written two steampunkish manuscripts and short story.

See, there seems to be something to it that I’m not quite getting. Yes, I know the obvious stuff: a world of steam or gear powered innovation with a Victorian styled society. But there’s something more to it than just that. Perhaps it’s intrinsic to trying to create the Victorian feeling, but steampunk seems to require a bit of an optimistic outlook on things, even in a dingy story.  Yes, the technology is “ugly” in that it is usually just function-driven with little care for “prettying it up”, but if it is one thing about Victorian society in general, it is that it was a hopeful time.  To this, I would compare steampunk more to Star Trek than anything.  Both seem to be saying that no matter what, technology is going to make the world a better place to live, even if a few rotten apples try to spoil it.

My problem, I’m not overly a fan of that. Maybe I’m stuck in the old wave of SFF, but I liked the dingy, almost harder SFF feel of dystopias and oppressive governments. There are plenty of good stories and motifs to be visited in a world of Victorian styled sensibilities mixed with ahead-of-its-time technology without having to make the world an inherently better place.  Heck, my short story on here, “A Life to Give” is taken from the point of view of a soldier on the losing side of the war, and the technology is only making things worse.  Could it have been told in a hard SFF without the actual steampunk-ness of it?  Probably.  There is no shortage of Victorian-styled governments in space, vis-à-vis most Space Navy Operas.  But, that said, one could technically tell any steampunk novel, optimistic or not, in space.  So, answer me this: what is special about steampunk that would be lost if you took the same concept into an advanced, traditional SF?


In what seems to be a complete one-eighty of the surging popularity of retro-SFF with a dash of hope, Post-Apocalyptic has been making a return as well.  The stories of what happens after or sometimes even during the end of the world are amazingly interesting, I agree, and the anthologist John Joseph Adams put it amazingly well in his forward to “Wastelands” when he pointed out that typically there is a bit of hope buried in those stories, the desperate desire to survive.  Perhaps that is what is making our more hope-hungry SFF readers come back to this time-honored field, but I have to wonder if there is something else.  Even for the hope that P.A. lit can have, it is still very typically buried under layers upon layers of despair, and even most of the pessimistic stories of yesterday have that.

I’m going to throw out a half-baked theory.  I have to wonder if the tastes in SFF are reflective of the readerships view of the world.  I’ll take the step to say that, since SFF is escapist literature on the majority, most readers are after what they don’t have, so perhaps people who are despairing over the future are looking to hopeful stories, and perhaps those who are hopeful are fascinated by despair, and we just have a polarized readership, just like the rest of the (American) world is about everything.  Star Trek was popular during a dark and troubled time (Cold War/Space Race) but at the same time, P.A. lit did its best during the height of the Cold War as well.

I don’t really know, but perhaps no one does or can.  Perhaps that is why even seasoned editors still answer “I don’t know” to the crystal ball questions.  I will agree with one panelist—which one, I forget—and say that I do hope steampunk evolves a step further and we start getting “steampunk” stories in other cultures than Victorian.  Heck, perhaps I’ll go and think up a story as such.  You knows, right?

2 comment to DragonCon and Genre Futures

  • Helen says:

    Talking of steampunk set in space, have you read/listened to Doctor Who:The ressurection casket?

  • Richard Fife says:

    Sadly, I am fairly un-cultured in the Dr. Who sense. I don’t watch all that much TV, but I looked up the amazon and wiki pages for it, and it looks kind of like what they were getting at on the panel. Sadly, as its a bit of a “media tie-in” novel, it does get the red-headed stepchild treatment as opposed to an orginal world/story.

    I was actually speaking with a drinking buddy the other night, and he brought up how they believe there were rudimentary plans for steam engines as early as late-ancient greece, perhaps at the Great Library of Alexandria. Now, imagine an alt-history where the Great Library did not burn down and the steam-revolution happened in in the days of Julius Ceaser (the first “burning” of the Library). Hmm… *jotes down a note to hisself*

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