Swecon 2014: Steampunk Festivalen
This post is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World, 2016.
In 2008, the website Gizmodo announced that "steampunk is dead." This was a bit of a disappointment to me, given that I was just starting my PhD research into steampunk. And while it's not uncommon for students of literature to study dead things: dead movements, dead authors, dead languages, I'd just attended my first steampunk convention and had a lovely time. I knew I was arriving late to the steampunk party, but I wasn't ready for it to be over. Six years later, the four days my wife and I spent among Steampunk Swedes at the Rail Museum in Gävle, Sweden, are certain proof that Gizmodo, and every other steampunk doomsayer was dead wrong.
When I was first invited as a Guest of Honor (aka hedersgäst) to the Steampunk Festival in Gävle, I was sure someone had made an error. Even though I had known organizer Anna Davour for years online, I wondered if she understood that I lived on the far side of Canada. The flight alone would cost a pretty penny, to say nothing of hotel, per diem, etc. I'm an English instructor--I'm not a famous Maker like Jake von Slatt, I'm not an entertaining performer like Professor Elemental, nor a talented artist like Myke Amend, or famous novelist like Gail Carriger. While I've attended a number of steampunk events, I've received more invitations than I've said yes to, for the simple reason that only one ever offered to help me buffer my travel costs, let alone pay for a Transatlantic Flight. I agreed to attend, fully convinced that the shoe would fall at some point and I'd be informed there'd been a mistake and I wouldn't be going.
|Gail's so famous, you can find her books in Gävle!|
Our journey from the Stockholm Arlanda Airport was facilitated by Stefan Gemzell, who proved to be both capable chauffeur and tour guide. Along the E4 motorway to Gävle, Stefan regaled us with all sorts of trivia about Sweden, most notably the Dragon Gate hotel, which has the highest WTF? factor of anything I saw on this trip. In short, it's a hotel that looks like the set for a period Chinese epic, but has never had any visitors, because, although it's been there since 2004.
Since we arrived a few days early at Swecon's request, we were able to fully appreciate and enjoy the lovely Elite Grand Hotel and a few of the sights of Gävle. It's apparently considered a bit of a backwater, given how people kept apologizing that the event had to take place there, but for Jenica and I, the combination of late night/early morning sunshine, old world architecture, and abundance of cycling and walking paths made for a very relaxing preamble to Swecon. We consequently kicked our jet lag before the con began.
|Me standing with one of many Gävle goats around town. Google that. It involves fire.|
|Gillian Redfearn checks out her guest pass, while the GoHs all meet for the first time|
|Miriam Roček and Chris Wooding|
|Cory Doctorow, just before the GoH panel.|
The night before the festival, the Guests of Honour gathered with the organizers and volunteers for a supper, so that we wouldn't have to be strangers for the weekend. Following a robust conversation about many things geek with a few of the organizers at my end of the table, I met Chris Wooding the night before, which was a bit of a fanboy moment for me, as I loved Retribution Falls, the first book in Chris's Ketty Jay series. Thankfully, Chris turned out to be a great guy, and we enjoyed drinks, food, and great conversation with Chris and his editor, Gillian Redfearn many times over the course of the weekend. However, the GoHs were spread around the table at the mixer, so it was only moments before the first panel on Friday night that I was properly introduced to Cory Doctorow and Miriam Roček, as we quickly compared notes for the opening Guest of Honour panel. I'll openly admit to being just a little intimidated by both Cory and Miriam, as they are on the opposite end of the question of whether steampunk should be punk-political. I'm not a prescriptivist, I'm a descriptivist, and while I know that there are many steampunks like Cory and Miriam, I know there are just as many who enjoy a good bit of fun without politics or activism in the conversation. I think it was that difference that made for a great GoH panel, with Chris and I representing one end of that continuum, and Miriam and Cory representing the other. It showed that the Swedes know that steampunk is a multifaceted fandom, and celebrated that diversity. And thankfully, our differences didn't distance us, and I enjoyed getting to know all my GoH colleagues over the course of the weekend.
|The director of the Rail Museum welcoming us all|
|The Guest of Honour Panel - Me, Miriam, Chris, and Cory|
|Presenting for the first time at the weekend|
Steampunk's retrofuturist gaze is almost uniformly associated with technology; consequently, steam punk retrofuturism rarely realizes the historical aspirations of the nineteenth century. Instead, it ends up being the way we imagine the past seeing the future. While these imaginings often take the shape of dirigibles and clockwork beings, they have the potential to reimagine the social spaces of the past, as Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger's steampunk novels do with women in the nineteenth century.The presentation went really well, despite an absence of laptop for the new slideshow I'd built just for Swecon (so I'm dying to present this one again!). Attendees were really engaged, and asked great questions. I was also interrogated by an attendee about why I thought it was appropriate for a white male to be presenting on women's rights, to which I replied, "I have a platform. You want to be upset about me using it for that, go ahead. But so long as I have the mic, I want to make it count." I don't want to "mansplain," but I do want to be an advocate and ally. So much for me not being prescriptive about politics in my steampunk!
|Being interviewed by Anna Davour|
Saturday dawned cold and grey, around 14 degrees Celcius and rainy, which we were told was unseasonably chilly. Thankfully, steampunk garb is built for colder, not warmer weather. I'd rather fight a bit of chill than sweat through my waistcoat. I only wish I'd packed fingerless gloves, since my first panel of the day was my GoH interview with Anna Davour. I'd met Anna on my first website, Gotthammer, so it was like a reunion with an old friend rather than a first-time meeting. The Guest of Honor interviews were in a large tent outside the Train Museum, and despite my Canadian fortitude for cold, I found myself shivering by the end of our talk. Nevertheless, the attendees were warm, and the interview felt more like a conversation, as these things should.
|Jenica discovers train schematics in the Rail Museum library - the "Green Room"|
|"What is Steampunk?"|
|Erik Andersson, in front of Järnsaxa|
|Erik and I standing on the Railway Turntable|
|Me, my bowtie, and Matthias Westermark, one of my favorite geeks in the world|
|This photo, and the following ones, are all from the steampunk art display at the con.|
Saturday culminated in a steampunk ball, which was held in the big tent. The chill of the day was held back by the number of bodies generating heat, and the warm atmosphere of a formal event made glamorous by steampunk finery. It was a rare opportunity for me, to just sit and watch the attendees interact and the magic show, which, thanks to our interpreter Johan Anglemark, was hilarious as well as entertaining. Conventions are a wonderful place to make new friends, and Johan was definitely among those. I was transported back to Steam Powered, my first steampunk convention in the fall of 2008. For the first time since I'd finished my dissertation, I had a sense of why I loved steampunk in the first place. From my admittedly limited vantage point, this Swedish event was bereft of the posturing and gatekeeping I'd seen too much of back in North America: it had the same sense of playfulness I'd experienced at Steam Powered. Even if steampunk was dead back home, it was certainly alive in Sweden.
|Jenica and I at the Steampunk Ball|
Sunday was another cold and grey day, but my final panel was easily my favorite of the weekend. I came to present at my GoH Speech with several of my best presentations loaded on the laptop, and gave the group the opportunity to choose which one they wanted to hear. By a landslide, they chose my Finding Nemo presentation, the very first piece of research I ever did on steampunk back in the fall of 2008, and the first academic article I published on the subject. Again, I was taken back to Steam Powered, where I gave the presentation that formed the roots of that study. I was transported back to researching at Rice University over the Christmas holidays in 2008: to the Eaton Science Fiction Conference in 2009, for which I built the slideshow utilizing Art Donovan's "Steampunk Mandala." As I was transported, I shared my journey, and the revelations I'd had about steampunk via the character of Captain Nemo. It was an absolutely brilliant time, and the attendees had insightful questions and uplifting encouragement.
I was further buoyed by my GoH Fika in a train car, where I was joined by a handful of con attendees who (much to my surprise) wanted to meet me and have a close conversation with me. The group who came were lovely, and admitted that they too had been taken by surprise by wanting to hang out with the academic. One of them related that he'd been dubious about my inclusion as a Guest of Honor, but after hearing me at the GoH panel the first night, he'd attended most of my panels. It was a wonderful thing to hear, given my own doubts about being a Guest of Honor on the other side of the world. The conversation centered on Swedish LARP, which appears to be LARP on steroids: they told me about a Battlestar Galactica LARP they'd been involved in on a Swedish naval destroyer. I tried to imagine any LARPing group in the United States or Canada getting permission to do performance art on a military vessel, and the image wouldn't come. Correct me if I'm wrong, Internet, but I think the Swedes have taken LARP to a level the rest of us can only aspire to.
At the closing program, the GoHs were presented with a lovely gift - prints by Swedish artist, Simon Stalenhag. Somehow, despite the decorum of the moment, Chris, Miriam, and I thought it appropriate to pretend they were lightsabers. Anna Davour recaptured the spirit of Swecon until 2015, and then it was time, as it always is at these weekends, to say farewell, which we did at a little pub just around the corner from our hotel. We went and had a drink, sitting across from Erik Andersson and Kristin Thorrud, the woman who'd had the idea to have a steampunk event at the train museum (and who makes some of the best steampunk costumes I've ever seen). I'd never been to a "dead dog party" before, but I certainly understood why they bear that name. It's always hard for me to take leave at the end of a con, and this one all the moreso. When I took leave of new friends at Steam Powered, I knew I'd be back - knew I'd see them again. And I did - at Steamcon and other conventions. But I couldn't imagine getting back to Sweden anytime soon, and so, weary as we were, we stayed as long as we could before returning to our hotel.
|What happens when geeks get cardboard tubes in their hands.|
And over the next day, in stages, we returned to "the real world," leaving the fantastic hyper-Victorian (or hyper-Oscarian, to be properly Swedish in my steampunk) world behind us. We had looked our last on Järnsaxa the steam train, and only glimpsed the Rail Museum as our passenger train flew by a speed Whitman could never have dreamed of. We left our beautiful Grand Hotel behind, bound for a Holiday Inn in London. But despite returning to the real world, I had a renewed sense of the ongoing vibrancy of steampunk. Maybe the fad has died down in North America, but around the world, there are people who are just discovering steampunk for the first time. And when they do, it appears there will always be these gatherings which engage in a moment of alchemical magic, as disparate elements and people meet for a shared love of top hats, goggles, steam contraptions, corsets, and a sense of adventure that gives us the recovery of a lost past, and the escape from a dreary present Tolkien said fantasy should. And in this case, a eucatastrophe, an unexpected happy ending: I'd gone around the world, worried I wasn't the droid they were looking for. I don't know if I was the right Guest of Honor for Swecon in 2014, but the Steampunk Festivalen certainly reminded me once again, that Steampunk is not dead, but alive and well in its fans around the world.