Feb 19, 2016

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!
In the intervening year, this little Steampunk Festival was accepted to be Swecon, Sweden's national nerd event, with other Guests of Honor who made more sense to me, like writers Cory Doctorow and Chris Wooding. As it happened, only Cory seemed to know why he was there, while Chris, Miriam Roček, and myself would all confess wonder at how we ended up in the land of IKEA, ABBA, and the late Stieg Larsson. Through the magical miracle of Aeroplan miles, my wife Jenica was able to attend with me, and in late June 2014, after our first (and exceedingly relaxing) Transatlantic flight, we touched down on Swedish soil. 

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.
The event itself was held at the Sveriges Järnvägsmuseum, the Swedish Railway Museum, which is one of the best kept rail museums I've ever been to. And because of this, the Swecon Steampunk Festival had something no other steampunk event I've ever been to had: its own train. Yes, there may have been steampunk events where a steam train was present, but not like this one. And just like me, you'll have to wait for the reveal of that particular train. I learned of it upon my first night in Gävle from Erik Andersson, a great mountain of a man with a heart of gold and a laugh you'd expect a Viking (for the record, Swedes are really hospitable and humble. It's hard to imagine them running up on your shore from a longship with a broadsword in hand). Erik and his crew of steampunk train apprentices had been working feverishly to have the train ready for its reveal at the festival, and he was clearly very proud of it. 

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
At the opening ceremonies, the head of the Swedish Railway Museum spoke of how the event was the perfect blend of things he loves: trains and Tolkien. It was a great statement to kick off the weekend. Then the organizers brought out "the Spirit of Swecon," which had been bottled the year before at the end of the 2013 event. I'd never seen anything like it, and I thought it a wonderful ritual to begin a convention. After all, most fan cons are essentially religious gatherings, involving pilgrimage (journey to the con), pageantry (cosplay), performance (panels, presentations, and LARP!), sacred texts (booksellers) and sacred icons (steampunk stuff!).
Presenting for the first time at the weekend
After our GoH panel, we all went our separate ways: I was off to give my first solo presentation of the weekend, "Useful Troublemakers: New Women in the Novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest." Here's the blurb from the program about that presentation: 
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"
And the Green Room was warm. And it had fika. Fika is a Swedish word that is very similar (or so I was told) to our idea of "going for coffee." But Fika also involves pastries, in this case cinnamon buns, and the chilly GoHs and panelists gathered between presenting duties to grab a coffee, a tea, and a cinnamon bun. We were housed for these gatherings in the Rail Museum's library, which was filled with Swedish books on trains. Jenica located some really cool diagrams as well. We met some lovely local authors like Nene Ormes (who I absolutely adore - I wish her books were in translation!) and Oskar Källner, with conversations ranging from grammar to Game of Thrones (in one of these, the ever-humble Gillian Redfearn, who is also George R.R. Martin's UK editor, cheekily whispered, "should I text him and ask?" when questions were being asked about the future of some of the characters). Some of my best memories of the weekend are of sitting around the table in that library.  
"What is Steampunk?"
My presentation on "What is Steampunk?", my tried-and-true explanation of the steampunk aesthetic went off without a hitch, and as these photos can attest, with slides! Again, the attendees were great, and I was consistently surprised by how well Swedes comprehend English. I can't imagine the reverse happening in Western Canada.




Erik Andersson, in front of Järnsaxa
Järnsaxa
Erik and I standing on the Railway Turntable
Me, my bowtie, and Matthias Westermark, one of my favorite geeks in the world
That afternoon, Jenica and I were treated to a preview of Järnsaxa, the train that Swedish steampunks were given permission to decorate. I'd never heard of any other steampunk event getting license to steampunk an actual steam train, so I was pretty excited. Erik Andersson took us onboard to meet Thomas the [Tank Engine] Engineer, who let Jenica pull the steam whistle. It's one thing to see a steam train in a photo or a video. It's another to stand in front of it, seeing the steam issuing out of this massive machine. You really understand why Walt Whitman thought the spectacle of the steam train was worth a poem. Though the weather made some aspects of the weekend more challenging, it made the unveiling of Järnsaxa extra special. For those who question where the steam is in steampunk, it was in high supply at Swecon in 2014. Sadly, Järnsaxa was not a permanent fixture at the Rail Museum, and was returned to its former state a few months after the event, making the photos and videos you can find online the sole record of its existence. A moment of alternate history at the Swedish Rail Museum.


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. 


4 comments:

  1. This makes me so increadibly happy! Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Good memories, thanks for sharing them and reminding me of those wonderful days!
    And thank you for your panels and presentations!

    /sir Vincent Ravenscroft aka Elenaria

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  3. Good memories, despite the cold weather! It was nice to have fika with you too, academics are not to be underestimated. I have a question though: what do you mean when you talk about "gatekeeping"?

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  4. Gatekeeping: Steampunk fans who gain a certain level of prestige, and then use that to dictate what "real" or "true" steampunk is, thereby excluding anyone who doesn't meet their criteria.

    ReplyDelete

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