Putting the “Steam” and “Punk” in Really Wild West
I haven’t referred to the Really Wild West setting as “steampunk,” because to me it’s a distinct Fantasy Weird West genre, rather than a “true” steampunk setting. Of course, steampunk is as much an aesthetic as a literary genre (certainly true now, regardless of its origins), and part of my issue with calling RWW steampunk is that I am going much more for a western aesthetic than a steampunk one. I’d also want to parse out the distinctions between steampunk, gearpunk, cogpunk, diselpunk, pulp, weird west, fantasy, and a bunch of other things related to speculative fiction settings of the late 1800s before I was comfortable referring to (or marketing) my setting as “steampunk.”
But, there certainly is going to be significant overlap between people who are interested in Really Wild West, weird west, and those who are interested in steampunk. And, ultimately, I suspect the weird west, pulp, and steampunk genres are very much like La Belle Époque, the Gilded Age and the Victorian Era—they aren’t the same, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what is unique to each and what is shared, but there’s certainly a lot of intersection.
Classically, one element of steampunk is that steam-engine level technology is capable of much more advanced devices than in the real world, allowing more modern devices to exist in larger, bulkier, brass-rivet covered steam versions. I’m not depending much on steam as the main technology of Really Wild West, because my setting advances electricity and magic as much as it makes steam more efficient. There are some things common to steampunk stories in RWW, such as Babbages (or “difference engines”) that are gear-driven computers (that can communicate over the Babbage-Bell Grid, creating a kind of primitive internet), and massive airships acting as floating cruisers and battleships, but in most cases those are using an imaginary technology developed from the inclusion of a form of advanced theosophy (magic) in the setting, or reverse-engineered from Martian tech after the War of the Worlds, rather than super-efficient steam. Steam engines exist, but RWW isn’t the steam age anymore. Aetheric engines are more important than steam turbines.
On the other hand, the “punk” elements of steampunk, as a social movement, make sense for my Really Weird West setting. Not all steampunk settings borrow the “punk” part of cyberpunk, but I think it’s worth remembering as a spine of the body that includes so many related and overlapping ideas. Much of the “punk” part of cyberpunk is about wanting to live free of mainstream society’s constraints and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of social expectations. That certainly borrows from the punk musical and cultural movements of the real world 1970s and 1980s, but in cyberpunk, that rejection is often frames in terms of the collapse of the benefits of society and, with cybernetics and AIs commonplace, asking what it even means to be human.
Some steampunk settings have their own versions of this punk-ness, while others just focus on the dashing heroes of society, whether they are the champions of wealth and aristocracy you’d expect to be promoted by society itself, or plucky underdogs of low station who rise to fame and power… and then generally become not only accepted parts of mainstream society but also proof that anyone of sufficient quality can succeed by bootstrapping, and thus a backhanded claim that the rules of society should be respected because they include opportunity to improve yourself if you are properly deserving. I find this to be especially true of steampunk set in or based on the 1800s US.
However, the imaginary 1891 of Really Wild West is a time of rapid societal change, whether that’s the impact of Reconstruction and the Progressive Era of the United States, the turn toward science and rationality of the Porfiriate of Mexico, or the removal of Otto Von Bismark from power in Germany. On top of those real-world social pressures, the setting of Really Weird West is dealing with the cognitive impact of magic being codified as real by the Theosophic Society over the past generation and proof of alien life (and both its technological superiority and desire to kill us) in the War of the Worlds just a year earlier. While polite society in major urban centers is trying to pretend nothing has changed, in their hearts people know better. Literature, science, music, poetry, and acceptable social behavior have all changed, and many people are actively rejecting its rules which, to be fair, are based on those of the real world at the time and thus include a lot of objectively terrible racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry.
In the frontier lands, that change is even more pronounced. Where lawlessness is more common, society has less power to enforce both its good and its bad dictates. Sure, lawless lands often include a lot of robbery, fraud, assault, and murder, but they also have weaker social codes insisting everyone fall in line with societal expectations. Not no social codes of course—each town, business, cattle barony, and gang can have its own society requirements no less strict and merciless than those of “Back East.” But while that means people can’t automatically be free of bigotry and racism, it also means they don’t have to go as far to get away from it. Given how dangerous it is to live outside of town that might be a short trip into a shallow grave, but the option exists.
That very danger also means that people who refuse to follow the norms of society, but who have a particular set of skills, can find more than one place that will accept them at least as long as there’s a problem they can fix. It’s no coincidence that this sounds like the plot of numerous classic Westerns, but it’s also the plot of numerous cyberpunk stories. In many ways the gunslinger is the original “punk” character concept… and before that the samurai, and local hero highwayman, and some Greek heroes. Punk heroes, as independent experts who thrive outside the system, can exist in the largest numbers in campaign settings where society has a weakened grip. In cyberpunk this is often because corporations have grown to be so powerful that they can challenge the government-controlled legally defined societies, and virtual reality is competing with meatspace, and the gaps between those factors are shadowy realms where expertise is more important than adherence to societal standards. In a Western, Really Wild West included, there’s a similar conflict between the expansive, technocratic societies and the less mechanized and more sparsely-spaced aboriginal societies as well as the rapid expansion of new forms of transformation and communication into areas with vast untamed stretch of exploitable natural resources. RWW, of course, adds magic, an alien invasion, and weird science to the mix to create even more instability, and larger shadows where the punk character concept comfortably fits.
If Really Wild West promotes the idea that exceptional people can rise above their stations and become heroes, it must acknowledge that doing so often means bucking the systemic oppression directed at numerous minorities. Certainly, if a group would rather not deal with such real-world issues, and the players would have more fun playing whatever they want without considering how people from a world based on the heavily-flawed real world of 1891 would react to them, they can do that. But asking a group to all agree not to take the expected real-world biases and bigotry too far may be more than everyone can handle, so there are also explicit notes within the campaign where any character background is explicitly appropriate. Specifically, even in the small amount of material written so far, the Dread Templars and Science Agents are both groups that accept anyone with the skills of a player character, and both are respected and established part of the campaign world. Being a punk who is part of a group may be a tad counter-intuitive, but it’s not really any different than imagining a cyberpunk hacker as part of a real-world collective like Anonymous.
All that said, I’m not likely to begin calling Really Wild West “steampunk,” but I won’t tell anyone else who does that they’re wrong. 😊
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