AnomalyCon's Kronda Seibert on Why Steampunk is the Perfect Sci-Fi Gateway Drug

AnomalyCon, Denver's home-brewed steampunk convention, will kick off its fifth year on Friday at the DTC Hyatt Regency. The three-day celebration of anachronistic science fiction and alternate history includes everything from an interactive murder mystery to a grand ball, not to mention guests like famed Boing Boing blogger and science fiction author Cory Doctorow. Before the convention launches, we caught up with AnomalyCon chairwoman Kronda Seibert to find out why women find her convention so inviting, what sets AnomalyCon apart from other science fiction conventions, and why steampunk is a gateway drug to the world of geek culture.

Westword: So AnomalyCon is a steampunk and alt-history convention, correct?

Kronda Seibert: Well, sort of. Yes, because AnomalyCon is steampunk aesthetic, and our first year we were fairly strictly steampunk, but it’s more accurately steampunk, science fiction and alt-history.

Science fiction is well known, and alt (alternate) history is more or less self-explanatory, but for those of us who haven’t come across the term, can you give us a concise definition of steampunk?

I’m going to give you a slightly weird answer. The well-acknowledged answer for that is typically Victorian science fiction. That’s what people like to use. My answer to that — because I also run the Colorado Steampunks and I’ve been answering this question for ten years now — is that steampunk is advanced technology powered by kinetic energy, typically steam but not necessarily, in a time outside of its own.

You have a nice lineup of guests this year, headlined by Cory Doctorow. I know him mostly as a blogger and a general science fiction author. Does he have a particular connection to steampunk?

This year, Cory is definitely our highest profile. He’s definitely just an all-science fiction [guest]. He doesn’t have a whole lot of steampunk; he has some elements here and there. But because of the nature of our audience, particularly because our age range is a lot younger than most science fiction conventions and we have a lot more female-focused audience than a lot of cons, we tend to bring in a lot of guests who are there for the sake of who they are as people as much as for the work that they’ve done. So Cory is a really big advocate of equality and privacy and technology movements. That combination of talents appeals to a wide variety of my audience.

You mentioned that you skew younger and more female than most science fiction conventions. Do you have any idea why that is?

We have a couple of different thought processes on it. One of them is that our staff is mostly younger. Younger is relative, but I think the oldest person on my director staff until recently was only 32, and that’s not me; I’m not 32. I have some directors now that are a little older, but those are people I’ve pulled in.

Other than that, I think steampunk is like a gateway drug for a lot of people for science fiction. It’s something that brings people in in an interesting way that other things — other than anime — possibly wouldn’t. It brings them into the geek community in a way that other things wouldn’t necessarily. You didn’t have all these cool superhero movies hitting quite yet when we started AnomalyCon. You didn’t have those going out and pulling people into the geek demographic.

There’s still kind of a stigma that follows along with the comic conventions and some of the bigger science fiction conventions that you expect, and see: certain age ranges — typically thirty to fifty — and even if it isn’t [that age range], it’s mostly male. AnomalyCon audience is more like 65 percent female, which is unheard of for non-romance conventions, and our average age is eighteen to thirty. I say that, but we still have plenty of people all over the place, age-wise, but the bulk of our audience is in the eighteen-to-thirty age bracket. And a lot of those eighteen-year-olds have been coming to our convention the whole time [it’s existed]. More accurately, they’re mid-twenties, and they’ve been coming since they were eighteen. I feel like I have these kids who are younger siblings or something, because I see them every year at my convention.

The other part of our theory on our demographic is when we started AnomalyCon, we set out with the intention to set ourselves apart from other events, in particular with things like our respect policy, and the fact that we expect people to behave not just like adults, but like people who respect each other. It helps that it’s a steampunk event, because people are all running around trying to act Victorian, and so everyone’s behaving themselves better than they might at other events.

Having a well-published and enforced respect policy means people feel that our convention is a safe place. You don’t hear the kind of stuff about AnomalyCon like, “Oh, such-and-such person got harassed by this person” or that people won’t leave you alone if you’re wearing a costume. That kind of thing. That mindset that we started out with at the very beginning probably had a lot to do with our audience having a higher attendance of females.

The thing that draws so many women to steampunk is that its a reimagining of a time that was really restrictive to women, especially when you consider the Victorian aspect of it. It’s reimagining that time to be a lot more liberating. A lot of women who are interested in steampunk are interested in rewriting history. Alternate history really falls into it a lot, especially in a lot of the novels and stuff. We talk about the reality of the Victorian era and how it wasn’t as liberating as people like to think it was, and about how much things have changed since then and how putting the lens of today on that history really rethinks the way that women can fly ships and be engineers and rulers and more.

What is it about steampunk that makes it a good “gateway drug” to science fiction fandom? Is it the fact that it’s more of an aesthetic than anything? All you need is a cool brass raygun and a waistcoat, and you can learn everything else from there?

You kind of hit it on the head there. We like to say that steampunk makes recycling sexy. It’s something that’s fairly inexpensive for people to get into if they want. You can go to Goodwill and get some cool stuff, recycle, feel good about where you got your stuff and turn it into a neat costume. Steampunk doesn’t have the kind of rules that a lot of other genres have, as long as you’re ignoring some of the Victorian prerequisites that a lot of people try to lay on the genre. You can pretty much go to town. That’s the punk side of it, is being able to pick your own interpretation of things.

There are some things you can go and watch and read to get a feel for the genre; it’s not necessary. I made the mistake once, the year before we started AnomalyCon, at Nan Desu Kan, of saying that you can put goggles on any costume and turn it into steampunk. The vendors that were selling goggles that year really owe me a cut. They sold out. I say that was a mistake not because I don’t still feel that way, but of course then all these costumes pop up that are just goggles added to a normal costume and somebody got upset with me because they remembered I said that.

The idea is still there. You can go slowly, and start out with something small like painting a plastic gun or throwing goggles on something or — I hesitate to say it — gluing gears on it. You can start slowly and get into the genre and you don't have to have ever read or watched anything, you can just enjoy the aesthetic of it.

What else would you like people to know about the convention?

One of the really cool things we do, that we started doing the first year on a whim and it stuck and we love, is we run a unique murder mystery throughout the weekend every year. It’s one of those things that’s a filler for somebody who doesn’t have something going on. It starts with some clues in the program and people can basically work through it at their own pace. We have prizes at the end of the weekend for whoever solves the mystery.

This year our mystery is based on a scientist who’s working on a formula for eternal youth, and he’s murdered for the formula and now the formula is missing. They have to discover what the formula was and discover who of six suspects, all of whom are special guests of the convention, is the murderer. We always pick different authors and artists to be the suspects, so then people will go and find them and be more interested in those people, since it helps them solve the mystery.

We have a lot more demos that most cons do. We have an entire panel of programming tracks, like leather-making panels and sewing. We have another track that’s basically like a Miskatonic University, a mad science [program] for kids-ish — anybody from age three to age eighteen or so would probably enjoy this programming. Our theme this year is “more science than fiction” — not because we’re cutting out the science fiction, but because we wanted to bring in a lot of science types this year.

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Cory Casciato is a Denver-based writer with a passion for the geeky, from old science fiction movies to brand-new video games.
Contact: Cory Casciato