ours and theirs
Haven’t we seen this once before? Back in the early eighties, a group of young and ambitious writers leapt out of the back seat of science fiction and gave the genre’s steering wheel a hard jerk to one side, sending us careening into cyberspace. For a time cyberpunk was our secret, although given the caterwauling it evoked in genre from its partisans and critics, it wasn’t much of one. But by the end of the decade, cyberpunk was no longer a literary movement but also a lifestyle, a fashion statement, and something of a fad. It spawned movies and TV shows and comics and video games and jewelry; for some mirrorshades and leather were the uniform of the day. It was no longer ours, it was theirs too. Anyone could take whatever they wanted from it.
At roughly the same time, steampunk was stirring. Just as cyberpunk had a core group of writers which included such central figures as Bruce Sterling <wired.com/beyond_the_beyond> and William Gibson <williamgibsonbooks.com>, among steampunk’s founders were Tim Powers <www.theworksoftimpowers.com> and James Blaylock <sybertooth.com/blaylock> and K. W. Jeter <kwjeter.com>. Of course, steampunk had a much slower takeoff. Jeter is generally credited with coining the name in a letter to the editor published in Locus <locusmag.com> that concerned itself with what to call the nascent subgenre:
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock, and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like “steampunk,” perhaps . . .
(Science Fiction Citations <jessesword.com/sf/view/327>, an otherwise wonderful resource for genre jargon, cites a later interview with Blaylock as the first usage. Perhaps a correction is in order?) Since Jeter’s letter appeared in April 1987, his prediction was off by as much as a generation, although in 2011 it has come to pass with a vengeance. It’s interesting that Jeter was also a cyberpunk of note, and there has ever been entanglement between the two great punk subgenres, starting with their names. Steampunk has a note of whimsy that was lost on the first cyberpunks, who were earnestly fomenting literary revolution. Yet in 1990, Gibson and Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine helped popularize steampunk tropes. Since then all kinds of writers have freely and often gleefully crossed the boundaries between steampunk and cyberpunk.
And while steampunk’s cultural breakthrough took longer than cyberpunk’s, its time is most certainly now.
Ask Æther Emporium <http://etheremporium.pbworks.com/w/page/10454263/Wiki>, the steampunk wiki, what steampunk is and you’ll get eight different impassioned answers. Various writers suggest that it is a literary genre, an evolved fantasy, an aesthetic, a mythology, and a subculture. It is the “Personal Industrial Revolution,” “a reaction to the utter soullessness and disposability of modern tech” and “over-sized rivets, aero shaped fins and elaborate exposed plumbing fixtures all covered with that ‘comfortably worn’ patina.”
Clearly, deciding what steampunk is all about is not going to be easy! Part of the problem is that as more and more people are drawn to this subculture, they bring their own interests to it. Some are keen to dress up in corsets and riding boots, waistcoats and goggles, or uniforms of the armed forces of the imagination. Others want to make beautiful and idiosyncratic objects. Indeed, the Maker Movement <makezine.com> has come into its own at just the right time to help transform steampunk fancies into quirky reality. There is also self-proclaimed steampunk music, but no real agreement on what it ought to sound like.
But since we’re readers here, let’s concentrate on the literary branch. Aether Emporium polled members of the blog Brass Goggles <brassgoggles.co.uk/blog> for suggestions to stock the essential steampunk library <etheremporium.pbworks.com/w/page/10454249/Steampunk-Essentials>. The bloggers mentioned revered ancestors like Jules Verne <online-literature.com/verne >, H.G. Wells <online-literature.com/wellshg>, Jack London <london.sonoma.edu>, and Arthur Conan Doyle <online-literature.com/doyle>, men who wrote during steampunk prime time. Then there are precursors, some of whose work points toward the current iteration: George MacDonald Fraser <wjduquette.com/authors/gmfraser.html>, Harry Harrison <harryharrison.com>, Talbot Mundy <talbotmundy.com>, and Michael Moorcock <multiverse.org>. To their number, I might also add Keith Laumer <keithlaumer.com> for his Imperium series. I admit I was less impressed with their selections of contemporary steampunk. For that let me commend a list compiled by the astute John Klima < libraryjournal.com/lj/reviewsgenrefiction /884588-280/steampunk_20_core_titles. html.csp>, Cherie Priest <cheriepriest.com>, Gordon Dahlquist < bookreporter.com/authors/au-dahlquist-gordon.asp>, and Paul Di Filippo <pauldifilippo.com>, among others. Among those others he mentions are Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, who gave us the quintessential The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen <lxg.wikia.com/wiki/League_of_Extraordinary_Gentlemen_Wiki>.Okay, okay so it’s not a novel exactly. It’s a comic graphic novel. You got a problem with that?
Yet another writer Klima cites is China Miéville <chinamieville.net> for his novel Perdido Street Station. And here we begin to see a problem with steampunk’s popularity. Don’t get me wrong, Perdido Street Station is a wonderful book, but Miéville himself describes it as “basically a secondary world fantasy with Victorian era technology.” Victorian era technology, but no Victoria. Or England. Or, indeed, any of our history. If one includes this book and others like it, as many do, it seems to me that the boundaries of this subgenre get harder to map. I don’t want to play genre cop and Miéville probably doesn’t care if his book is steampunk or not. But the more kinds of writing—or activities—that get called steampunk, the less meaning the word has.
And the steampunk subculture recognizes this. Check out The Great Steampunk Debate <greatsteampunkdebate.com>, which is the archive of an online “discussion on ideology, beliefs, politics, ethics, and how all of these things intersect with steampunk.” This exchange took place in May 2010. Among the subjects “debated” were the politics of steampunk, its relationship to the world of the nineteenth century that it mirrors, with emphasis on issues of gender, race, class, and industrialization, and the existence—or failure—of a center that could hold its various subgroups together. Lest this sound like some academic colloquium, recall that that this took place on the internets, where the niceties of civilized discourse are rarely observed. Despite the fact that the noise to signal ration was definitely skewed toward clamor, it’s worth skimming over the rants to find the quiet voices of reason. What I was able to glean from the debate was that different populations were attracted to the idea of steampunk for different reasons. Some were readers, some were media fans. Some were Makers, some were goths on the rebound. Some wanted just want to have fun, some want to change the world.
So what’s wrong with that?
Nothing, of course. But to return to literary concerns, traditional science fiction writers have expressed misgivings about a subgenre that resolutely turns its back on our sometimes bewildering future to fixate on a period of history, which, while simpler, was filled with horrors that we are lucky to have escaped. Charles Stross made this case on his blog <antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/10/the-hard-edge-of-empire.html>:
If the past is another country, you really wouldn’t want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat.
At the end of his essay he asks, “what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?”
Scott Westerfeld gave a testy reply <scottwesterfeld.com/blog/2010/11/genre-cooties> in which he details a number of thoughtful essays by steampunk aficionados dealing with the very issues Stross raises. And as for the novel that takes an unflinching look at the Dickensian side of steampunk, he suggests Cherie Priest’s popular Boneshaker <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boneshaker_(novel)>. After pointing out that science fiction—specifically space opera—is not without the sin of under-examined assumptions, he strikes what might be considered a low blow at critics like Stross: “And yes, this is about YOU being OLD, steampunk-haters. (In spirit, not in years.)” Ouch!
Speaking of Cherie Priest, if you are looking for a passionate, intelligent, and knowledgeable explanation of what steampunk is all about, click over to her essay Steampunk: What it is, why I came to like it, and why I think it’ll stick around <theclockworkcentury.com/?p=165>. She elaborates on two persuasive reasons: “(1). Steampunk comes from a philosophy of salvage and customization, and (2). Steampunk’s inherent nature is participatory and inclusive, yet subversive.”
Like my friend and editor Sheila Williams <asimovs.com/2011_04-05/editorial.shtml>, I am of two minds on this subject.
I definitely get uncomfortable when critics of steampunk go after it for being escapist—a calumny that has been used to marginalize science fiction since Gernsback’s days. Clearly, in the hands of writers like Priest and Powers, steampunk deserves to be taken seriously. And even those aspects of steampunk that are more playful than thoughtful challenge consensus reality in ways that are good for us all. But not all steampunk worlds—or those of science fiction, for that matter—are as morally grounded as those of Powers and Priest. Critics have every right to insist that attention be paid when steampunk’s delight in shiny surfaces glosses over human suffering.
Meanwhile I still have at least one unanswered question. Mirrorshades and goggles— what’s up with all the eyewear?
Copyright © 2011 James Patrick Kelly