Steampunk. The inexorable tension between corsets and brass-banded blasters; the tug-of-rope between Victorian themes and Victorian images; the tightrope act involved in balancing present-minded respect and past-minded romanticism while negotiating the vanishingly-thin line between. Love it or loathe it, steampunk has become an indelible feature of modern geek culture.
It seems that almost anything with some sort of Victorian-y trappings is accused of steampunkery these days – from the obvious (Gail Carriger!) to the arguable (China Miéville) to the unsustainable. (Alexandre Dumas?) And, occasionally, not even that. (see e.g, Regretsy's list of 'Not Remotely Steampunk' Etsy offerings.)
And, as with anything wildly popular, steampunk has its own faction of vocal detractors.
An informal internet poll has led to this sweeping and likely wholly unfair generalization: the anti-steampunkers have two bees in their bonnets. One: they don’t think there’s much Quality Writing in steampunk. Two: they’re just tired of steampunk.
To address the second issue first: yes, there’s a lot of steampunk around right now. A lot. And it can be exhausting – cons are drowning in steampunk panels, made up of the begadgeted and attended by oceans of the becorsetted, all waggling their brass-bound pith-helmets and solar-powered x-ray goggles back and forth at each other in a fervid mutual appreciation society. If you’re tired of steampunk, you’re not alone in that feeling. But you are, I’m sorry to say, unfortunate in it. Steampunk is everywhere, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
The other anti-steampunk argument, however, is worth considering in some detail. There is a lot of steampunk writing out there, and it’s not all great. Steampunk has rife with lousy characterization, bad science, plot holes within plot holes, and derivative ideating. Of course, the same is true of any subgenre – or, you know, all writing in general. Not all the writing in any one genre is going to be great. Or even very good. But that doesn’t mean it’s all terrible, either.
Author Catherynne Valente for example, has argued that steampunk novels are just adventure stories, not "astonishing novels that pluck the strings of the soul, [books] that make you clasp [them] to your chest and love [them] because [they] say something real and authentic about your life… books that you put in your sig file, that you quote endlessly because they said something you just couldn’t say any other way."
The fact of the matter is, most books aren’t capital-a astonishing. That steampunk hasn’t produced one person's"burst into tears at the thought of it" book yet? I’d be willing to put money down that most subgenres haven’t produced that book yet. I'd also be willing to argue that there are readers out there who have found that book, and that, in some cases, that book is a steampunk novel.
The fact of the matter is: most books aren’t astonishing. That shouldn’t devalue what those unastonishing books are.
But let’s accept,for the sake of argument, that there is not a lot of astonishing steampunk writing out there. That steampunk hasn’t had its Nabokov or its Proust, its Hammett or its Sayers, its Brontë or its Woolf; that it isn’t well-written or it isn’t thoughtful or it isn’t this or isn’t that or isn’t the brass-bound other.
That's an awful lot of isn't.
So let’s stop talking about what steampunk isn’t. Let’s start talking about what steampunk is.
My first submission: steampunk is fun. It’s about adventure, excitement, invention and derring-do. Fun is okay. Fun is fine. Fun is great. Fun is awesome, you guys. There is nothing wrong with fun. It’s time to stop bashing on unabashed escapism.
Secondly, steampunk is modern. Steampunk has given authors and readers a new way to approach older, tiresome, even moribund subgenres. Historical romance novels, for example, are a dime a dozen. But drop a dirigible and a steam-powered personal flying apparatus into your novel about Lord Thaddeus Lovejoy and the plucky middle-class second-daughter who loves him, and suddenly the creaking old romance novel is interesting again.
Third, steampunk is progressive. It walks the line between fantasy and science fiction in ways older subgenres don’t. As the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy crumble away, steampunk rides their erosion into the future – that marvelous, not-so-imaginary world where it’s okay that sci fi and fantasy have a lot in common. And steampunk can be a way of writing about society, about social structures and class and gender and race and imperialism and modernity. Those were real problems in the real nineteenth century, so pulling them out and examining them under a twenty-first century lens – which can be steampunk goggles as well as scanning electron microscopes – is as valid a way of interacting with them as any other.
Fourth, steampunk is intelligent. No, not all of it – because not all of anything is ever everything. But it contains the seeds of its own potential within its very name. Steampunk definitionally requires some sort of science to operate within its own ambit: it’s about the nineteenth century, roughly, and the great technological advances of that period, both real and imaginary. Do some steampunk authors just make stuff up and drop it into their books irrespective of whether or not that technology would work? Of course they do! Exactly like science fiction authors have been doing for a century.
Fifth, and finally: steampunk is young. Not young in the sense that it’s read primarily by a youthful demographic, or written by under-25s. Young in that it hasn’t been around very long. All the arguments laid out here are worth having – they’re not just important, they’re vital – but it’s always worth remembering that they’re about a subgenre that, in the final analysis, people are just really starting to explore.
In sum, steampunk is one of the most robust things to happen to genre in decades. Steampunk is here. It may not be here forever, but it’s here now. So let’s start talking about it like it matters.
Because it does. Steampunk matters.
Anne Perry talks the big talk over at Pornokitsch. She's supposed to be working on a Ph.D., even though she seems to spend most of her time thinking about monster movies. She recently edited Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse.
The Kitschies are an annual award for those books which best elevate the tone of genre literature.