Thursday, 17 November 2011

An Introduction to Steampunk

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 Рfrom the obvious (Gail Carriger!) to the arguable (China Mi̩ville) 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.


  1. So are you agreeing that there isn't much Quality Writing in steampunk but saying that doesn't matter? It seems a bit odd to write an introduction for new readers that doesn't suggest a single book as a good example of the subgenre.

  2. This article rather disingenuously leaves out the most stringent, most commonly voiced objection to steampunk. It's particularly galling that Catherynne Valente's name is brought up here in the context of some straw man objection to steampunk's quality, as she has been one of the most vocal proponents of a far more pressing, more meaningful concern about the genre - that it takes a period rife with racism, colonialism, sexism, and the oppression of the ruling class, washes it of all these faults, and turns it into a fun romp. Steampunk allows readers to enjoy the aesthetic of the Victorian era without ever confronting them with that era's troubling social mores and its destructive, worldwide effects, may of which are still felt today. At its worst, it is a literature of disengagement and thoughtless privilege, and though there are steampunk novels that buck this trend, it is surely too much to expect an article that doesn't even recognize its existence - that, in fact, seems to suggest that this trend does not exist by claiming that steampunk is "progressive" - to take note of them.

    But then, this article fails to take note of any specific steampunk novels. It praises the field, but how meaningful can that praise be when not a single steampunk novel that exemplifies the genre's qualities of fun, modern, intelligent adventure has been mentioned? If steampunk is progressive rather than escapist, then what are the progressive steampunk novels? If steampunk is to be taken seriously, it needs less puff pieces like this one, and more serious discussions that actually use specific works to exemplify the genre's best qualities.

  3. I am not convinced that steampunk taken as a whole is either modern or progressive. This is a widespread criticism of the movement, as highlighted in the comments above, and I think, a valid one.

    But then the majority of Traditional Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery are not these things either. The thorny issues of feudalism, witchcraft, religious and social upheaval, technological progress, racism and gender inequality have frequently been ignored in pursuit of an e̶s̶c̶a̶p̶i̶s̶t̶ good story.

    And yet individual authors have managed to deliver mature explorations of these subjects within the body of fantasy and speculative fiction. So there is hope that steampunk in the fullness of time can do at least as well - though to be honest, one would hope for better.

  4. I think there's a very narrow definition of progressive being bandied around. Regardless of one's opinion of the Victorian aesthetic (and to accuse all Victorian-inspired fiction of being imperialist, colonialist and racist is both a gross generalisation and an inaccurate), the category *itself* is progressive.

    Steampunk has brought in new readers - many of whom weren't previously reading SF/F. Steampunk has brought in new readers - many of whom weren't previously writing SF/F. Those two actions alone have invigorated the larger genre. The audience is young and diverse, especially in terms of gender. If anything, steampunk is proving the manga of fantasy - a snubbed, specialised sub-genre with a huge female audience and an enthusiastic following.

    The accusations that Ms. Nussbaum level specifically at steampunk are broader, category-wide flaws: "a period rife with racism, colonialism, sexism, and the oppression of the ruling class, washes it of all these faults, and turns it into a fun romp". How is this different from the faux Middle Ages aesthetic that still dominates the rest of the genre? To castigate steampunk alone as an exemplar of imperialist white privilege is beyond disingenuous. Similarly, singling steampunk out as "a literature of disengagement and thoughtless privilege" describes nearly every volume of high fantasy ever written, and a great deal of SF as well.

    I suspect (actually, *that's* disingenuous, I *know*...) that many specific examples will be forthcoming over the next few weeks on the blog. Although if anyone is feeling particularly impatient, the guest list of attendees for the steampunk evening is a good place to start....

  5. I think there's a very narrow definition of progressive being bandied around

    That would be the definition that almost everyone who uses the word, including, by the looks of things, the author of this article, uses?

    The accusations that Ms. Nussbaum level specifically at steampunk are broader, category-wide flaws

    And if anyone had ever been as silly as to argue that epic fantasy is progressive you can be sure I'd be as down on them as I am on this article, but as far as I know it's only steampunk that has this label applied to it, and with very little justification. That said, I think there's an argument for directing this criticism at steampunk in particular, both because, as you say, it represents the young, fresh blood coming into fantasy whom you'd expect to also bring in progressive ideas, and because its Victorian setting gives writers the opportunity to engage head-on with issues of racism, sexism, colonialism, and so on - which they rarely avail themselves of. (This, by the way, is a point I first heard articulated by Catherynne Valente, which just stresses, yet again, how disingenuous it was to reduce her criticism of steampunk to quibbles over the quality of its prose.)

  6. From Ms. Valente's blog, linked to above:

    It's the books I care about, and for the most part, with a few exceptions, they just aren't very good.

    It's because steampunk isn't really alternate history and it isn't really science fiction.

    It's adventure stories wrapped up in a very slight veneer of common tropes. And adventure stories, historically, have never even tried to be very good. They want to be "romps" and "rollicking" and "madcap" and I will give it to SP, they are often that. But good? Astonishing novels that pluck the strings of the soul, that make you clasp it to your chest and love it because it says 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? Not so much.

    Of course, it's not a genre that cares about authenticity or emotion particularly, since it's all about the shiny veneer.

    Most of the books are not just part of a genre, they are just a bag where airships, goggles, 19th century England, 19th century America, gears, corsets and zombies are shaken and pulled out at random. Nothing sticks them together, nothing makes them meaningful or gives them depth.

    When I look at steampunk books and how they're marketed to us, all I see is surface. Look!

    Nothing that will make my soul sing--because steampunk isn't in the business of souls or of singing. It's just in business.

    ...those are Ms. Valente's words. I don't find it at all disingenuous to reduce her argument to a matter of "quibbles over the quality of its prose", as the substantial part of her blog post is, in fact, complaining about that very point. She writes dismissively about "romps", how these books aren't "good", how they're not worthy of being science fiction, how they're a bag of silly tropes, how the entire thing is marketing-driven and, of course, how there's a grievous lack of soul singing going on.

    Ms. Valente does touch on the missed opportunities towards the end of the post, beginning with:

    Of course, [steampunk's] world sure as hell ain't the 19th century. But never you mind. We can remake the 19th century. We can make it better, faster, stronger. We have the technology. Just don't look behind the curtain. It's a fucking mess back there.

    Despite already damning steampunk for not being alternate history (her words above), she's now judging it as if it were. Ms. Valente blames it for not "caring about authenticity" and then for not actually being authentic, which is internally inconsistent and a dodgy slice of critical double jeopardy. Steampunk is damned for failing to achieve something that she's already condemned it for not setting out to do.

    (Worth noting that I don't even remotely agree with the original half of her dismissal - I think there's a lot of serious, meaningful steampunk out there. Ms. Valente sweepingly claims that it all is not. Hopefully this ongoing series of blog posts and the evening itself will provide one or two counter-examples to Ms. Valente's blanket negativity.)

    In Ms. Valente's defence, her blog post is a rant and probably not meant to be taken as serious debate. But it is still an angry rant that publicly demeans an entire genre, belittles all its literature as meaningless and accuses its fans of "lemmingism". And all because she's yet to find a single book that subjectively makes her "soul sing".

    People have made compelling arguments about steampunk's shortcomings (said with a tip of the hat to Ms. Nussbaum's own work), but I don't think this angry screed from Ms. Valente is one of them.