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The Great Steampunk Fight of '10

There are old people in science fiction, again.

It's not that I actively dislike steampunk, and indeed I have fond memories of the likes of K. W. Jeter's "Infernal Devices", Tim Powers' "The Anubis Gates", the works of James Blaylock, and other features of the 1980s steampunk scene. I don't have that much to say against the aesthetic and costumery other than, gosh, that must be rather hot and hard to perambulate in. (I will confess to being a big fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius.) It's just that there's too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it's in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We've been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it's poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it's on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it's over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon. (Take it from one whose first novel got the 'S'-word pinned on it — singularity — back when that was hot: if you're lucky, your career will last long enough that you live to regret it.) Harumph, young folks today, get off my lawn ....


I'm not going to talk about what steampunk could be. I'm not going to talk about what a joke it is to call something so inherently nostalgic, conservative, and comfort-oriented "punk." I've talked myself blue in the face on that score, and to be frank, nobody gives a shit. Sure, they nod their head and agree and shake my hand for saying that being nostalgic for the 19th century is farcical, and the fact that geek culture wants so desperately to side with the British aristocracy a sad comment on how "indie" we're not, but in the end they go home and write their same goggle-infested nonsense, maybe with a Chinese character, but probably not, or they write nothing at all. I see a lot of people talking now about what steampunk could be--yet very few of them have any intention of writing it, so it's all just lecturing by stern schoolmasters.

Fucking kids, I agree. I can't stand them.

Yet, yet. Yet. As Scott Westerfield says, "By the way, I think I’m the first person in this whole internet kerfuffle to quote text from AN ACTUAL STEAMPUNK BOOK." He goes on to say that he wins after, but I'm not so sure about that. He does, however, manage to post some cool things kids made for him (with or without direction from others) and he does say that he hates old people and this is why he won't write novels for them. I particularly liked that part, myself, even though I hate kids and won't read their dumbed down books and make them read my super cool ones, even if they are confused by the words.

The best thing written, however, came from Tansy Rayner Roberts, who said:

The most interesting thing to me about steampunk (though I’m not really an enthusiast, more of a vaguely interested observer) is that it isn’t a literary movement at all. It’s very much a mixed media movement with a huge emphasis on artwork, craftsmanship and costuming. That’s where the greater passions of steampunk seem to lie, with the literary aspect desperately trying to catch up. There’s a flashmob sensibility to it, rather than a single line of influence. Many people in the comments of Catherynne’s post preferred to define steampunk as an aesthetic, rather than a literary movement or sub-genre. I also agree heartily with the many people in the comments who suggested that the most interesting literary steampunk was happening in short fiction rather than novels, though some novels like Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld have certainly caught the imagination of readers.

Now, I'm not so sure that steampunk isn't a genre, anymore than any other sub species of writing isn't a genre, but it's certainly true that it's a mix media movement, and that it incorporates a whole lot into it rather than just the books.

You might actually, if you wished, want to take this growth and use it as an example of speculative fiction becoming mainstream. Oh, I know, the dirty word of it. How terrible. But for years, and years, I have sat and listened to how speculative fiction wants to be embraced outside its core audience, how it wants to spread to more than books, and it is--though not all of it, granted, but just a bit of it. Something bled out of the edges. It seeped out as fashion, as eye candy, and a lot of speculative fiction has done that for decades (space opera, epic fantasy, urban horror, Cthulu, and perhaps more) and it has, by and large, been the visuals that do so. Part of this, I suspect, is because as a whole, speculative fiction has been for the last thirty years a conservative, middle class genre, driven by the nuclear family of white western ideals. Why be so surprised that what gets drawn out is the fashion?

Now, to be honest, I don't really have a shake in this either way, but I must admit, I chuckled at the angry old people shaking their sticks at the kids. It was boy wizards in schools a handful of years ago, then vampires that sparkled in the sun, and zombies that were borderline on plagiarism, and now it's this. Now, none have truly appealed to me, though i do like the pretty of steampunk, and I believe its as capable of doing smart and intelligent things in literature as any other book (which, in or outside speculative, you might note is not all that often--which is perhaps why a genre shouldn't throw stones in glass houses); but the boy wizards and sparkling vampires and zombies have all been nothing I had much truck in, and I've mocked folk for reading them, and will mock them more, because I'm a funny guy, and if you can't make a joke about a vampire written by a mormon who sparkles in the day and rips open the stomach of his girlfriend to free their baby with his teeth... well, what kind of world do we live in?

But, ladies and gentlemen, these jumps and shifts through the genres of speculative fiction, if you like it or not, only really reinforce the idea that the genre as a whole is becoming more and more mainstream and widely acccepted.

Like, remember when that's all you wanted?


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Nov. 5th, 2010 09:32 am (UTC)
I do like that second artist idea though...
Nov. 5th, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)
I wrote the best thing? AWESOME.
Nov. 5th, 2010 11:55 am (UTC)
everyone else was decidely unintelligent today, which doesn't detract from your points, just made it much easier to see.
Nov. 5th, 2010 11:57 am (UTC)
Heh heh, I'll take it.
Nov. 6th, 2010 07:17 am (UTC)
Stross is old? He was born in 1964. I guess I'd be best off at the retirement home with a new set of dentures eating jello and apple sauce. Oh, and this old woman would log in, if you had an option that didn't tie to social networks. I don't like "anonymous," but I gave up on all the social network crap over the last year.
Nov. 6th, 2010 07:45 am (UTC)
well, that was the joke. perhaps you would have seen that, had you not given up social network crap over the last year.

also, you could have signed your name.

just, y'know, saying.
Nov. 6th, 2010 07:21 am (UTC)
In my opinion it has been a fucking long time since anyone said anything about this subject that actually advances debate from where Moorcock put it twenty years ago.

That the current not-as-punk-as-it-should-be branch of genre fiction involves thinly researched aviation machines and chugging boilers is a little irrelevant. It's just the same wistful wish-fulfilling rubbish in a different guise with a mission to reassure, delight moderately, and anaesthetise, and not to question, frame, confront, inform or problematise. Writing for non-thinkers, for people for whom "romance" means "sofa".
Nov. 6th, 2010 07:44 am (UTC)
yeah, exactly.

of course, it doesn't help that (especially now) this is the only kind of genre fiction that gets a lot of attention. it'd be nice if, say, brendan connell and michael cisco's stuff were the mainstream, but it's not.
Nov. 6th, 2010 08:33 am (UTC)
I'm down with it to be honest. I just don't think it's that surprising that what comforts, sells, and what sells, gets written - that's the law of the jungle.
Nov. 6th, 2010 09:39 am (UTC)
nah, i agree with that. however, i think by and large, there could be a wider variety of that comfort. it's pretty narrow these days, and i think that there's a lot of people that would like to see a variety of lifestyles, and sometimes things a little rougher and less neater, out there.
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