What Steampunk Is For

(part 2 of 3. Read part 1 here.)

I should start by saying that I actually agree with more of this than I don’t. There is too much steampunk about right now, too much of it is shiny-happy-thoughtless, and hell yeah on the second artist effect. I am reminded of Delia Sherman’s awesome WFC snark about shiny-happy-thoughtless medieval fantasy that was really just the world the author was used to seeing nowadays, only with much nicer clothes. And much more stew.

But I hadn’t yet read the blog post when I went to the Boskone panel inspired by it. And the panel summary raised my eyebrows: “So is there a dark side to steampunk? Zeppelins are fun and all that, but does a subgenre which turns SF into fantasy and hides the dark side of the Victorian era really deserve our enthusiasm?” Said panel featured Boskone guest of honor Charles Stross holding forth along the same lines as he does in his blog piece:

A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic—mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre—would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins… It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich…

And I’m sitting there thinking, “Yes, of course it would, because it does. Whaddaya mean, ‘is there a dark side to steampunk?’—since when is steampunk anything except dystopic? Warlord of the Air and Land Leviathan are hardly happy versions of the future; Whitechapel Gods is all about an empire consuming its people; the stories in the VanderMeers’ first collection were all dark and all reprints, suggesting that a lot of dystopic fiction was out there to choose from; hell, even the 2008 Dr. Who Christmas special underlined the use of child labor in making the empire go—”

I’m not quite sure why I stood up and said this. You might remember me saying that I wanted to challenge the panelists on ‘Fantasy Gun Control’ at WFC, but restrained myself because I’m so new to the world, never had been to a WorldFantasy before, have no publishing credits to speak of, etc.? That hasn’t changed much in four months—only one more publishing credit gained—so I can only attribute my willingness to draw attention to myself to being so overtired I might as well have been drunk.

I’m glad I did, though. It means that Charlie and I have been arguing it out—very briefly in his panel, but thoroughly in the bar that night and over e-mail since, and I’m kinda high off the experience of being taken seriously. It turns out we’re mostly on the same side of the argument. We disagree only to the extent that what he thinks steampunk should be doing, I think it already is.

And that difference of opinion may be due only to a difference in how we’re defining ‘steampunk,’ something I realized only after we were well into the debate. My definition may be off, since I find that many things on other people’s lists of steampunk stuff don’t meet my qualifications. The Great Steampunk Timeline that Tor.com put up includes the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, for instance, which, well, really? I recall neither dirigibles nor clockwork men in that movie, so how is that steampunk? I’d call it gaslight—not realistic gaslight, but as realistic as gaslight gets when put through a Hollywood-blockbuster filter. But Anubis Gates doesn’t fit my definition either—there’s no steam there, the world runs on magic rather than clockwork, I’d accept my friend Joseph’s term ‘thaumapunk’—and Anubis Gates was one of the works for which the term ‘steampunk’ was created, so the problem may be in my head.

I realized just yesterday that I’ve been unconsciously applying Jess Nevins’ definition, as presented in the intro to the VanderMeers’ anthology:

Steampunk is a genre aware of its own loss of innocence… Steampunk writers are all too aware of the realities which the Edisonade writers were ignorant of or chose to dismiss. If the world of the steampunk writers are not dystopian, they are polluted, cynical, and hard, quite unlike the clean and simple worlds of the Edisonades… The Edisonade is a propagandist genre, beating its drums for America, for geographical expansion, for manifest destiny, for the theft of other people’s (singular and plural) property…

Steampunk, like all good punk, rebels against the system it portrays (Victorian London or something quite like it), critiquing its treatment of the underclass, its validation of the privileged at the cost of everyone else, its lack of mercy, its cutthroat capitalism…

It might be argued that the preceding only holds true for first generation steampunk, and that much or even most second generation steampunk isn’t primarily English, urban, static, or melancholy. But most second generation steampunk is not true steampunk—there is little to nothing ‘punk’ about it… The authors of the Edisonades would have loathed first generation steampunk, but they would have approved of second generation steampunk, with its steam machines used against the American natives in Westerns, and steam-powered war machines being used in the service of the British army conquering Mars. (In that sense steampunk has returned to its roots.)

Asserting that “any steampunk that isn’t dystopic isn’t steampunk” renders my “of course steampunk is adequately representing dystopia” argument somewhat tautological. What appears to be going on here is that I’m thinking of first generation, and Charlie is thinking of second generation, which is returning to what Nevins calls its Edisonade roots. Okay. Now we’re on the same page. Right then.

But now that we are on the same page, it raises another interesting question. Second generation steampunk—return to the roots, bright clean lines, technological optimism, setting out for the frontier and mastering it and then returning home, “man is the master of the machine and nothing is beyond the inventor’s grasp”— is obviously not a realistic reflection of the Victorian era. But does that make it inherently intellectually dishonest?

I will poke this question with a stick in tomorrow’s post.

Comments (2)

JosephMarch 3rd, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Tor made some interesting choices (that was the first time I’d seen that chart), especially because I’d be inclined to think of “Mainspring” as a morality play with gears (of course, your mileage may vary, but I loathe throwing a book across the room, and that one made an unholy thud).

With its similar style to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, would you consider “Anno Dracula” to be Steampunk?

I’d first heard thaumapunk used here : http://www.metrophor.com/ and since I’m in the midst of Anubis Gates currently, I’d be inclined to agree it’s more thaumapunk than steampunk (or as I described it to a friend, like all the best parts of Michael Crichton without all the scientific mucking about).

Boneshaker (also on the Tor list) is awesome, and given your previous post, I’d imagine that you would find its main character most interesting.

HeatherMarch 9th, 2011 at 8:05 pm


1) I don’t remember anything explicitly steampunk about _Anno Dracula_. _League_ did have a dirigible, but I wouldn’t say it was particularly steamy or particularly punk.

2) Already made the note on _Boneshaker._ 🙂

3) I have no idea why your comment wound up in my spam filter, but I’m annoyed that it did, particularly since it makes it look like I didn’t want to have this conversation with you, when I totally did. 🙂

4) Glad you’re liking _Anubis._

Leave a comment

Your comment