Monday, 21 October 2013

Steampunk 1820

It's well-known by all sensible people in the world that the suffix '-punk' has become overused and ridiculous. (My own favourite stupid use of '-punk' is "mythpunk", but there is an unintentionally funny list on wikipedia. I hope Bruce Sterling had his tongue in his cheek when he coined 'nowpunk'.) It's a lazy shorthand that has become effectively meaningless - just an attempt to create a veneer of edginess.

That said, cyberpunk did have a meaning at one time. It was punk in the sense that it was about counter-culturalism in the broad sense - you had an advanced society where technology was almost changing what it meant to be human, but unlike in Ralph 124C 41+ the cyberpunk authors were writing about the people who were going against the grain, whether by subverting the technology from the belly up (like Case in Neuromancer or the characters in "Burning Chrome") or dropping out (like the eponymous "Johnny Mnemonic", or the main character in "Dogfight"). So 'cyberpunk' is a little bit of a silly term (I prefer "near future noir"), but there is sense in it.

In the same way, there is sense in the word 'steampunk' too. During the industrial revolution, especially its early years, technological advances were overturning established ways of life - it was called a 'revolution' for a reason - and people were left behind by those advances (look at the London of "Gin Lane" or the victims Jack the Ripper), dropped out (Dickens' Oliver Twist - and just about anything else he wrote), rebelled (the Luddites, the Peterloo Massacre) or subverted them (white European adventurers going completely crazy in the Congo, Southeast Asia and just about anywhere else where they could carve out a small fortune - Heart of Darkness was maybe a little too late, but that was at the end of a century of similar incidents).

Steampunk does make sense as a genre too, then. It's not really about fancy zeppelins, goggles, steam-powered jet packs and triplanes. It's about the dark side of the industrial revolution: it's about what Sterling called the "victims of the new", except it's not our 'new'; it's an old one.


  1. I have given up on most Steampunk because the genre has moved away from any socio-political stance on technology and become almost entirely goggles-n-zepplins fantasy. Oddly enough though, I'm OK with Victorian sci-fi by itself.Just don't call it Steampunk.

    1. Did it ever really have that stance? After The Difference Engine, I mean. I'm just asking - I honestly don't know the answer.

  2. Steampunk more or less seems to be Dickens crossed with Verne.

    Verne's heroes were always strictly the stock white male hero as protagonist, the same one found in H. Rider Haggard's Allen Quartemain, Robert Howard's Tarzan, or from the serials Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers. Rugged, cleft-jawed, steely-eyed men who seemed to all box at prep school and have moxie. The type of hero that John Campbell, the somewhat famous scifi editor at Analog used to demand from his writers, that they be conquerors, empire builders, etc...

    Steampunk in practice seems to mix in Dickens' orphans, waifs, thieves. and characters with Verne. His parade of the underclass. A friend of mine claims every steampunk novel needs a burly engineer, a forgetful inventor, and a waif to be steampunk. his claim this is as firm a rule as "It's not really an alternate reality unless they have zeppelins."

    Which isn't really too far from what William Gibson set out to create. Somewhere Gibson was writing of his influences and he described how his love for classic scifi had eventually been replaced in his late teens by a love for the Beats. These authors, prose aside, did in fact rely on the same sorts of characters as cyberpunk. They provided vicarious thrills of drugs, sex, ideas, and petty crime. They're filled with wastrels and drifters, titillating you even as they provide your mind with meat to chew on with their dissatisfaction with the new world of post war America. The one where you're supposed to get married to your college sweetheart, buy the house with the white picket fence,get a new Chrysler every third year, and then settle down to work at the firm or on the production line for thirty years, while voting for either party a or party b, either of whom will ensure that the red menace will never conquer America.

    I think the variance is that steampunk, like a lot of scifi,fantasy, and horror these days, is produced for the teen market. So it is sanitized so as to not offend. It's closer to the 50s golden age scifi, then it is to post-new age scfi which produced cyberpunk. Even in the bodice ripping vampire novels, the sex might be somewhat graphic, but the drugs are avoided like it is an after school special and the sex is always romantic rather than recreation. They may sell smut to teenage girls, but they carefully rein in any whiff of nihilism or hedonism. So steampunk offers a carefully pasteurized version of the world. There is no "war between the rich and poor," because such things hurt sales.

    1. You may well be right. But I always realise in these discussions that I'm out of touch. I read a lot, but almost everything I read nowadays is old. I'm grossly uniformed about what is being written these days. From the covers, it mostly seems to be books where the maim character is a hot young woman doing it for herself in a man's world. Other than that I have no idea.

  3. I've been trying to broaden my typical focus lately by trying genres which I formerly avoided, on the theory that there should be something at the bottom of any large following. Sometimes it pays off, more often it does not. I've yet to find worthwhile steampunk, despite a number of trial runs. You're right about the protagonists though, but I think that is due to the dominance of the teen girl market. Sometimes Steampunk seems to be some sort of odd Jane Eyre cult, a crude scifi designed for people obsessed with Downton Abbey.

  4. Did you ever read Marcus Rowland's *1997* article, "Vaguely Victorian," for Odyssey #0? (

    He writes:

    "Despite the claims of its authors, steampunk isn't truly representative of Victorian SF; it strip-mines Victorian settings and characters, and uses them to disguise essentially modern plots. Some elements bear a limited resemblance to scientific romance, the Victorian equivalent of SF, but where scientific romances generally tried to stretch the reader's imagination, and push the ideas of science to their limits, steampunk often deliberately limits its horizons to a parody of the Victorian idea of science; most simply comes across as cyberpunk with steam and Babbage engines replacing computers. I sometimes have the impression that steampunk authors check off little boxes for each chapter; one for rivets, one for steam, a Babbage engine reference, some sex, a less than flattering portrayal of an eminent Victorian, an ageing alchemist, and so on. These days a touch of fantasy and a guest appearance by Tesla are obligatory plot tokens.

    "I'm still waiting to see a couple of obvious steampunk scenes; one has to feature Queen Victoria having cybersex - perhaps we should call it pneumatosex - with a steam automaton programmed by Ada Lovelace, the other one will show daring plumbers committing an immense fraud by hack-sawing into the pneumatic tubes linking the Bank of England and Stock Exchange Babbage-engines. Apologies if I'm pre-empting the climax of someone's forthcoming masterpiece here.

    "Real scientific romances have a very different feel. Today the term is generally used to describe a type of science fiction that was peculiarly British; more contemplative and pessimistic, and often less action-packed than what we now regard as mainstream SF. Some works are still written in this style. Excellent examples include Stapledon's Last And First Men and Sirius, most of Wells, Clarke's The City and the Stars, and Baxter's The Time Ships."