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Defending Steampunk

November 1, 2010

So, my post from a few months back on the themes of the Steampunk genre has been getting a fair number of hits in the past week, thanks mainly to my comment on the blog of author Charlie Stross.

In his post, Stross attempts to eviscerate the Steampunk genre, but comes off sounding more like an angry curmudgeon who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about… (Authors Jeff VanderMeer and Tobias Buckell respond to Stross’ post here and here, and Steampunk novel writer Scott Westerfeld’s reply here.) But he does make some good points, and they coincide largely with points that I made in my “Steampunk Society” article: that point being that the reality of the era from which Steampunk takes its inspiration is anything but ideal or utopic.  But, whereas he finds in this fact a condemnation of the Steampunk genre, I find it a matter of praise: that Steampunk as a genre embraces an era of gritty dystopianism and finds in it cause for optimism.  In my article, I felt I made clear that I see a lot of potential in a full exploration of the themes of social and class upheaval that are part of the bundle that comes with Steampunk.

Charlie’s problem, apparently, is that a lot of Steampunk eschews this conflict-rich thematic approach for an “oh, aren’t gears and cogs and springs and brass just so sexy” (which, yes, they are… but that’s not the whole point) approach that tends to linger over-long on the gentlemanly adventures of the upper class without ever straying into the real and hard challenges of the lower classes.  It’s steampunk with polished brass, where the brass never needs polishing because it never gets dirty.  Admittedly, I have never read this kind of steampunk, what I have mentally taken to calling “Steampunk-light”, and I don’t intend to start.

The result of Stross’ post was to lead me to reread my Steampunk entry… and to lead me to muse further on the topic.

I still believe that my fundamental thesis is sound and correct.  But, I think I can do a better job of defending that thesis.  I think I can improve upon that article.  I think I will improve upon that article.  But it won’t be today.

The new, better article would be better-sourced, with more links, more references to existing works in the genre, both historical and modern, and a more thorough analysis thereof.  I won’t say that it would be the definitive article on the topic… but it’ll be a sight better than what I wrote previously, which I thought was pretty good at the time.  Would there be any interest in this?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2010 4:42 pm

    Oh yes, you should definitely write it…it sounds publish-worthy. Try sending it to the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators…They pay $50 for a full-length article. And a membership(?), which normally costs about 85 pops. Hey, what’ve you got to lose?

    • November 2, 2010 8:36 am

      I’m sorry, I meant I think they give you a membership if you submit an article. You don’t need one to submit, I don’t think.

      • November 3, 2010 1:13 pm

        That’s pretty much how I interpretted your comment, but thanks for the clarification!

    • November 3, 2010 1:04 pm

      I thought about the possibility of trying to sell the article, once written, in some venue that publishes this kind of thing. Which means, first, that I’d not be posting here, at least initially, after finishing it. Something I’d have to think about when I try to write it.

  2. November 1, 2010 4:55 pm

    In general, I’ve found that most people have no idea what steampunk is. This inclines me to believe that we are not at an over saturation point, except in coverage from a few sources (named above).

    Just like any genre, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically bad about it. It just depends on what the writer does with it. For example, one could argue that medieval inspired fantasy, is all about restoring the status quo (putting the right king on the throne) and preserving hierarchy.

    I think there is a lot of potential in the genre, for the reasons you mentioned above. There is room in it to talk about the baser sides of human nature, and from the people who have little power. It allows you to write about at time ripe with change, and coping with the future (badly). It allows you to go the sci-fi route, or fantasy, or a mix of both. I could go on… but I’ll let you write up about it. 🙂

    • November 3, 2010 1:10 pm

      I agree with the points you make. I like that Steampunk can be either Hard (Sci-fi) or Soft (Fantasy). In fact, I think as this genre matures, we’ll see it subdivide into several sub-genres. And, frankly, I don’t think we’re heading for an “over saturation point” that’s subsequently followed by a crash – you often see that in publishing, but you also sometimes see the opposite: something takes hold, begins to grow, has a few break-out successes, and then reaches a steady-course point where it is fully defined as its own genre. It wasn’t until some time after Tolkien and his imitators hit the market that we saw Fantasy emerge as a solid genre. And Tolkien wasn’t even the first to write in the genre, but before then the genre wasn’t yet truly defined. Today, Fantasy is subdivided into many different subgenres. I think we’re witnessing the same thing happen with Steampunk. And the back-and-forth over what Steampunk can be versus what’s currently out there and available in the genre is, I think, pushing it in this direction. You don’t see the same sorts of thematic discussions, for instance, about “Paranormal Romance” or the “Sparkly Vampire” Genre. For what it’s worth, it is what it is. Steampunk has a lot wider potential.

  3. November 2, 2010 1:07 am

    I’d be interested in seeing it and in particular the references to existing work in the genre. Outside of Jay Lake’s Mainspring, I haven’t read anything considered Steampunk, although I have some friends who are into the actor’s reenactment side of steampunk.

    • November 3, 2010 1:12 pm

      That’ll take some work. I’m aware of quite a bit of what’s been published in the genre, but I’ve read mostly only short fiction rather than novel-length works. So, at present I can primarily only comment on the existence of other works in the genre, not so much on their quality, themes, etc.

  4. November 10, 2010 6:47 am

    agree with stephen 🙂

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