|Art by Aiiven|
by Paul Jessup
Steampunk is a schizophrenic old codger who doesn't know his own name half the time, let alone what century he's in. I say this with love. It's a genre that goes back, way back, yet at the same time it's recent popularity barely resembles the crazy alternate history that gave birth to Steampunk. We're inundated with steampunkers wandering around wearing Victorian clothing, cracking wise about Empires and Britain and speaking in some of the worst faux British accents this side of a Renaissance Festival.
Currently, the literature is trying to keep pace with the scene. It's not so much taking inspiration from Steampunk classics like Jeter [Infernal Devices], or Paul Di Filippo's Steampunk Trilogy, but rather going hog wild with the scene that sprung up recently. And even though the scene carries the name of Steampunk, it carries none of the literary background. So instead alt/history books with an almost scientific rigor towards machines that could have been, we've got fantasy novels in Victorian garb.
Nothing is wrong with this per se. But I do see a disturbing trend towards Empire worship and a hidden undercurrent of racism. Sure, we've got some people trying to make good with all this (Steampunk Magazine's recent attempt to branch out and sweep this under the rug). And we've heard people quote the SCA, saying they'll take the good stuff out of the time period and ignore the bad. Which seems like a very dangerous thing to me.
Especially when it comes to fiction. Novels not only give us a bit of escapism, but are also inspirations and blueprints to our thought process and our moral centers. This is even more dangerous when labelled as escapism--when a novel/short story isn't thought about, isn't argued with (mentally speaking) and is just accepted because it's just fun, we let ourselves make room for all sorts of nasty thoughts in our own mental landscape. Steampunk as escapism that tells us Empire is grand! And has a white washed cast is a very dangerous thing. Especially when you have a group of eager Steampunk scenesters who are younger and trying to fit into this new subculture.
There are a lot of books who go against the grain on this such as Boneshaker and China Mieville's Bas Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council). And we need more. We need Steampunk that takes it's cues from literature, not from a movement/scene. We need to see more books with an anti-Empire bent, about anarchists trying to overthrow the evils of Colonialism and the wrongs of a Monarchy. Or even more books taking place in worlds that don't have Empires. There was a large world that existed during that time period, a wide world with a lot of the same access to what has become the founding of Steampunk style technology.
Well, the point of my rambling is this: the future of Steampunk looks bright. It doesn't look like it's slowing down as a subculture at all, and a lot of people are starting to read Steampunk books. But there is a danger here, if we don't move away from the Empire/Colonialism and more towards an open Steampunk fashion. And for it to thrive without hate or tyranny, it is a road we need to follow.
Paul Jessup does not exist. You can contact him via Ouija board at http://pauljessup.com/. Jessup's linked Steampunk stories the Silas Bay triptych have appeared in Electric Velocipede and PostScripts the first of which The Alchemy of War can be downloaded here.
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