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The Steampunk Kerfuffle and Going Beyond the Zeppelins

Any rising genre ends up getting attacked after it gets to a certain level of popularity/notoriety. Remember all the debate about Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, and Vampires? Wait that is all still going on. But now it is Steampunk's turn apparently again. I've been feeling the tide coming against Steampunk recently and it was finally set to a fever pitch a couple weeks back by Charles Stross.

Stross set everything off with:
I am becoming annoyed by the current glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of and io9.....
Which made me go why pray tell? What has Steampunk ever done to you? He goes on:
Contemplating the numerous errors of the zombies'n'zeppelins fad in SF makes me twitch, for reasons that parallel China Mieville's denunciation of The Lord of the Rings (except that I have the attention span of a weasel on crack and am besides too lazy to anatomize the errors of a generation at length in such an essay: personally, I blame the internet). The romanticization of totalitarianism is nothing new (and if you don't recognize the totalitarian urge embedded in the steampunk nostalgia trip, I should like to remind you that "king" is a synonym for "hereditary dictator" and direct you to the merciless skewing Michael Moorcock delivered to imperial hagiography in his Oswald Bastable books). Nevertheless, an affection for the ancient regime is an unconsidered aspect of the background of most steampunk fiction: much like the interstellar autocracies so common in space opera (and again, let me cite Michael Moorcock on Starship Stormtroopers). The Science! in steampunk (which purports to be science fiction, of a kind ... doesn't it?) is questionable at best (Cherie Priest, I'm looking at your gas-induced zombies) and frequently flimsier than even the worst junk that space opera borrows from the props department, because, as it happens, the taproots of steampunk lie prior to the vast expansion in the scientific enterprise that has come to dominate our era. But that's just about forgivable, inasmuch as much modern SF doesn't even like to pretend that sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship, and not a metaphor. That leaves the aesthetic ... which I can't find anything intrinsically wrong with, as long as steampunk is nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown. Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world).
So he goes on to lambaste Cherie because her science isn't right in regards to zombies. What kind of nonsensical comment is that? Maybe Stross should think about writing The Science of Zombies so all the writers out there can get it "right" according to him. Because writers need guidelines to work with if they're going to please Stross. That's what most authors want isn't it? To be told how their stories should have been?

Priest fired back:
OMG YOU GUYS it has come to my attention that SOMEONE on the internet is saying that my fictional 19th century zombies are NOT SCIENTIFICALLY SOUND. Naturally, I am crushed. To think, IF ONLY I’d consulted with a zombologist or two before sitting down to write, I could’ve avoided ALL THIS EMBARRASSMENT.

If you’ve been heretofore unaware of my EGREGIOUS CRIMES against reason and scientific probability, but you too would like to criticize my technique when it comes to MAKING SHIT UP about the pretend undead … then boy, have I got a proposal for YOU!
I think she let it off a little lightly, but many others have taken up the cause to take on Stross. Scott Westerfeld came to the defense of Steampunk:
Yes, the current emblematic book of steampunk is totally Dickensian, but no one pays attention to that because it’s got zombies and airships, and therefore must be a madcap lark. Because this whole conversation has been about flap copy, not actual texts.

By the way, I think I’m the first person in this whole internet kerfuffle to quote text from AN ACTUAL STEAMPUNK BOOK. And thus I win.


Not to go flat out into Sturgeon’s Law mode here, but space opera is a subgenre of which an astonishing percentage is crap, both aesthetically and politically, and which gluts the bookshelves far more than steampunk. But no one will be declaring how much they hate it, because it’s been around long enough that old people aren’t bothered by it.

And yes, this is about YOU being OLD, steampunk-haters. (In spirit, not in years.)

THIS is why I don’t write for adults. Their heads are all full of genre cooties and “Taj Mahal? Nah, don’t like tombs.” Whereas a kid will come home from the library with a mystery, an sf novel, an autobiography, and three books about sharks. That’s how kids read, and when something’s cool and fun and awesome (or weird and gnarly and thought-provoking), they don’t worry about how many times it’s been mentioned on io9, or whether it’s that-genre-Fortnight on
Catherine Valente than entered the fray as a Steampunk detractor saying:
Steampunk is starting to look a lot like the endless dragons and maidens covers of old extruded product fantasy. Sameness is never exciting, and steampunk


When I look at steampunk books and how they're marketed to us, all I see is surface. Look! The megasitesthings that either sparkle or blow up strung together on the hope that some kind of magic will happen and a zeitgeist will be capitalized upon.
Others have gone to bring up very good and pertinent points even if they aren't necessarily falling head over heels for the genre such as:
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.
So it seems more people are upset by the dress-up factor of Steampunk than anything else. But Cosplay has been going on for decades. In fact it had its origin in modern culture with Sci-Fi. Star Trek conventions anyone?

Valente than came back with a good piece on what she actually likes about Steampunk:
I like how steampunk is a deconstructive genre, or at least has the potential to be so. I see this lately in costuming, where the insides of the bustles and corsets can be worn on the outside, (hell, corsets themselves were never meant to be worn on the outside), the workings of the clothes made explicit. That's one of the things I like best in books of any type, and I'll be interested to see how it trickles down--or up--into literary steampunk, showing the workings of the novel, the culture, the history, the insides on the outside. I love postmodernism, and sometimes it looks an awful lot like pre-modernism.
So what does this all add up to? It all comes down to if you don't like it have you actually read it? Because it doesn't seem like most of the haters have actually read much of what is going on in Steampunk. Sure some is fluff, but there are a lot of amazing stories going on. And aren't fiction books for entertainment? For the detractors out there go out and read more in the genre to see what it is you "think" isn't good. I did the same a few years ago with Urban Fantasy and now I'm a big fan. Sure there is crap out there, but there is in every genre.  I'm not in them for a history lesson and while that can be a nice bonus with some books it is not something I'm after as a fan and reader. If you actually want to find out what Steampunk is about than read Shweta Narayan's short clockwork bird stories, Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World, or Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer just to get a taste of what is out there beyond the zeppelins.

You Might Also Like:
The Old West Brings the Steam by Felix Gilman
Steampunk: The Spirit of the Time by Mark Hodder
The Future of Steampunk by Paul Jessup
INTERVIEW | Cherie Priest author of Boneshaker
Steampunk is...(13 Authors & Editors Answer)


Ben Godby said...

Well, I'm reading "Dreadnought" right now - my first steampunk foray - and all I can say is, it's pretty friggin' sweet. It's actually getting more awesome as I progress, which I like. Far too often, books seem to devolve toward the end...

But yeah, I think all of this kerfuffling comes from the fact that more and more of the genre community - or, maybe just the genre writers - want to equate their fiction with literary fiction. Well... it ain't, and it probably never will be. Genre is entertainment much more so than it is "art-qua-art." BUT I actually think that's a good thing, because in six hundred years steampunk - and Harry Potter, and Twilight, and even space opera - will be studied as a real artistic/aesthetic movement in an effort to understand the "masses" of our times; whereas all the government-subsidized "literature" will end up in a heap somewhere, forgotten tomorrow as it is today.

But I still think it's funny how obsessed genre readers/writers are with making sure their "product" is "legit," as it were, and not only fluff. Who cares whether it's "literary" if it's totally awesome? Zombies and airships, rock'n'roll baby! Give me fluff or give me death, I say!


Sophie Playle said...

Great article!

I think as with most over-done plots (e.g. zepplins-n-zombies), they can still be written effectively. Sometimes good books are all about the freshness and originality of the writing and the presentation of story, instead of just the story.

Anonymous said...

okay but what about YA fantasy? why are we still messing around with witches, wizards and wands. wheres the blood, gore, full-blown nasty and shadier charactors. and yes i HATE harry potter.

as well as steampunk, it's a wide genre and people can do whatever they feel like they WANT to write. and should damn well do so. and if stross and valente dont like steampunk, why do they keep reading up and commenting on it instead of reading whatever other crap they like ( yeah, im not the biggest fan of stross and valente cant write for shit, im sorry). sure, no one has written the great steampunk novel or made the great steampunk movie but those things take time. so stop the BITCHING and enjoy what YOU ENJOY about the genre otherwise GET THE FUCK OFF AND GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE.

hate to break it to some people, bjut steampunk, as a rising genre and asthetic, culture, etc is here to stay.

Mad Hatter Review said...

@Ben -- There are plenty of genre books I'd consider literary, but you make a good point about the perception and standards some people think all published works should be up to.

@Sophie -- Very true. The majority of Epic Fantasy series have the same basic world and often setup (begger Prince to be etc) so much of Steampunk or any genre is window dressing so it comes down can the authors create a compelling story and characters in the setting.

Anonymous said...

anon1: You took the words right out of my thoughts.

it's sad that people are forgetting what steampunk is supposed to be. hell, I'll admit that I learned quite a lot about 19th century figures and culture from steampunk in a way that i could not do so in high school. as for valente and stross, that looks like two less authors that I'll be reading.

Todd Jordan said...

Couldn't pass this one up.

Doh. If you don't like it don't read it. How can a person critique a whole genre that they don't even indulge in?

Like a history fiction buff detracting on fantasy fiction. Gosh dang unicorns can't fly!

Love the word kerfuffle btw.

Cheers from a subscriber.

Pete Miller said...

I have read Cherie Priest's books (liked them very much) but no other Steampunk yet. Her books have more in common with 1930s pulp than any Victorian-ness. They are good fun, alt history/SF.

Steampunk as a book category makes just about as much sense as Science Fiction. The label means very little as the kinds of stories and the way they are told vary wildly.

I find bashing genres ridiculous.

Unknown said...

It's worth noting that Stross spoke very particularly about steampunk vis a vis 'science fiction'.

Defending people's right to enjoy steampunk as an aesthetic, as a flash mob, as a whatever, doesn't actually adress criticisms claiming it's a failure with respect to what "science fiction" generally entails.

For instance, I enjoyed Priest's "Boneshaker," but it was fantasy, not science fiction (if one feels obligated to stick it into one of the two categories, which Stross does).

I think people rather failed to notice Stross was coming from a very particular perspective, and not just generally saying "steampunk sucks," (okay, he was saying that *too*). I don't think steampunk sucks, but I happen to agree it shouldn't be taking up sci-fi shelf-space: it ignores and/or betrays every thing fundamental to science fiction.

Mad Hatter Review said...

@JHSteinberg - I've only ever considered Steampunk loosely associated with Steampunk except some of its forebears, which were a lot of science based. A lot of people are taking to calling the genre Steam Fantasy, which probably better fits most of the work out there.

What bookstore are you going to that separates out Sci-Fi from Fantasy? They're all sharing the same space as far as I can tell. Steampunk books aren't pushing Sci-Fi books off the shelf more than any other associated genre.

NelsonStJames said...

Deconstruction is fine when it serves a true purpose. Wearing corsets on the outside is simply exhibitionism at worst, and simply a silly fad (possibly started by Madonna which should tell you something) at it's most innocuous.

Steampunk has the possibility to be something, but until someone decides to quit punking out, and define what that something is, it's going to remain this silly-putty movement that doesn't seem to be about anything except recommissioning old Road Warrior clothing and selling it to masses who want to be in on the next new fad.

NelsonStJames said...

There's nothing deconstructionist about wearing corsets on the outside. At worst it's exhibitionism (possibly started by Madonna in the 80's which should tell you something, and just a silly fad at it's least innocuous.

Steampunk does indeed have the potential to be about something, but not until someone stops "punking" out at decides to define what that something is. Until then it will remain this silly putty craze whose real purpose seems to be recommissioning old clothes and props from the Road Warrior to sell at exorbitant prices for those who want to be trendy.

Anonymous said...

I Agree that Steampunk can be any story it wants to be, as long as it retains the idea that it is steampunk (I.E a zombie apocalypse in 1891 London isn't steampunk. a zombie apocalypse in 1891 London with zeppelin's, steam powered devices, or any other aspect that the majority of people can agree on is steampunk, then yes, it it steampunk.
BTW, as far as I know, Kerfuffle is one of the few spoken English words that originated in Canada.