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10 Things I Actually Do Love About Steampunk
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catvalente
You know, part of why I feel yech about having posted the whole steampunk thing is because I generally try to operate from a place of love for books and wanting them to be as awesome as possible--and obviously that post is not so much on message there. For years I've been brought onto panels to be the voice of steampunk dissent, and I got used to that being my role in that world. But you know, that post is not how I like to run things, and I'm not freezing comments or taking it down or anything, as I've said, that's not how we play on the internet, but I am offering instead this, because if I didn't see how good steampunk could be, and sometimes is, I would shrug it off and never write about it, as I do with many, many things I don't care about. We all forget to use our inside voice on the internet sometimes, but I'll be happy to tell you when I'm wrong.

So here's my olive branch.

10 Things I Actually Do Love About Steampunk


1. The idea of speeding up technology, of having workable difference engines and things of that sort, setting the clock forward a hundred years. I love alternate history--though I am often just as frustrated by it--and the possibilities, especially the very grotesque possibilities of having that tech available for, say, WWI, fascinate me. I do wish it were a little more balanced--technological advances are not always ray guns, sometimes they are washing machines.

2. Ok, yeah, I dig the clothes. I especially dig when clothes matter in books (Gibson is one of my favorites for this, especially his recent novels) because they are so much of how we present ourselves to the world and how we perform our culture.

3. I love it when the inherent parallels are addressed head on, how very, very like the Victorians contemporary culture can be, (one of the things I love about The Diamond Age is that the culture in the book is obsessed with the Victorians, and so reflects the culture outside the book as well, though it pre-dates the current craze), how we use 19th c ideas to justify some ugly parts of our own culture, and when, subtly, the nostalgia of the genre is turned on its head, and we see the horror and sublimity of that world at the same time.

4. I actually really find clockwork beautiful. Yes, it is not steam technology, and yes, I would prefer to see a culture that still functions on the ideas that come out of everything being mechanical rather than electronic, but it is so beautiful, and Cartesian thought has a symmetry the real world can never have, and the click, click, click of it is something weirdly archetypal that always intrigues.

5. I like that in bits and pieces it might bring back the Western, that whole other area of steampunk that is Americana, that longing for the frontier which is so much a part of American culture and particularly American SF, and how that can be accessed in better ways than that damn Wild Wild West movie. I like it best when that is a concern of the work itself, America's relationship with its frontier and what happened there, which is not coincidentally the root of a lot of horror, because what happened there? Not so great. In fact, I'd love to see more steampunk that IS horror, because the 19th century gives us a LOT of our horror tropes, and was a pretty horrific place, one we very often try to bury. This is why 7 out of 10 TV ghosts are girls in Victorian nightgowns.

6. Though I sometimes feel I am the only one, I like the -punk suffix on genres. Because I want fantasy and SF to be punk rock, and putting punk on the end means at least someone thought of the connection between spec fic and punk music. When it is as punk as it says on the tin, I am a happy girl.

7. I went to Expo '86 and have thus always been obsessed with World's Fairs. I wish there was a novel that took place at successive World Fairs, through the century.

8. I believe in the long 19th century, and how deeply and fundamentally it created the world we live in. Not in particularly good or shiny ways, most of the time, and when steampunk glosses over that, makes it Disney-friendly and removes the poor, the non-white, the colonized, the disenfranchised, women, and keep the camera focused on the aristocracy, I become cross. But SF was always supposed to talk about our own culture as well as a created one, and steampunk does have the potential to do that. And to dissect the 19th century and peer at its spleen.

9. The good scientist, rather than just the mad one, as an archetype. What those goggles were meant to indicate--someone who worked with dangerous things that might smite them in the eye. The prevalance of science as the foundation of steampunk sort of tends to elide religion as a motivator of the age which always puzzles me, but I enjoy the Scientist as Tarot Card, the guy or lady in grimy clothes, making something of crystal and dreams of a better tomorrow.

10. 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.

I love your #10! I'd never thought of that before -- how the aesthetic is inherently deconstructive, obsessed with showing the workings of the mechanical while allowing for the mysterious or marvellous. Coolth.

sigh! Now without html markup fail

shweta_narayan

2010-11-04 11:38 pm (UTC)

Seconded!

Actually, I like all of these, and! they give me ideas, ticking around like frenzied clockwork. Thank you for these, catvalente, and here's to more of what you (we) love in steampunk.

(tithenai: I know I really can't do Mughal anything at novel-length without massive deconstruction & problem-acknowledging, even (especially?) if the British are the big bad. Also I now really want to understand better the version of scientist-as-archetype in India, and how it developed/interacted with other forms of scholarship, because a) it did and b) I'd also like to blow up this idea of the scientist-archetype being inherently European. I have a Sneaking Suspicion we shall be Talking More about these things!)

I wish there was a novel that took place at successive World Fairs, through the century.

YES! THIS! :-)

I miss World's Fairs, Even EPCOT is no longer celebrating the future.

Whenever I'm in a city that once hosted a Fair, I make an effort to visit the remaining relics and buildings.

Speaking of #7: Have you read The Devil in the White City? My Architectural History professor recommended it to us since it takes place at the Chicago World's Exposition in the late 1800s (early 1900s? I forget, bad student!), and takes a true story that happened there and embellishes it. I'm really wanting to read it, because there's something about all of those famous architects working together, all those egos clashing and creating, that fascinates me. Add "magic" and murder and such to the mix, and I am SO there. Louis Sullivan versus McKim, Mead & White! The park with the Ho-o-den! Swoon.

Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. The book is awesome, and also gruesome- they tell (some of) the story of how the fair came to be, and in alternating chapters, the story of H. H. Holmes, "America's First Serial Killer."

This is not strictly relevant, but I went to Expo '86 too! And it makes me feel Ana Ng-like to think we might have passed each other there, all unknowing and busy being kids.

I was apparently there too, but I was two years old so remember a tiny vague blur of it.

Yes to all this. And thank you.

Small zeppelins were parked outside the ball
moored to the gaslights. Out of shadows crept
the monocled adventuress, who stepped
up to the door and had announced to all

by flunkeys that she meant to punish those
who stole her father's patents, would await
them at the duelling ground. Her quiet hate
made her cheeks bright. Her long and genteel nose

expressed her scorn at this appalling age
when men had lost their honour. She had brought
pistols, and swords, and lasers, and she fought
the six old men, in turn. She'd lived in rage

so long their deaths were just the bloody start
of all the wars she harboured in her heart.

7. I went to Expo '86 and have thus always been obsessed with World's Fairs. I wish there was a novel that took place at successive World Fairs, through the century.

Well, have you thought of writing one?

Also, have ordered my copy of the Habitation of the Blessed. I don't know how long it will take to arrive over here, but I'm looking forward to reading it, esecially after enjoying Palimpsest.

I love the weird West options that steampunk can open; I was always really impressed by the RPG Deadlands (which in one history path does get nuked and have zombies-go figure).They're also really good about talking of gender roles so one is not caught with "Do you want to be a whore or a schoolmarm?" question.
So yay weird West. I haven't gotten it yet but I'm looking forward to Gemma Files' _A Book of Tongues as well.

Your #9 makes me smile and reminds me of Dresden Codak's strip on what it would be like if cavemen had written sci-fi like we do: http://dresdencodak.com/2009/09/22/caveman-science-fiction/

Victorians had every reason to believe that if they kept at it, technology was going to crack this whole 'human condition' thing wide-open. One of the superficial things I like about steampunk is the way it says, "We know they were wrong. But what if they hadn't been?" (Of course if you follow that too far, it sort of leads straight to all the witless shiny-mongering you inveighed against yesterday, but still, it makes a great hook.)

I wouldn't apologize too hard for your little storm in a teacup yesterday. It was very useful and interesting -- drama is only a bad thing when no one learns anything from it. I was hoping the steampunks would go to ground like brass cicadas, only to re-emerge fully-grown, and sing for us in a few years time. But it turns out what they're actually trying to do is so much harder -- figure it all out, in real-time. That was worth learning.

I was hoping the steampunks would go to ground like brass cicadas, only to re-emerge fully-grown, and sing for us in a few years time.

As someone who's experienced a 17-year cicada emergence, I really like this image. Well-written.

7. I went to Expo '86 and have thus always been obsessed with World's Fairs. I wish there was a novel that took place at successive World Fairs, through the century.

I can't give you that, but someday I will write a short story about the Great Exhibition of '51, the grandaddy of them all.

With faeries!

Anyway, excellent list, excellent points. And I hear you on how things like your previous post only happen when you do care and get frustrated; if you actually don't care at all, then there's nothing to say, good or bad.

I adored this book about the 1893 exposition when I was ten. http://www.archive.org/details/twolittlepilgrim00burniala

Everything you said.

I like punk in my steampunk, even if I don't always manage to keep it there. And yes, I want more steampunk horror. Working on one now.

I love writing steampunk westerns. I have two, one with zombies and lesbians, one with airship pirates. (I let the hero from my plain western interview the airship captain for a blog post)

It's such a fun genre. You can do as much tech as you like, or as little, as much social commentary as you want, or as little. And it just seems to require me to write strong female characters, particularly lesbians.

It never hurts when the clothes look GOOD on one too. A woman needs to be shaped like a woman for those costumes.

Hm.

I'm going to take this as a challenge, since I am not woman-shaped in the way you probably mean :)

So! Now I have to figure out how to a cotton (everyday) sari goes with goggles and a toolbelt. Ideally non-Victorianized. For which... I have to figure out how saris were worn for manual labor in different parts of the Indian subcontinent, and where the scientists & mechanics would be.

Hmm... steampunk alt history meets H.P Lovecraft... Cthulu mythos vs mad science with the scientist as the Hero[ine?]

Yeah... I could do that. Maybe.

I want to read that. I loved playing Cthulhu Gaslight, and melding Mythos with Steampunk would be fantastic!

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.

Oh, fuckit, I know you don't have time to do a blurb, but that clinches it. I'm sending you a copy of Erekos. Metaliterature and fantasy for the win!

Meanwhile, I'm obsessed with clockwork, and we won't even go into how badly I want to make little automatons out of paper and gears and set them loose on the world. I was actually learning to make gears out of paper for awhile there, in the hopes of making little moving birds out of old magazines...

I'm completely with you on almost all of these points, but am deeply puzzled by the idea that bringing back Westerns in any form is a good thing. In addition to the inherent problems of the genre, I would very much prefer Americans to get over longing for a new physical frontier and get with the cognitive and electronic frontiers that are growing before our eyes. I see the longing for new physical frontiers as part of the root of many of the problems in the US - as I discuss here, I'm far more of a fan of fringes than frontiers.

Why do you think bringing back anything from Westerns is a good thing?

As for steampunk as a whole, my partner amberite just made an awesome post about why steampunk is important, that I completely agree with.

I think that a new kind of Western could be interesting, and a new way of looking at that part of our history. Deadwood was amazing, for instance. If we could have the Western with technological criticism inherent in steampunk while fully engaging with the cultural and gender issues, as well as the giant elephant in the Western room that is the genocide of the native americans, I think it could be something powerful.

You know, I get a lot madder about things that are almost awesome than I do about things that suck irredeemably.

Also? It makes me a lot angrier when something I love disappoints me than when something I don't care about does. Like, crappy police procedurals don't bother me, but a bad SF show makes me frothy.

Which is to say, I totally get your last post. And thanks for this one, too. More Cat-blogging is always better. =)

I was at Expo '67 in Montreal -- it was amazing. Best of all, since the fair/city itself was bilingual, they did a fine job of accommodating the world travelers as well. And everything had signs in two versions -- the massive Soviet pavilion has USSR on one side and URSS on the other.

I always regret that we didn't drive from Western New York to NYC in 1964-65 for the non-sanctioned World's Fair.

The Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893 was so wildly successful. And A Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933-34 was equally full of marvels.

Dr. Phil

I think it was fairly clear that you wouldn't have said what you said about it if you didn't care about it and want it to be better.

I did mull for a while a response based on the fact that very few of the genres I read and enjoy could actually accommodate a great book of the type you were saying steampunk hadn't produced--there are some very good British Cosy whodunnits, for instance, but I can't think of one that actually makes my soul sing and so on, and that isn't why I read them. I don't have a problem with steampunk being another of those genres....but if it turns out that it's not, if it can produce a truly great book, then that would be good too.

As I recall, the only reason for the -punk suffix at the time was that the genre name was coined in imitation of cyberpunk (where it was far more apposite), and I'd have preferred something else, such as Phil and Kaja's "gaslamp fantasy." But again, that may be personal bias, because I never got on with punk in any of its manifestations.

And it's great that you read books for those reasons--selfishly I want books for my reasons, too. And I can think of books that fit the bill in just about any genre--even steampunk, if you count Diamond Age and perhaps one or two others. Unfortunately they are old, and the strong pressure from publishers to write in the hot new genre is necessarily creating books that, well, want to capitalize on the genre. And it's just not enough for me. But mainly I blame the overpromotion of it--I really do think it's crushing the spark.

And I guess Agatha Christie wouldn't count as a cosy? I'm not up on my terms on that side of the fence.

I agree on all 10 points -- even if I'm more of a metalhead than a punk.

Have you seen the science tarot deck?

Excellent point, #10.

I've really been enjoying doing alot of historical research, and expanding my understanding of just how much of the world's mess today is the direct result of colonialism, particularly British colonialism. I suppose I agree with you about the long 19th century -- so long it's lasted until 2010.

Of particular interest to me are what seem to be nexus points that could have changed everything, from the 19th Century Ukranian Hromada movement to the 1951 "Garra Revolt" that just possibly might have driven the US out of California at least if it hadn't been strangled in the cradle, metaphorically speaking.

Awesome. ♥

Also, clockworks don't have to have electric motors! So they are totally mechanical! Unless I missed something. *_*

ETA: Because I realized I loved this bit too much to not say —

The good scientist, rather than just the mad one, as an archetype.

YESSSSSSSSS. Also World's Fairs. And human-powered flying machines. Ahem, I guess that's my steampunk kink that I wish were done more often. :P

Edited at 2010-11-05 04:44 am (UTC)

Yes. I had to get rid of my skeleton watch because I ended up spending time staring at the mechanism instead of, you know, doing shit.

Steampunk is kind of the faddish genre right now; that'll pass. I'm just bemused because to me, 'steampunk' was Blaylock/Jeter/Powers back in, what, the late 1980s? But now all the kids are into it.

I keep wanting to write a story or something about early artificial dyestuffs. I've been writing a paper on them for... well, ages, and I ought to finish it off. But it just now occurred to me that, well, the middle of the Victorian period was when these things first appeared. Mauve was invented by William Henry Perkin in 1856, and several of its more garish aniline cousins took off in fashion over the next 10-20 years.

Steampunk shouldn't all be brown and greasy. Steampunk should be full of brilliant, garish colors, too. Steampunk should be about the steam, but it should also be about the science, the chemistry of aromatic compounds that was taking off during this time period. The same compounds that could make a beautiful dyestuff could be used to make explosives, or medicines, or any of a number of other useful substances, their manufacture made easier by explosive technology growth...

Hm.

Ideas.

RE: #6: I thought the whole 'punk' suffix was about rebellion, anti-authoritarianism, individualism, free thought, and discontent. I certainly don't see a whole lot of that type of thing in a lot of Steampunk.

RE #7: I'd love to see something like this World's Fair thing. I remember how fascinating and exciting it was to go to Expo '67 in Montreal ... and then HemisFair '68 in San Antonio. As a matter of fact, the movie "Steamboy" reminded me alot of Expo '67.

The "punk" in Steampunk was about KW Jeter riffing on the term "Cyberpunk," which in turn derives from a story about punks (as in small-time criminals) doing things with computers. The punk-rock tie-in is perfectly valid, but it's a pun.

I felt a little bad about myself after reading your first steampunk post because I realized I haven't been using my critical thinking skills when it comes to steampunk literature. Part of that is because I feel guilty for not having read any steampunk beyond Steampunk Tales vol. 1 so I don't have a well-informed opinion on the genre even though I've sewn a costume and bought a prop or two. I'm perplexed by the steampunk zombie/vampire novel craze, myself. I never would have thought to put the two together because I think of steampunk as a venue for exploring gender and class issues. But I love the adventure aspect, too. Someday I'll write an Americana steampunk novel in which women have lost the right to vote and goggles are a sign of working class status. Thanks for your posts on all of this, even though I hid under my covers after the first one.