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10 Things I Actually Do Love About Steampunk
evolving
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.

Man, I would LOVE to read a steampunk novel where India kicked out Britain early on and ran its own dirigible/gear/steam-laden empire in the 1890s.