November 4th, 2010

c is for cat

Steampunk Reloaded

Yeah, so, not feeling quite as great about that steampunk post on the other side of a good night's sleep. Possibly was a little rough.I was just so tired of talking about practically nothing else, whether it was positive or negative. A little voice in the back of my head said do not post this, there is no way your friends will not think it's about them and their books even though it isn't, and well, angel on the right shoulder FAIL.

I think the most important thing for me to come out of that conversation for me was asking tithenai  why steampunk was so important that it, unlike any other subgenre, deserved all the specially-created space to work itself out. We aren't worried that if vampire fiction doesn't get lots of devoted time on every website, it won't mature as a genre and find its way--and dissing vampire fiction is like the internet's hobby. Ditto with almost anything I can think to slot in there. Some of it is that 24/7 internet news cycle, which is what I really meant to talk about and went off message a bit. But some of it is that steampunk IS being treated specially.

Her answer was that no other genre has so much potential yet is so very problematic. I can almost agree. I'm sure one more potetial-stuffed and problematic will come along. It is perhaps that the other ones that fulfill those needs, like cyberpunk (I think it has equal race, class, and gender issues) is not cool anymore, so people aren't engaging with it the same way they do with the Current Big Thing.

Because there is this underlying idea that steampunk is Important. I am hardly the first to spill ink on it, even this week. And I wonder why.

(It's been asked that we talk about something else now. Like space stations. Comments are, in addition to replying to this post, an open thread for spaceship/station/pony talk.)

10 Things I Actually Do Love About Steampunk

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.