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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Here I Stand, With Steam Coming Out of My Ears
I am sick to death of steampunk.

I don't even like typing the word at this point. It feels like contributing to this increasingly horrible culture of constant steampunk programming/fiction/special issues that no other sub-genre is treated to, wherein everyone stands around chirping STEAMPUNK! STEAMPUNK! like those seagulls from Finding Nemo. But as Tor.com continues its millionth special steampunk-focused thing, I'm seeing all kinds of people discussing it and I just want to scream.

I'm not going to talk about what steampunk could be. I'm not going to talk about what a joke it is to call something so inherently nostalgic, conservative, and comfort-oriented "punk." I've talked myself blue in the face on that score, and to be frank, nobody gives a shit. Sure, they nod their head and agree and shake my hand for saying that being nostalgic for the 19th century is farcical, and the fact that geek culture wants so desperately to side with the British aristocracy a sad comment on how "indie" we're not, but in the end they go home and write their same goggle-infested nonsense, maybe with a Chinese character, but probably not, or they write nothing at all. I see a lot of people talking now about what steampunk could be--yet very few of them have any intention of writing it, so it's all just lecturing by stern schoolmasters.

And I'm no better. I've rattled on about what steampunk could be and I've written a damn short story in the genre. I haven't put my money where my mouth is on this. There is market pressure to define my other books as steampunk because there's this idea that there is money to be made if only we could make a book that every single one of those geeks would buy and evangelize--but beyond the success of Boneshaker, the Great Steampunk Novel hasn't really happened. Nor the Great Steampunk Movie, for all that the imagery flits in occasionally. At WFC, someone suggested that they'd like to see a steampunk Snow Crash. But we can't have that because there's been no steampunk Neuromancer yet. You can't have the backlashy sharp parody before the definitive work. So we all dick around talking about a subgenre that is not actually managing to put together fiction with the people who seem to be a natural audience for it with any consistency.

And more than that, it's mega-websites looking for content, and since those websites brought us the steampunk-gull phenomenon, it's particularly rich that they're now giving column space to those who dislike it. It's like when Fox News tries to be balanced by letting Colmes out of his cage for five minutes. (Seriously, much as I love my Tor masters, when a major publishing company is throwing endless parties for a genre, it's no longer indie or underground in the slightest.) They've created the 24 hour steampunk news cycle, and it's killing whatever grassroots awesomeness the movement ever had (parrot-repetition of the "it's when goths discover brown" line is actually making me ill. Look, be a joiner or be a nitpicker, but don't just repeat the internet until we all want to die inside) by shoving it down our throats constantly, until every book with "wind-up" in the title is somehow a steampunk book, every event is a steampunk event, and I'm fucking exhausted because the fact is steampunk just isn't very good.

And here's where I get nervous about this post. Because a lot of my friends write steampunk and I don't want to insult them, and one of my favorite books of all time is steampunk (The Diamond Age, which to be bold should make the crop of current trend-capitalizing steampunk sit in the corner and think about what its done). There are exceptions to what I am about to say. Let's just insert your favorite steampunk into the blank and call it the exception.

But I'm gonna say it: steampunk sucks. The emperor has no fucking clothes, bustled or otherwise.

The costuming and maker (ugh, I hate that word, too, but that's a rant for another time) movements that kicked steampunk into the limelight again after it had sparked and then fizzled in the late eighties and early nineties are fine. In fact, they are wonderful people who've been generally quite supportive of my work, though I don't write steampunk myself except for the one story. They make cool shit, and sometimes they wear it. I'm a little alarmed at the lemmingness of it, how every con I go to year by year has more steampunk costuming and less of anything else, and the sameness of the costumes creeps me right the fuck out, but whatever. It's the books I care about, and for the most part, with a few exceptions, they just aren't very good.

And it's not because of what Charlie Stross said. I could not give less of a shit about how hard or not the science of steampunk is. It's not science fact, it's science fiction.

It's becase steampunk isn't really alternate history and it isn't really science fiction. It's adventure stories wrapped up in a very slight veneer of common tropes. And adventure stories, historically, have never even tried to be very good. They want to be "romps" and "rollicking" and "madcap" and I will give it to SP, they are often that. But good? Astonishing novels that pluck the strings of the soul, that make you clasp it to your chest and love it because it says something real and authentic about your life? Books that you put in your sig file, that you quote endlessly because they said something you just couldn't say any other way? Not so much. Of course, it's not a genre that cares about authenticity or emotion particularly, since it's all about the shiny veneer. All about the rewriting of the 19th century to be Tolkien's best fantasy of happy workers, inspired artisans, and noble aristos. We can't even get the medieval era right in fantasy, guys. Did you ever think we'd get the 19th spot on?

SF itself is a bit low on adventure and high on rigorous science and srs bsns lately. I can see why the idea of steampunk as something fun is more appealing--if I have to watch one more dark-palette tv show about how the ship doesn't have enough of x for everyone to survive and the SF elements are pared down to like, an offscreen alien that looks exactly like a human, I will fucking riot. Steampunk is at least a little shinier, a little brighter, a little more camp than that. But the sameness of it disturbs me deeply. Most of the books are not just part of a genre, they are just a bag where airships, goggles, 19th century England, 19th century America, gears, corsets and zombies are shaken and pulled out at random. Nothing sticks them together, nothing makes them meaningful or gives them depth. It's like people keep throwing books at the cool kids in costumes shrieking: do you like this? How about this? This? It has all the things you like in it, aren't you happy? Are you not entertained?

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 has plowed through the cycle of interesting and cool to establishment-supported to suspect at record speed. Sometimes I think the worst thing ever to happen to the world is the need to supply content all the time, so that the second the smallest flash of interest pops, every website and cable news channel and blogger has to pounce on it until it vanishes under the weight of attention.

Because of course now it's all about the steampunk zombies. Because why stick with chasing the one trend when you can smush two together to make something even more unsightly? I went to a reading where literally every reader but me read from their "upcoming steampunk zombie novel" in excited tones as though they were the only one doing it. I felt like I was actually in hell, where everyone was writing the same book but no one was aware of it. I'm sick of zombies too, but putting them together with steampunk in ways that neither acknowledge the fear of industry and what it does to us that gave rise to the zombie trope in the first place nor do much at all with them beyond random monster encounters looks a lot like playing Mousetrap without the man in the barrel--you're missing a vital piece, and without it everything may look cool but the ball don't move.

When I look at steampunk books and how they're marketed to us, all I see is surface. Look! The megasites say. Airships! Goggles! Pirates! Zombies! All these cool things! And if it has enough of the Exclamation Point Items, then by god, it must be good. And geek culture grabs on and worries it until there's nothing left, and even after that, still pronouncing it awesome, that fateful, overwrought, overused, now meaningless word, like some kind of huge literary all your base joke. The whole mass of it is just a bunch of things 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. It's not even about books. Most steampunkers I know aren't dressing up as characters from books. They're role playing the same airship pirate crew every other person with goggles and a spray-painted nerf gun is. They care about the look, not the books. And what a fortunate thing, since the books care about the look so bloody much themselves. Steampunk runs on potential right now--the obvious cash potential of a group of people with disposable income invested in a subgenre already, the potential of the genre itself to produce something real and beautiful, the potential to access that geekly longing for a world clotted with gorgeous mechanical toys, a world devoted to them and ruled by them, a world in which their particularly strengths would be of prime use.

Of course, that world sure as hell ain't the 19th century. But never you mind. We can remake the 19th century. We can make it better, faster, stronger. We have the technology. Just don't look behind the curtain. It's a fucking mess back there.

Right now, the phrases "it's steampunk week at x giant site/magazine/irl event!" or "I'm working on my steampunk novel" make me break out in brain hives. I can be almost certain nothing good will come of it. Nothing that will make my soul sing--because steampunk isn't in the business of souls or of singing. It's just in business. And yet I struggle, because I feel like I shouldn't just bitch about what it could be, if I care enough to write a massive post I should write it, make it what I want it to be. But then I feel tired and if people are happy reading the same book 100 times, far be it from me to bother them. So I say fuck your goggles forever and go sit in the corner like a class dunce who just doesn't get the material.

In the end, maybe steampunk is giving us the 19th century in some subtle way. A glut of cheap, mass-produced products that are identical and bland instead of cottage-made and rough-edged, forged by underpaid workers who must smile and pretend everything is perfect when the foreman comes to visit. A world where fashion covers up all sins, where you don't have to look at brown people if you have enough money to avoid them, and authenticity is defined as looking and acting just exactly like all your friends.

I hope we're all enjoying it.

I told you this at the tiem, but it bears repeating that the essay you wrote lodged in my head and I tried to pay attention to it while writing With Fate Conspire. Which I do think is, among other things, a steampunk novel, but (I hope) that isn't all it is, and of course I also hope it's good. I applied the same standards of historical accuracy to it that I did to all the other Onyx Court books, and since my protagonists are a barely-literate Irish street girl from Whitechapel and the cockney slave of a Goblin Market crime lord, god knows I'm looking squarely at the underbelly of the time period. But what I really tried to get in there, and what I really got from your essay, was the ambiguity of technology: its awesomeness and also its danger. So thank you again for drawing my attention to that.

I'm a bit baffled by the sudden urge to seize zombies and chuck them in there. Sure, it can work, just like anything can work, but why the heck is that the sudden fad? It would make perfect sense if the zombies were a commentary on the Industrial Revolution, but they're generally not; they're just there, because somebody stuck zombies in Austen and now they're infesting the whole nineteenth century. I confess, I don't get it.

This is what I mean--there is a metaphor there and NO ONE CARES. They chuck zombies in because it's two lame trends that go lame together.

I'm really glad my essay made you think. That's all an essayist can ask.

HAH! This puts your query about what my steampunk wine would taste like into perspective.

I completely agree that most steampunk novels are adventure fluff. Though I also consider Boneshaker to not be included as it has, like, plot and characters yo.

On the other hand, it's the shiny that draws me to steampunk. I think of it as an aesthetic. I just happen to like disparate dichotomies. Old fashioned pretties that are just to the left of science. Black serious business Goth with Glitter splashed on top. Myths told through the lens of modern science. It just delights me in a way that short circuits my critical analysis.

It's like when every few years "Goth" becomes popular in the mainstream stores. I bitch about how the kids these days don't appreciate the hard work of finding good quality velvet at second-hand stores or how to do spooky properly. But at the same time, I appreciate the ease of finding skull and crossbones on cereal bowls. I have to wade through the dreck, but at least something is there.

On the other other hand, this isn't my career being impacted. Once fads start fucking with the accounting world, I'm sure to be pissed as hell.

I both agree and disagree.

I disagree because, damnit, I was into brass and goggles and copper well before the trend hit; I was the weird copper-coloured kid with the gears in the corner of the goth club, and I've been reading Jules Verne and HG Wells for aeons, and the aesthetic is very much a part of me.

However, I agree because...fuck, man, I can't dress steampunk anymore without looking like a follower, like every other little coppery be-goggled kid out there. And that annoys me.

That said, I also disagree because, frankly, I like romp-y books and stories. I love a story that grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me and shakes up my worldview and does it with lyrical language and haunting imagery...but I ALSO love a cheesy pulp romp. And to me, that's what a lot of these stories are - cheesy pulp romps, with gears and sky pirates. I can work with that, since there's precious little adventure pulp being written anymore.

I want my Edgar Rice Burroughs sometimes, you know? Steampunk has many, many problems, but I don't count not being highbrow as one of them.

OK, I'm mildly puzzled.

Where is all this steampunk? How am I missing out on it? I know I'm not the most active genre reader around but pretty much nobody I know is writing it or reading it.

And on the one hand, you say it's all so popular, and on the other hand, it seems to be hard to point to successful examples of it... so is it really as popular as itpretends to be?

I fear sometimes I have slipped into a parallel universe when I wasn't looking, and that stuff is happening all around me and I can't see it. Kind of like The City And The City...

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Which is nobody's fault. What's the old saw, that 90% or 95% or whatever percent of everything is crap, and of course that applies to Steampunk as much as it does anything else. Of course most people are jumping on the bandwagon and most of what's produced is nonsense. That's how everything works.

What people have been getting into a habit of is mixing up steampunk, a huge, messy conglomerate of ideas and aesthetics with the most common application of those ideas, what can roughly be described as a "gaslight romance." That's the steampunk with the upper class British aristocracy having madcap adventures. And it's fun. It's fluff. Where would the world be without fluff? Sure I love a story that rips into the core of me and rearranges everything in there, but most stories will never do that. Diamonds are, by nature, rare, or what good would they be?

Steampunk is supposed to be about unrest and anarchy and rioting in the streets. The robber barons and East India trading company and so on are corrupt and often untouchable. Try some of Michael Moorcock's founding works or any issue of Steampunk Magazine for a taste of what the genre ought to be. There's "punk" in there for a reason. Steampunk isn't supposed to be about nostalgia. It's supposed to be about ripping open the foundations of our modern society and ripping them apart, exposing all the ugly underneath and seeing what might be done about it.

For some undeniably steampunk stories that fulfill the "Astonishing novels that pluck the strings of the soul, that make you clasp it to your chest and love it because it says something real and authentic about your life? Books that you put in your sig file, that you quote endlessly because they said something you just couldn't say any other way?" criteria, my first stop is Bas Lag, China Mieville's worker's nightmare, piled high with mad science and clockwork. That's what I read when I want to be beaten into submission by words and ideas. And when I want to read something fun and cute with airships, well, Kenneth Oppel's Airborne is on my shelf, too.

This is the comment I would have liked to have written. I love steampunk. What I fucking hate are goggles.

But if you take out the word "Steampunk" and replace it with the word "Vampire" most of what you said would still be true.

Could this, perhaps, be part of the growing pains of an emerging genre? Sort of the floundering, adolescent stage that's moving us toward something deeper, more nuanced, more meaningful and insightful, once we've hit a critical mass of crap and along the way discovered a few shining diamonds? I don't know if there's some sort of articulated process a genre or sub genre goes through to gain acceptance and develop a body of work that contributes to the genre's staying power and ongoing appeal to readers, but if we parallel a genre's growth to an individual writer's growth, there's that stage where you produce tons and tons of garbage while you're learning how to do it well. Perhaps there's a collective learning curve.

I mean, look at romance. There's a genre that gets slammed consistently for producing the same book 100 times over -- but without that backdrop do the really great romance novels/writers stand out? Has a readership been developed to appreciate the great bits? It seems as if the bad books have a purpose, although I'm not at all articulating what that may be.

Perhaps bad books are training wheels to get us (as readers) to good books. If the heady appeal of a ripping good adventure yarn (insert pirate accent) is the gateway drug to hey, here's a twisty plot and here's some characterization, and here's something that takes all the tropes you've come to expect and turned them on their head to blow your mind, then is the existence of those bad books really so horrible?

Someone has to write the books that readers read and go, "Holy mackerel, I could do better than that!" and take up their own story and start telling their own tale.

/rambling incoherence

We couldn't have Battlestar Galactica (2005) till after we had Battlestar Galactica (1978)

Hmm... I just find steampunk to be pretty and fun and creative (when enacted in the "real world"). I don't much care if it's indie or mainstream (although even I can tell that if it IS "mainstream", it's only mainstream for a very small bay in a big sea of literature. Just because it's mainestream for the types of sci-fi/lit circles we move in, doesn't mean that 99% of the world even knows it exists).

Cliched tropes, or whatnot, it's just *fun*. I've had a lot of wine snobs tell me what I *should* like, and *why*, but really I just drink what I like. Don't much care for those who tell me not to like what I like.

/much too caffeinated
//5 hours of sleep and then working at a coffee shop all day makes for fun times!

I'm not telling you what to like. You can disagree. But you know, a lot of people are telling you to like steam punk. Call me a dissenting voice.

Edited at 2010-11-03 07:10 pm (UTC)

I agree with your sentiment quite a bit. I'm personally sick to death of steampunk's superficiality and lack of punk.

Several years ago I wrote a treatment for a steampunk film which centered around a mechanical artificial intelligence simulacrum of Prince Albert who lived in an alternate 1901 London which had become the physical manifestation of the (also mechanical) internet. It was mostly an exploration of classism in an information age.

I still want to get it off the ground, but the way things are going with its incredible ultra-popularity it looks like no one will be interested in the steampunk aesthetic after the bubble bursts, and heaven knows I'm not going to get the project together before that.

"steampunk Snow Crash"?????

What are these people smoking? That is a walking oximoron.

I love the aesthetic of copper, leather, and dark woods, but a story still has to stand on its own. It only stands to reason that people blindly following a trend will only catch the surface of it.


I do like what Steampunk Magazine does, primarily the fact that they have a political bent and explore the actual history of the periods being quoted. And steampunk is a market suited to my art...so I can't hate on it too much, ya know? Also, I have a friend in what is ostensibly a "steampunk" band, and they're actually pretty good.

Honestly, I've not read much of the fiction, but I know the aesthetic and have it adopted within the goth/industrial scene (as if goths weren't already anachronistic little buggers). Folks upgrading to brass goggles and random gears or whatever, not much thought or involved or anything. It's starting to get pretty old.

I'm also irritated with the very liberal way "steampunk" gets applied or modified to fit other things, especially certain films I am very fond of. Retrofuturistic or future-past are more specific to the ideas/aesthetics that interest me, and I'm not seeking an idealized version of the past.

The reason for all this is simple really... people are scared sh*tless of the future right now. Steampunk is an escape from that.

It'll pass and people will move on to something else.

All I want from steampunk is surface. The costumes are gorgeous, the various made-things are neat (though too often inspire me to yell "slapping gears on something doesn't make it steampunk!"), the art can make me swoon. (Oh, I want to find a world for the sheriff to live in.)

But the stories I see from steampunk don't really call to me. Especially not steampunk zombie stories. Not a zombie fan. As much as I love Seanan, it took a couple of reassurances that the Newsflesh trilogy wasn't about a zombie-apocalypse before I was willing to pick it up.

Which is a pity, because historical fantasies or fantastic alternate histories seem like they'd be something right up my alley. Yet steampunk just leaves me cold.

Wait didn't Jules Verne write the steampunk Neuromancer a 100 years ago ? It was called "Robur the Conqueror"