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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 think a lot of steampunk at the moment is going through the pulp phase--it's schlocky, it's shallow, the quality is minimal. It's the Weird Tales phase. There's nothing inherently wrong with pulp, a bit of pulp is probably good for the soul...but deathless memorable prose, it usually ain't.

Good books may yet come out of steampunk. But it took awhile for good, deep, humane sci-fi and fantasy to grow out of the mulch of pulp. Comics went through the same thing. Seems to be the life-cycle.

Although I think you make a very fair observation--they didn't do it in an environment where people kept flinging money at it, nor in one with such a high-speed turnover as the internet, so I don't know if it'll get those great books or if it'll be miserably outdated and shunned before it ever gets the chance, in much the same way that so much mediocre cyberpunk now looks rather embarrassingly late-eighties.

I am not yet thoroughly sick of the genre (I still get the occasional desire to paint clockwork roosters!) and I hold out some hope for it...but I haven't read very much of it, either, and if I did, perhaps it would lead me to greater despair.

Thank you. For me, it's been a ton of jumped-up, made over for adults *wink wink nod nod* Oz-ery.

And PLEASE. The PHOTOGRAPHS were sepia. Not the clothes.

I've enjoyed parts of Steampunk. I enjoy the band Abney Park, and I enjoy remixes of well-known tropes.

But I consider Steampunk like I considered the swing resurgence that happened about ten years ago. It comes. It's fun. It goes. It leaves behind good memories.

Swing (Anonymous) Expand
I feel kind of bad for showing you this, but steampunk is now in Luann--so bizarrely enough, steampunk now has the chance to get dissed by The Comics Curmudgeon.

ETA: This needs to be clicked so one can see it all:/

I get a lot of what you are talking about; I love some of the things my friends are doing with steampunk-the steampoofs (specifically focusing on LGBTQI characters representations in steampunk and how to create them and LGBTQI issues in Victorian subculture.) However for me it's frustrating; it feels like it is something I ought to like because hey, rayguns and corsets, but it doesn't really gel for me, which feels oddly sad, like it could be cool. The hardest issues I have are the missing of so much period culture, eg in art and writing-there's William Morris, the Celtic Twilight, the Golden Dawn, the Pre-Raphaelites (1), all kinds of things. It's like imaginary Victoriana stops at the airships and bustles and colonialism, which makes me sad. This is completely a matter of personal preference and I'm glad my colleagues the steampoofs are taking up some of that mantle. I also haven't read a book that has made me go OMFG YAY for steampunk either-I mean, there's been some neat ideas, but so much just fizzles for me.(Plus, it's so..white and so...straight although the anthology JoSelle Vanderhooft is putting out has me really excited.)

corvaxgirl also has a good point; however steampunk as it is and is marketed now leaves me really disappointed or makes me want to go read HG Wells and/or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

So, I hope something really innovative can come out of what's happening with this because I'd probably want to read/see that, but what's out there now overall does not. I guess we'll see.(2)

PS. Some of this cookie cutter fashion discontent showed up in a photo cliche list on Coilhouse, which included steampunk photos and also included the word "queefernaut" which in itself was amazing.


(1) I suppose they could have been medievapunks, with their aesthetic.
(2) Trend-wise, I personally had way better luck with zombies; I loved Feed and the John Joseph Adams collections had material that really blew my mind and expanded what zombies could be. (This includes "Days of Flaming Motorcycles". ) I didn't expect to find anything interesting but I got surprised and I'm still waiting for that in steampunk

Edited at 2010-11-03 07:48 pm (UTC)

(Deleted comment)
Thank you so.much.for this.

i dont feel 'not with it' for not wanting to waste time and money into a genre i cant really care about too much. i cant wait for this trend to be over so that fandom and the related subcultures can get over all of this already and create something new. also, goggles were never meant to be fashion accessories - they just look stupid if you arent wearing them for any other purpose than what they are meant for.

and in my opinion the Gilded Age was just as exciting and interesting as it was to begin with.

In the last year that I've been studying, writing and navel-gazing on it, I've come to the conclusion that steampunk's not the problem; the consumerism rife in it is. (Which is how my post on imperialism, meant for critical thought, got derailed into faildom. Oh well, I tried.)

I'm not sick of steampunk, but that's because most of what I do with steampunk is use it as a vehicle to talk about postcoloniality. I know the majority of stuff out there is crap, but that goes for pretty much everything in general. That's the nature of consumerism. I'm not interested in hating on steampunk when it's not the problem.

It's still demoralizing to see rants like this, though. =/

"I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.

"Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms."

-- Theodore Sturgeon

This just a bit of history repeating. Disappointing, though, where the attack's coming from.

(Deleted comment)
Sounds like a promising story to me!

I am torn about steampunk, and I agree with a lot of what Cat says, including the idea that stories can be enjoyable and have some significance, especially when dealing with the foundations of industrial modernity and the slow collapse of the colonial powers. I don't like most steampunk, and while the aesthetic is sometimes eye-catching, I don't understand how people neatly separate that from all of the other cultural and social elements. You make an implicit statement when you do that.

But the Tor Fortnight put out some excellent, highly critical essays on the subject, which got me thinking about the inherent problems of the genre/aesthetic. In particular, I got a lot out of Amal El-Mohtar's piece ( http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/10/towards-a-steampunk-without-steam ), which starts right out with "I want to destroy steampunk." I think that is an excellent goal, to critically eviscerate its flaws and conventions and turn them into creative fodder.

But it's hard to walk that walk, which is one reason I'm looking forward to this story. I've been trying to make a steampunkish story work as well, about a boy in India who witnesses the collapse of British rule 40 years before the historical date (due to a combination of Brit reliance on new weird tech and the leveraging of indigenous resistance). It's hard to do, mostly because I am specifically trying to buck a lot of the conventions. Steampunk is quite limiting unless you work diligently to break down historical assumptions, and perhaps your own as well.

The thing about steampunk is that when it was written it wasn't mean to be very punk-ish in the first place.

When things were written that are part of what we think of as "steampunk"(despite wanting to gain the pedigree of HG Wells and Jules Verne, they were sci fi of their time and, at best, proto-steampunk) they were written as a reaction against cyberpunk.

It was written as a reaction against nihlism and the idea that everything was terrible and horrible all the time. The innovation of steampunk as literature(in my opinion at least) is that, unlike in cyberpunk where technology is a foul force that will destroy us utterly, technology can be a good thing, the lead character can win, and things can be pretty awesome.

Thank you for saying this, there's a lot of truth here.

For me, steampunk is an aesthetic. And it can be a really fun one! But it doesn't make a story. I wouldn't read a story in which everyone was wearing purple just because I like purple, after all :) (But I will keep making and wearing purple things.)

I definitely think you're right about the Internet Awesomeness Engine and/or Rampant Consumerism chewing through a nascent thing too soon; memery moves so much faster than the development of good art.

I have to politely disagree with you here. I don't think steampunk is a terrible subgenre to write in or to have any sort of creative project based in. It is not even limited to the Victorian age! I've seen steampunk WW2 stories, clothes and movies. I've seen futuristic steampunk. I've seen all kinds of crazy things. There is no limit to the active imaginations of the people who are involved. It can be fantasy, mystery, historical, futuristic, zombies, vampires, whatever!

Victorian-era steampunk is pretty popular because it has a longer history. Jules Verne, anyone? But it is most definitely NOT limited to 19th century Victorian London and/or England. Thinking that the ENTIRE genre of steampunk is limited to one area of the world and one time in history is ridiculous and kind of offensive. It is like saying that those who explore other areas of steampunk are not even there or don't count.

Oh well. To each their own.

I...didn't even come close to saying that. I said I have not come across much steampunk that I thought was good, not that I felt it had to be 19th c--though the bulk of it is.

This, honestly, sounds analogous to the anti-fantasy rants that go "Fantasy is all dragons and elves. I know, there are exceptions (some of my best friends write fantasy!) but seriously guh dragons! elves! Oh I know Tolkien did good things with it but really nobody has since!"

I wonder if you realize just how erasing this is of People of Color who use steampunk to pull apart the inevitable-colonialism narrative? Pull our stuff apart, by all means, but please don't handwave over the fact that we exist. I mean, your examples of The Genre are a) novels mostly written by white people, and b) cons, which we know misrepresent the diversity of the field.

The short fiction has rather more diversity. (And nisi_la's Tor.com post is about a novel quite different from the ones you're talking about.)

I agree with this, and with Jaymee's post above.

Cat, I think you're conflating two things that are trying desperately to be different from each other: people who are trying to expand the definition of "steampunk" by subjecting it to postcolonial deconstruction in order to reclaim it, and people who are all about the shiny and don't want fiction to make them feel guilty. But by dismissing the subgenre entirely (and relegating the good things to exception-status), you're also dismissing the people who NEED to talk about it -- who need the Steampunk Fortnights and the panels at cons and the essay-invitations and the themed anthologies -- in order to lay out the framework in which they can write novel-length steampunk that does what you say you wish it did.

It takes time, and it takes effort, and I get that you're sick of the glut in the meantime, I do -- but there's a baby in that bathwater, and I think you're throwing it out just as it's making noise and poking its head above the surface.

(Edited for grammar.)

Edited at 2010-11-03 08:47 pm (UTC)

Things I like about steampunk: grungy Victorian aesthetic. Wall paper. Velvet. Felt ladies hats.

Things I don't like: useless gadgetry in costumes, decoration using gears and whatnot as if everyone just took apart their watches and sewed them on their jacket, ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of delicious Victorian underbelly (bigamy! incest! child labor! oh my!). General fascination with form over function. Not enough madhouses. Not enough disease.

Someone at a panel I was at at WFC in 2009 said steampunk is the 19th century the way it should have been. I was reminded of Jim Hines and his thing about how you shouldn't only take the shiny bits of a culture. Someone else said they were writing steampunk in pre-Civil War South, "cotton gin punk."

How do you qualify The Diamond Age as steampunk? I mean, it's got a definite Victorian vein, but all the tech is nano, which to me dq's it.

Very interesting post.

The best thing I like about the "steampunk movement" are the costumes. I've read regency romances for a long time (yes, they are brain candy and probably not good for me, but...) and have fallen in love with costumes like that. I've only read one "steampunk" series that I really enjoyed and that is the "Parasol Protectorate" by Gail Carriger.

The way my husband describes steampunk is "When goth got manners" since there is a lot of being polite and little rituals involved with it. He has found a book on how men are supposed to act(can't remember the title) and what things meant when done a certain way. Me, I just have fun with costumes and a little of the music(mostly Abney Park).

But you are right is that SP is becoming more mainstream and that is sad.

Also, dealing with "steampunk" allows me to play with a lot more knitting and making beaded purses. :D

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.

Word. Thank you for putting this particular frustration of mine into words; it made me feel so much less alone!

What do you think of Perdido Street Station or any of the Bas Lag books? Do those qualify as steampunk in your mind? Because for me, that's where the steampunk revolution/reboot happened, and it definitely had a punk spirit.

I still dig steampunk, although I *do* think the label has been co-opted and overused because it's big and shiny and easy for marketing to slap it onto a bunch of books - and a lot of those books aren't my thing.

That just means I'm wary of new steampunk novels right now, just like I'm wary of new vampire novels. But I still love a good steampunk story and I still love a good vampire story. Sure, there's bad stuff out there, but for me finding the good stories make it all worthwhile.

They don't, in my mind. They are secondary world, and just don't occupy the same space at all in my head.