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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 know an agent who says she's looking for something with the steampunk concept applied to 1st Century Mayan culture instead of 18th century British, and I kind of think she has something there. The idea of transplanting tech to history is cool, but what would that do to the history in question is what I want to know.

I am writing almost that exact thing right now-- a revisionist history where the Europeans never made it to the Americas, and yeah. There are Mayans, but also Aztecs and Hopi and late-game explorers from the Malinke Empire of Africa and also from Japan.

And Kachinas that are the giant mechanical children of Grandmother Spider, and dance through the plains and fight Giants.


The costuming and maker ... movements that kicked steampunk into the limelight again after it had sparked and then fizzled in the late eighties and early nineties are fine.

The costuming and maker movements are what sparked off the literary directions that you hate so much.

My work as anti-racist steampunk is made FUCKING DIFFICULT by the costumer and maker lovers who want to use whatever cultural artefacts they like carte blanche and contribute to the white supremacist imperialism of the neo-Victorian aesthetic. Because they don't see what's so wrong with the inherent imperialism because it's SO SHINY!

All these shitty steampunk writers you're hating on? BETCHA they came in from loving what the costumers and makers are doing. So NO, they are NOT FINE if you're going to hate on the literary sphere of steampunk.

yeah...i kinda gave up when i saw the zombies.

Someday I am going to write my I Want My Pre-Brains Zombies Back rant, and I hope it is half as good as this.

By my mind, steampunk came more out of anime and manga than anywhere else, and that's where it's been successful and that's in part why it's such a visual based sub genre. I'm thinking Miyazaki's Lapuda, Otomo's Steamboy, and Full Metal Alchemist. All of which are successful and have tons of heart and great storytelling, IMHO.

My feeling is that the white SF world has been trying to ride those very successful coat tails, and that there is a definite issue with veneer vs substance going on there.

Oh yeah, anime! Definitely!

And also computer games. Some of the best steampunk art I've seen is in the Final Fantasy games...

There was a lot of steampunk at Balticon this year, even a steampunk ball, and one of the last panels of the weekend was "the steampunk panel." A number of authors I respect were on it and had some interesting and amusing things to say, but I had to comment at the end that most of the people in the room were white and in fact most of the people at the con were white and most steampunk fiction focuses on the concerns of the rich, white parts of The Empire. People don't seem to notice that a lot of steampunk's adventure comes from conveniently ignoring the nasty parts of the 19th century, which privileges wealthy white characters and erases or downplays the historical structures of classism and racism. Probably because if we looked at those in any depth we'd have to admit that modern white sensibilities are very much rooted in those historical structures and by erasing the history we can erase the present effects, proving we are currently an egalitarian colorblind society by reinventing that past with all of the same privilege only without those pesky brown people.

Also the rest of the world had a 19th century, not just England, and people in parts of the world that were not England even if they were forced to struggle with England had their own concerns irrespective of England.

And gender roles, well. By and large, steampunk women who are "strong" are the ones doing men's jobs like science or airship pirating in perfectly tailored clothing. She can't ignore fashion or she's not enough of a woman (and not enough steampunk) but if she focuses on fashion then she's too much of a woman. I could go on, and perhaps I will at a later date, but basically: gee, that sounds familiar.

No, I shouldn't be surprised that people with privilege are reproducing in their fiction the power structures that favor them. But I don't need to swallow it and smile. And it wouldn't hurt as much if I didn't think steampunk could have done better with so much to draw from.

I realized I contradicted myself a few times. And I read Stross's post after commenting.

So in that light: I'm not saying that every steampunk story must be hard social science and meticulously period because then you might as well be writing a period novel with gears on. And not everyone is up to the research. And there can be merit in re-envisioning history to tell a better story, but it can have different social meaning depending on who's doing the telling.

I guess I have an ill-defined line between wanting more focus on marginalized groups, and not wanting that focus to have a strictly Victorian lens without some understanding/examination of how the way that marginalized groups were treated was problematic and how that influenced/reflects on our/their modern treatment.

It's also possible I'm reading in the wrong places.

I thought it was just me.

I love the bookbloggonets so much, but when everyone was all WOOO BONESHAKER and I got it and read maybe 50 torturous pages and was like, This, guys? Seriously? This? And it was maybe the ONE TIME when no one stood up and was all, Yeah, me too.

So phew. Thanks.

yipes, I normally read all the comments to avoid repetition of something but there's a bit many, so excuser me it's it's already been mentioned.

Steamboy is to date the best and only steampunk movie I've seen and I always thought perdido st station was more steampunk than steampunk for reasons I can't well explain right now.

All the crappy things-with-gears-glued-on and badly made bustled dresses are depressing, but I've seen too much cool stuff made to write it all off

I want to love steampunk. Steampunk that I love would be fantasy stories in urban industrial settings. I'm sick to death of pastoralist rural settings for fantasy - rural hamlets, rolling fields of grain, knights on horses, and happy peasants are not features of my dreams or imaginings - I love & dream of industrial cosmopolitan cities. However, what I mostly see is bad SF where the focus is on the setting (OMG, we have gears, zeppelins, and maybe a few zombies) rather than on the characters and stories.

What you said. In spades. For the last eight years.

your rage neatly dovetails with my own and thus simultaneously comforts and inspires.

Of course, it's not a genre that cares about authenticity or emotion particularly, since it's all about the shiny veneer.

Thank you for explaining to me why, exactly, I never cared for steampunk, I couldn't ever manage to put it into words before.

With all respect and as, I hope, your friend, I feel I should point out that some of us actually write things that have been classed as steampunk without the intention that they be crap. It seems to me that when you equate mediocrity, classism, and racism with steampunk, your are necessarily describing the authors who produce this work as racist, classist, and mediocre.

This seems an uncharitable way to describe Scott Westerfeld, Cherie Preist, Phillip Pullman, Phil Foglio, and -- to a much lesser extent -- me. And the chorus of agreement that things like that are crap is somewhat humbling to read. I understand that you allow for exceptions, and that you have been reading a lot of slush, but the level of contempt you've achieved here may be more powerful than you intended. And it does condemn the heartfelt and well-intended work of real people, some of whom you know.

Just a thought.

Succintly and well put. I concur entirely.

(Deleted comment)
Whilst browsing Caribbean-themed Sharpies and postage meters today at a large office supply store, I saw one of those über-cheap software-for-kids-packages: Steampunk Find-It!