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Here I Stand, With Steam Coming Out of My Ears
whale
catvalente
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.


And the thing is I still don't even really know what the genre is.

I like the theory of steampunk, and I still agree with what you've written here. It's not been as awesome as it could be, and it really does have the potential.

I've loved the aesthetics and the art of the Victorian period (particularly the late Victorian period) long before steampunk took off in all the neo-Victorian and corset LJ-and-elsewhere communities.

But then one of the things I like best about that period is the Arts and Crafts movement, which is kind of (as you said) diametrically opposite most of what SP is. It's all about handmaking things that are beautiful in an era of mass-produced items.

I know you most likely won't read it, but it might be worth looking at Worldshaker by Richard Harland to see a good steampunk novel. Not an historical setting, and deals pretty heavily with the -punk side of things (oppressed social classes, violent revolution, the works). Just a thought.

I'd like to second that! I thought Worldshaker did a great job of telling a story which used Victorian tropes and the deep engineering mechanics of steampunk to tell a believable story about a young man who is forced to examine his privilege. There are absolute no bones about the devastation and wreckage caused by the upper classes in this book!

Personally, while I'm not a mad keen steampunk enthusiast (I like some of it, dislike some of it, am indifferent to large swathes of it) I do think one of the most interesting things about it is the way it is such a multimedia "movement" - many people in the comments have referred to it as an aesthetic, which I think is true.

Thinking about it, most of my favourite examples of steampunk (or gaslamp fantasy which travels hand in hand with it, to my mind) are works which have a visual aspect, such as the Girl Genius comics, or some Miyazaki films, or those cartoons from my childhood featuring TikTok of Oz. I also agree with the several people in the comments here who say that some of the more interesting work in literary steampunk is happening in short stories rather than novels.

I'm very much in favour of anything which steers spec fic away from medievalism for at least another twenty years. Cities are good. Please let's keep encouraging the cities!

(also the jewellery is nice)

I agree with a lot of what you say. I guess the more popular any genre becomes, the more you see publishers crank out bland imitative works attempting to cash in on the trend, and the harder it becomes to find the good works amid the glut of dull.

Now TELL US WHAT TO LOVE NEXT!!

I actually saw this happening before my eyes...
Editors at the Writing track at 2009's DragonCon were talking about how vampires were out and steampunk was in.

Am I the only one seeing Diamond Age mentioned here as Steampunkl and going wtf? It's about as much steampunk as David Weber's Honor Harrington books are. It's science fiction, it can be argued to be an indirect sequel to Snow Crash, and the technology is not steam and clockwork but nanotech and computers. Yeah, there's people cleaving to pseudo-Victorian mores and culture - but they're one group out of a metric shitton.

If Diamond Age is steampunk then the problem really is that the definition of the genre is so wide as to be meaningless!

I'm re reading it right now and I'm actually shocked at how steampunk it really is--I never noticed it at first. Maybe you should give it a second look?

With the Republicans sweeping into Congress again I suspect a trend of stories with alien/fantastic body snatchers will become more prominent.

Octavia Bulter did it best, the Xenogenesis books made my skin crawl.

really?

(Anonymous)
Maybe its me, but could you be taking this too serious?
As a reader and not a writer, its all supposed to be just fun escapeism, right? If a story turns into something else, that's awesome, but I've heard it said that if a writer sets-out to anything else other then tell a good story, they're doomed to fail.
So what if you think steampunk is crap? A lot of people, myself included, thought Jordon's Wheel of Time was crap too, but it paved the way for a lot of good epic series, (a lot of bad ones too, but the good made it worthwhile).

So many good points here, just a couple of things to add:

Steampunk as rollicking-escapist-adventure is, I think, definitely the source of much of its mainstream(ish) appeal. It's also the reason it's not a social critique genre (if it's even a genre) for the most part. The comparisons to medieval fantasy that shweta_narayan and others mentioned are not unwarranted: take a bit of history, take a lot of liberties, add anything made-up as long as it's cool, oh, and get rid of any of the messy bits, from rape and disease to racism and colonialism. And, for better or for worse, a lot of people read genre fiction *because* it avoids the messy bits. Escapism isn't just about avoiding the mundane aspects of modern life-- for a lot of readers, it's also about avoiding the political, avoiding questions of privilege, experiencing something without the "punk"-like critical lens that so many in this conversation want to see.

I'm not saying that's a good thing, but since it is a motivating factor in a significant chunk of geekdom,* it's not terrifically surprising that most people are engaging with steampunk/Victoriana in a way that doesn't look critically at the 19th century. Is it problematic? Absolutely! But it arises because the general public's understanding of history is problematic. I can't speak for other parts of the world, but if you just look at the required history curricula for kids in the US, it seems like colonialism ends with the American revolution, racism is firmly contained within the American southeast, and communism isn't really a thing before the 1950s. The Victorian era really is just Dickens and bustle skirts and Sherlock Holmes to a lot of people.

That's not to say that people can't write privilege- and stereotype-challenging works within a steampunk genre (from all the comments here, and my own experience, it's clear that they do!), but I don't expect it will ever be the norm. Hopefully, the publishing industry will develop a more critical eye about it, and learn to laud the insightful, meaningful works over the endless escapist fluff, but I don't think the fluff is going anywhere.

On the other hand, ktsparrow mentioned steampunk as an aesthetic in anime, where it is used in some very meaningful stories, despite being divorced from any real 19th century social context. It's a good point, and reminded me of the EGL phenomenon: while the English-speaking goth scene was bemoaning the hot-topic-ization of their subculture and the loss of all it's philosophical roots, Japanese pop culture was using it as inspiration for a livable aesthetic. That aesthetic certainly wouldn't have matched any purist's definition of "real goth," but in getting rid of all the cultural/philosophical baggage of "goth-ness", they were able to apply the aesthetic to new scenarios and stories, and attach new meanings. And I think that's a pretty cool direction for steampunk to take too.

It's cool if steampunk says something about the 19th century and all it's foibles. It's cool if it's just used as an aesthetic for a story about something that's mostly unrelated to any historical time period. It's frustrating when people make a big deal out of steampunk cliches, only to say nothing at all, but hey, what was it one of the earlier commenters said? 90% of everything is crap?
Hopefully publishers and reviewers will soon figure out how to see past the genre label and be able to evaluate writing on its merit, just as they've come to be able to do with SF, fantasy, and horror.

*YMMV, but my experience is that you run into a lot of defensiveness when you walk into a Firefly panel at a convention and ask "How come everyone speaks Chinese, but there aren't any asians?"

Edited at 2010-11-04 04:25 pm (UTC)

Late to the party but... I figure it can't hurt even if it's not read

The post kind of... confused me. Mostly because This read? Felt like second cousins to this read.

Which made me buy Habitation of the Blessed even though, as much as I love your blogging, your story ideas, etc I've never quite latched into your books as well. Much like a few others of your books I've bought because when I'm on the fence, I'll buy an author I support even if I'm not yet in the right brain space to sync with their writing (I've had a weird year, suffice to say).

Even though I kind of mentally categorize most Science Fiction in the realm of Dashing Hero With Laser Pistol and/or Ridiculously High Tech Hard Scifi That I don't enjoy. I'm usually a fantasy/horror girl, but I wanted to give it a shot.

And another random sort of... half-thought THING I wanted to add is maybe, in it's broadest sense, "steampunk" is sci-fi's way into the past. Traditionally, fantasy harkens back where sci-fi looks forward... but this lets us use history where fantasy uses mythology, scientific reference where fantasy uses literary references.

And 1. leaving it be now 2. sending tea, chocolate, and as many good things as I can re: your post this morning since graceful understanding of 'perhaps this was not a good idea' should be appreciated.

You and I must be encountering very different steampunk.

"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."
[...]
"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 don't really see the difference. Stross also pointed out many social misrepresentations. Well, maybe the difference is that Stross said "try again", and this says "stop trying".

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We can't even get the medieval era right in fantasy, guys. Did you ever think we'd get the 19th spot on?

Why not? For one thing, there are a lot more survivng primary sources about the 19th century than the Middle Ages.