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Letters from Proxima Thule

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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.


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@ 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.

I disagree with this sentence. It's not the steampunkish gadgets that make a good or bad writing, it's the storytelling skills of the writer, the story itself, the interesting characters that contribute to a good book. You cannot say it's going to be bad just because it's steampunk (or fantasy, or magic realism etc.).

Sure I can. I can say that there is a 90% chance that it will be bad because in almost every instance I've seen people not applying the same level of good storytelling and expectations they do to other genres. It is a trend I have noticed.

Note I say almost. There are exceptions. But I am gunshy these days because I've read more bad steampunk than I care to.

That sounds like a re-statement of Sturgeon's law, in which case the trend is that people are doing a lot of Steampunk not that most of it is bad, because it's bound to be.

As a trend it's probably going to pass, leaving a lot of flotsom and jetsom in its wake. Like vampire books, like urban fantasy, all you're seeing is a lot of industry enthusiasm responding to market enthusiasm. You don't have to like it (certainly not exclusively) and you don't have to be part of it. And you probably won't miss much by not being part of it.

"Sure I can. I can say that there is a 90% chance that it will be bad because in almost every instance I've seen people not applying the same level of good storytelling and expectations they do to other genres. It is a trend I have noticed. "

This. Yes. In spades.

To be fair, Sturgeon's Law predicts that 90% of everything is crud. We're still only looking at, what, maybe 150 books that could possibly be called steampunk. And that is a generous number. There have to be thousands of hard science fiction books, thousands of sword and sorcery fantasy, etc. And those genres had time to mature and find themselves. I am not at all saying that most of what is being labeled today as "steampunk" is wonderful. It is not. But give it time. It needs to boom and bust a couple of more times before it settles into something more reliable.

But you can say that about any genre really. There is bad writing, some really reeeallly bad writing, and then the occasional good one that doesn't retch up the same conventions of their respective genre verbatim.

You get a few gems which define the genre, then you get the masses trying to replicate. It's the very nature of the culture unfortunately. The relative 'newness' of steampunk is getting more exposure at the moment, but I wouldn't say it is any better or worse than other genres. At present it is getting more exposure because it is on the tip of our tongues, or at the back of our throats, so we tend to notice it more.

It's an obvious state of fact but I do agree, 100% that story writing and content need to be focused on with more depth. What with digital books, graphical ipad goodness, web story bloggers, and the relative ease of self publishing nowadays we are naturally going to have to sift through more genre squatters to get to the real gems.

if you read so much BAD steampunk, why do you even read it anyway. I know what you're saying but dig deep and you will find some gold. the only bad steampunk ive read are the POC stories (pimp my airship PISSED ME OFF, virtuoso the comic was boring and never could i give two SHITS about any others). in fact, why did you even waste your own FREAKING time and patience to write. just get up and GET THE FUCK OFF OF IT if you arent interested. damn, that's one less author ill be reading.

I think that in part it comes from the idea that the Awesome! Things! can take a lot of the narrative weight off of storytelling, style, etc.

But then you alraedy mentioned The Diamond Age (and I can add The Light Ages or Mortal Engines tetralogy where it's not about gadgets but about stories or characters. What you're saying is equal to "it can't be a good book because it's science fiction" "or it can't be good since it's about zombies".

Please note that I agree with the general thesis of your entry that steampunk is too much explored - it's like some people want it to replace New Weird that backfired about two years ago. Which, now to think of it, was the same case of "labelling". It's just that you overgeneralize.

You misunderstand--Diamond Age is a 15 year old book. It pre-dated the craze. The craze creates bad work--ANY craze does.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction was also a craze with Gernsback's and Campbell's magazines, and it also produced a lot of crap but there are pearls among it that constitute most of today's SF canon. It may be the same thing with steampunk.


I've said there are exceptions.

The craze creates bad work--ANY craze does.
A craze catches the fancy of writers who are interested in marketing "their product" rather than in writing a good book.

I disagree. I see Cat's essay as commentary on the trends she and many others have seen in steampunk since it started gaining momentum as a popular fiction subgenre. She does also say that there are exceptions.

Yeah, and I was here about two or three years ago when New Weird collapsed and everyone who dabbed in it backpedaled from its corpse; probably the same thing is going to happen with steampunk because the gadgets and XIX c romanticism can only carry you that far.

Still, it doesn't mean almost everything that was produced in the genre is going to suck.

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