Those ‘Punks

Coming out of my too-much-work-and-travel-and-illness hole to write a post. About Steampunk. Bear with me, it promises to be a little rambling (I have a lot to say).

There have been a few people loudly criticizing the genre lately. People that I respect and whose writing I love. People who are a tad on the angry side about this.

In many respects I agree with them! There is an awful lot of “Steampunk” going around right now, and it is drowning out a lot of other voices, which is frustrating. It feels like anything that can be feasibly labeled Steampunk is, and then it’s marketed really hard and to the exclusion of other ideas, which is unfortunate.

I also don’t believe that all of it is actually Steampunk. I think a lot of what should more properly be termed “neo-Victoriana” is getting slapped with the Steampunk label, because it sounds hip, and nobody’s calling them on it because they fit the aesthetic properly. I agree with Valente entirely on the fact that “punk” actually means something. It’s not just a suffix you throw on when you want to look grungy. It means “this here is for social change. This is for progress and the common good. This is for revolution, and it might not be pretty getting there, but where we want to go is fucking awesome. ” The use of “punk” to describe neo-Victoriana is all kinds of laughable, because it’s really the opposite. It’s nostalgia for a time and place where whole classes of people couldn’t vote, and were basically property, and where all sorts of blatant and dehumanizing racism and classism were common practice. Victorian England (and America) was a good time to be a landed white guy. That’s really it. And so stuff that focuses only on landed white guys, (and to some extent, ladies) with little or no progress or reflection? Neo-Victoriana. Not necessarily bad, but not “punk”. And yeah, there’s and awful lot of it (though to be fair, some of it is really quite fun in its own right, especially when it managed to mix genres effectively).

But when someone writes a novel that deconstructs what was wrong with that era? From the POV of someone experiencing some of the debilitating oppression that was such a way of life for so many? Or when someone takes that era apart and rebuilds it from the roots, to make it a new place with new ideals and opportunities that weren’t afforded during the actual period? I’d call that punk, and that’s what I love about the genre. Because as Scott Westerfeld says, some people are doing it.

Valente herself did it with her short story “The Anachronist’s Cookbook” (and in this, what I feel is her other Steampunk short story). Susanna Clarke touched on it a bit in her novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, from the POV of the black servant Stephen. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy absolutely works to deconstruct both sexism and religious oppression. Also his Sally Lockhart books, for all that they appear to be lighthearted Victorian mysteries, talk a lot about sexism as well. I haven’t gotten a chance to read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan yet, but from what I understand, it features a character who has to hide her gender in order to be able to pursue her career goals, due to a period culture of sexism. China Miéville’s New Crobuzon novels are entirely about racism, classism, sexism, and violent revolution; even if the Victorianeque landscape he builds is peopled largely by nonhuman characters.

Then there’s Cherie Priest’s books, which I admit I enjoyed quite a bit, zombies or not (I’m not a huge fan of zombies). I think she resolved the issue of racism far too easily in Dreadnought (with elected politicians in 2010 trying to repeal Civil rights, I think there would be a tad more resistance to abolition and integration in the 1900s south…) but she does write her books from a low point on the social ladder, and she does it well.

So to recap, I believe that Steampunk is an alternate history genre that explores the late 19th and early 20th centuries, building an alternate history in a way that questions oppressive practices of that period, or else builds them completely out of existence in a way that is both critical and self-reflective.

I believe that neo-Victoriana is related but separate genre, one that goes at Victorian English/American worldbuilding in a pretty straightforward manner, and doesn’t ask a lot of questions.

I think there’s a hell of a lot of both of these things going around right now (though probably more of the latter than the former), and that the sheer profusion is drowning out a lot of the other fantasy/scifi sub-genres. But unfortunately, this is sort of what happens when a genre gets popular. My youth was a wash of sword-and-sorcery fantasy on one side, cyberpunk, and space opera/space adventure on the other. Right now, it’s Steampunk and Urban Fantasy and the Post-Apocalyptic scifi. In another two decades, we’ll all be exclaiming over the fruits of some genre that’s probably seeding itself in among the Steampunk foliage at this very moment.

So what am I saying with this post? I’m not saying that people aren’t right to complain about the overabundance of the genre, for it’s true that neo-Victoriana and Steampunk are getting into nearly everything lately. I think maybe they’re a tad too strong in their initial criticisms (something Cat Valente has come back to admit. Twice.) as well as overlooking a lot of the actual good that exists within the genre. I also think that calling for the death of Steampunk shows an ignorance of some of its best products. I’d love to see it cede the stage a bit, but I also want to see it keep growing and developing as a genre. I want to see Steampunk take that “punk” it’s been given and own the hell out of it.


One thought on “Those ‘Punks

  1. Great post. Steampunk really is becoming the new hip thing (in the non-mainstream geek world) and a lot of people don’t bother to think about the term or the genre beyond zeppelins and gears.

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