There has been some controversy on the internets this week. Specifically – as this is otherwise a useless and self-evident statement akin to pointing out that the Earth revolves around the sun – on the subject of steampunk.
Now: I get that it’s in the nature of human beings to be critical. We all have little mental pressure valves that sometimes need to be vented in full, no matter how slight the final provocation. The results of this are not always entirely rational, and don’t even necessarily represent our day-to-day views; or, if they do, then in a more polarised, less compromising format. For instance: when my husband and I were cycling along the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand in the first week of our honeymoon, a territorial magpie flew right into the side of my un-helmeted head, causing me to fall to the dirt, cry just a little bit out of shock, and – once I straightened up – to bleed from the temple. This prompted my significant other to launch into an angry, fifteen-minute long tirade about how all magpies were basically just flying rats, they’re bloody dangerous and their singing’s not even that great, fucking magpies, flying around like they own the place, and so on until I had a little less blood streaming from my head and had recovered enough to point out that, one, the magpie had gone; two, I didn’t think it had actually meant to hit me, if its stunned retreat was anything to go by; and three, magpies are actually pretty cool, when they’re not defending their nests.
Thus assauged by my recovery, my beloved came to see the humour in the incident, and returned emotionally to his default state of Magpies Are Fine, Or At Least Not Worth Getting Constantly Worked Up About. And thus, the point: while a little vitriol from time to time is both healthy and human, the important thing is to recognise when the rage has passed, and to compensate accordingly. Which brings me to Cat Valente’s recent blog on the problems of steampunk, a post that was clearly written while in the throes of anger, and which she has subsequently followed up with both a concession to that fact and a list of ten things she actually does love about steampunk. My reactions to her initial post aside, these efforts at conciliation are worthy of respect, in that Valente has been both brave enough, while impassioned, to share her views publicly, and then adult enough to try and engage afterwards in a more constructive dialogue. So, points for maturity.
Charles Stross has also written an anti-steampunk post, one which predates Valente’s and to which she makes passing reference; and then, in seeming response to both these views, but specifically to that of Stross, we have Scott Westerfeld’s defence of steampunk. In case you have been living in a hole, it is not unrelevant that Westerfeld’s two most recent novels are themselves works of YA steampunk: Leviathan and its immediate sequel, the newly-released Behemoth. There have also been other sundry responses lurking about the webnologies, notably this piece by Kirstyn McDermott, who agrees with Valente, and a critique of the anti-steampunk position by jadegirl (props to marydell for the link). But in case you’d rather skip the links, here is my breakdown of both camps:
1. As a sub-genre, steampunk is more concerned with the visual aesthetics of sticking goggles and cogs on top hats than dealing with the actual, complex and fascinating social issues of the era in question, a complaint which is best expressed by this comic. (Sidenote: no matter who you agree with, Kate Beaton is awesome.)
2. That this preoccupation is not only detrimental in terms of encouraging the production pulp, adventuristic works rather than meaningful narrative, but actively problematic in terms of glamourising a deeply flawed Empire: a Dickensian time characterised by the oppression of women, minorities and anyone not actually an Earl; an expansionist and militarised culture; the gruesome rise of industrialisation and crippling factory-work as was frequently undertaken by the disenfranchised masses, especially children; and prohibitive sexual mores. Furthermore, the -punk suffix of the genre itself should imply an innate receptivity to counterculture, and that by ignoring these issues, steampunk is effectively betraying itself.
3. That the end result of all of the above is yet another fad being pounced on by the Great Marketing Machine, resulting in the premature cheapening of something that could have been good, if it had only been kept in the hands of those interested in doing it well, but which has instead become a cheap, conglomerate, prepacked affair with as much sub- and counter-cultural cred as Ronald McDonald, pandering to steampunks who all dress the same while trying to be different. There are no more heroes, etc. (See again Kate Beaton, re: hipsters ruin everything.)
1. Yes, there is a visual element to steampunk. And it involves goggles! But the presence of a coherent aesthetic style does not prevent meaningful social discussion within the genre, any more than wearing a pretty pink dress prevents a woman from holding intelligent opinions. By critiquing steampunk foremost on the basis of how it looks, rather than providing concrete examples of what it does – and by using aristocratic female fashion as the lynchpin of this argument – its detractors are committing the same sin against which they are endeavouring to protest, viz: the use of corsetry to conceal a lack of substance.
2. Examining mainstays of the current canon, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, it is undeniable that steampunk is far from inimical to adventure. However, these are also stories with a strong focus on female characters negotiating the perils of Victorian society, which question militarism and the potentially perilous uses of science, the consquences of poverty and industrialisation on children, and the place of minorities within that society. On this latter point, it is also important to note that steampunk afficionados are by no means exclusively white/privileged, and that there is a great deal of discussion on all of these issues within the community itself.
3. All genres have problems. To contend otherwise is ludicrous. Specifically within the wider fantasy/SF subset, however, to act as though issues of class privilege, race and suffrage are unique to steampunk purely by virtue of its relationship to Victorian society is deeply inaccurate. Beginning with the works of Tolkein and moving forward from there, these are questions that the entire SFF fandom is concerned with on all fronts, and has been for some time. That doesn’t mean that none of the criticisms leveled specifically at steampunk are invalid, but in the current climate of people claiming genre fatigue, such apostasy begins to smack of the elitist proposition that once something has become mainstream, it is made fundamentally irredeemable, or at least deeply untrustworthy, and therefore void of meaning.
Allow me to lay my own cards on the table. Some of my favourite stories of recent times have been steampunk – not only the titles mentioned above, but also Michael Pryor’s fabulous Laws of Magic series (featuring a female character who is both a suffragette and a ninja); Stephen Hunt’s ongoing Jackelian sequence, which begins with The Court of the Air; and Sydney Padua’s brilliant and stunningly researched comic 2D Goggles, about the further adventures of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. There has also been Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which is unashamedly a lighthearted mashup of romance, steampunk and urban fantasy; and, at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Kate Elliott’s brilliant Cold Magic, which the author describes as an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy with Bonus! airship, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.”
Re this last, and specifically the word icepunk: it is not uncommon nowadays for certain members of the geek community to flinch and/or start foaming at the mouth whenever -punk is appended to something else in order to – hopefully – coin a new genre term. Others, like Valente, have no objection to the practise, so long as the work in question, in her words, “is as punk as it says on the tin.”
Which is fine: but as many a pub debate about the motion of linguistics has long since made clear to me, what a word means originally and how it develops over time are two different things, and while there are some instances where fighting against the change is a fine and noble thing, there are some battles better left unfought. I’m not yet sure into which category steampunk (and all the other suffixd -punks) will eventually fall, but being as how I’m not consciously a fan of punk music and have never particularly noticed any connection between the one and the other – unless we’re talking in a generic, rebelling-against-the-norm sort of way, rather than as is specifically relevant to stories about countercultures fighting the dominant trend – then my money is, for now, on the former. The point being, I’m not really fussed about the whole suffixing issue in this instance, because for whatever reason, it’s never flicked my Rage Switch. But I get that it does for other people, and so am willing to credit their outrage as something more than just preferential aggravation. (By way of solidarity, the record is fairly clear on my hatred for -gate being appended to not even mildly shocking political scandals. I mean, seriously. GAH!)
All of which, to come to a point, puts me in the pro-steampunk category. Yes, there are problems. Authors and fans alike are working on them, thinking about them and generally paying attention. Yes, steampunk often involves adventure. That’s not a sin! Part of what I love so much about fantasy is its versatility in this respect: that what would otherwise be a purely issues-based story if set in the real world can take on a dimension of swashbuckling, humour and magic to balance out the social grief and piercing moments of inequality. Also: the fact that Tor.com has struck its flag is less a sign of the Apocalypse than it is the turning of the world. What was once an obscure subgenre is now a more well-known and popular subgenre, with all the attendant perils and pleasures that implies. That’s all.
And you know what? I like the goggles.