I’ve decided to depart from the usual sketches and silly pictures today, and instead, uh, actually write something. And it’s about steampunk.
I have a bit of trouble with the word “steampunk” and with the vague, lax realm the literary subgenre has become. We can trace the term back to K.W. Jetter, but what he coined comes from simply grasping for the right descriptor:
“Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps…” (1987)
Steampunk emerged at the same time as cyberpunk; ergo Jetter appropriated and retooled the latter word into the former. All the cross-blog debate and calls to “put the ‘punk’ back into steampunk,” becomes an after-the-fact misapplication; the steampunk subgenre already existed before Jetter labelled it, so why must that bundle of literary/imaginative ideas suddenly fit the label? I’d rather just call it “Neo-Victorian retrofuturism”—a much more accurate term, but not really as sexy or seductive as “steampunk”, and a good deal harder to say.
A recent conversation on a writing board led to the idea of “steamdandyism” (this word stolen from Michael Henry Tillman) as opposed to “steampunk”, and I’ve actually cannibalized much of this post from that discussion. Let us say steamdandyism is the recent trend of using steampunk as an empty visual aesthetic and nothing more. An author’s form of window-dressing without considering the implications of reiterating Victoriana.
In effect, steampunk exists for the same reason Neo-Victorianism exists. It’s an offshoot of the Neo-Victorian movement in literature, that constant draw writers have towards the Victorian period. The Victorian age is the first age we think of as ultimately in “the past.” To bring in some Foucault, it’s where we go to pat ourselves on the back for having progressed so far—look at those sad, racist, Imperialistic, sexually repressed Victorians! Look at how much better we are!
Steampunk is speculative fiction’s answer to this claim. The Victorian period is when we see the cyclical idea of history broken by the idea of historical progress (oh wonderful modernism!) in the popular imagination. During and after the industrial revolution, we in the west began to see history moving forward. Time realigned from a circle to a line. And this kind of historical positivism meant writers began to envision futures. The industrial era gave birth to the scientific romance, and, later, science fiction. I’ve seen Jules Verne classified as “steampunk”, but that is utterly silly—he wasn’t retroactively considering another era’s dreams, he was writing that era’s dreams. “Real” steampunk, if you will, actually has something to say about Victoriana, the post-industrial world, technology etc. and how it plugs into our cultural imagination. Our misconceptions of the past become the past’s misconceptions about the future.
All the recent “punk” genres do this – diesel punk, clock punk, whatever-punk. They can also serve as critiques and rejections of modernism, post-modernism, historical positivism, and even science fiction. Retrofuturism can be serious business. It can also make some science fiction writers uncomfortable (as evidenced by a recent rash of criticism from authors on various blogs) because it runs contrary to the rules of science fiction as dictated by the Hugo Award. It can be a damning analysis if done well.
No wonder some don’t like what steampunk means. What’s even sadder, though, is that a lot of “steampunk” is just the “steamdandyism” I mentioned earlier. Steampunk is identified with a reactionary mindset because writers decide just to pull out the optimism and high adventure of the scientific romance or the Victorian dime-novel while leaving a mess of much uglier things behind. It’s the belief that you can leave the many unpleasant legacies of the nineteenth century behind. And it’s a waste of a subgenre that really hasn’t explored its full potential.
I say: reject steamdandyism. It’s time to claim the past’s imagined futures, not unconsciously follow them. We needn’t propagate imperialism, racism, sexism, and the like by writing without concern for implications. Instead, we can critique the eras we recreate, and in doing so, critique our own.