Charles Stross on Steampunk

Award-winning science-fiction author Charles Stross isn't too fond of all the Steampunk novels that are being peddled to the SFF readers these days. The Hard Edge of Empire is a blog post in which he gives his two cents regarding this particular subgenre. Here's a teaser:

It's not that I actively dislike steampunk, and indeed I have fond memories of the likes of K. W. Jeter's "Infernal Devices", Tim Powers' "The Anubis Gates", the works of James Blaylock, and other features of the 1980s steampunk scene. I don't have that much to say against the aesthetic and costumery other than, gosh, that must be rather hot and hard to perambulate in. (I will confess to being a big fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius.) It's just that there's too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it's in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)


But there's a dark side as well. We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).


You probably think I'm going a little too far in my blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun. But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

Click on the link above for the full post and the 100+ comments it generated.

Tobias S. Buckell responds via his Facebook page. Here's an extract:

If the industrial revolution was harsh, remember that the peasants fleeing the country-side for the Dickensian, coal-stained air of London were leaving the countryside for a better life, the same pastoral life that people like Tolkien and his later imitators and admirers hold up as a world like ours, but purer and with horses.

However, the period that steampunk holds up so dear is the same period that perfected genocide, racism, wholesale destruction of Africa, manifest destiny, and so on and so forth.

To be true, I hold that steampunk is a just a modern iteration of the previous generation’s pastoralism. Tolkien was looking back a couple hundred years to a time just outside his horizon and thinking of it as ‘a better age,’ which is not uncommon with human beings (it’s been going on since… forever).


In that manner steampunk is more of an aesthetic rejection of modern aesthetics, it’s primarily a manufacturing/cultural manifestation, as evidenced, I think, by the fact that the bulk of steampunk’s appeal is in the objects (the movies, bulk produced mass consumer objects, have failed to do as well) and the style, which have penetrated further out than the literature objects.

Follow the link for the whole thing.

Buckell points out that Nisi Shawl also wrote a piece concerning some of the literature that has used steampunk while exploring that reactionary/pastoralist nature. Here's an extract:

Because while steampunk’s nonliterary components—fashion, art, music—are some of the most diverse scenes around, steampunk books and stories I was familiar with often seemed nostalgic for an imaginary vanished age of whiteness. Almost without exception they glorified British Victorian imperialism. They did this despite the fact that many of the cultural, scientific, and aesthetic elements steampunk celebrates had been appropriated from nations the British Empire conquered, and the related fact that the machinery steampunk focuses on had primarily been maintained by nonwhites.


So at this point there is discussion: new ideas are being articulated, new questions are being asked. There is change: new stories are being told. Lately, in the world of steampunk, there is a chance to make a burgeoning art form more inclusive, more intricate, more verisimilitudinous. More fun.

People who move forward physically by walking must fall and catch themselves repeatedly. Moving forward intellectually means being willing to risk falling intellectually: being willing to say stupid things and then catch yourself. You catch yourself intellectually by making those stupid statements true, or restating them so they are right. Repeatedly. And moving forward.

Steampunk is in the process of constantly restating itself.

Not a big fan of Steampunk myself, but I reckon that this might interest many of you. . .

10 commentaires:

Kevin S. said...

The real-life medieval period in Europe was pretty lousy too, but that hasn't stopped generations of fantasy authors from creating worlds modelled on its fuedalism.

Anonymous said...

Neither a huge fan or a hater of all things steampunk, I submit our anthology, The Aether Age: Helios, as an antidote to at least some of the problems with steampunk, particularly the Anglophilia and nostalgia for an age rife with suffering but for a privileged, predominantly male & white, majority. <--- Pre-order now via our publisher, Hadley Rille and you can enter to win a Kindle 3G to boot.


Anonymous said...

Pretty funny that you link a post calling out 'the likes of and io9' when you're just as much a part of that vapid, terrible group as those sites are.

Steampunk (as it exists now) is essentially set dressing. It's an empty set of aesthetic choices. That's really all it is. It's a bunch of stuff that's neat-o. Inasmuch as it is a movement concerned entirely with imagery and aesthetics in a really boring way, it's absolutely perfect for this new breed of sci-fi website which has nothing to say and everything to sell. For God's sake, stop talking about steampunk and do something interesting.

Anonymous said...

Ditto Smith's point - and the majority of those stories also tend to end up celebrating Monarchism - or at least the right Monarch's Monarchism. Name a Medieval fantasy where the peasants' revolt and establish a new wholly democratic utopia.

Beyond that - the ancient world! A Graeco-Roman/Egyptian/Persian world is hardly the model of modern virtues - you want slavery and surpressed women? Look no further.

But...they did have good points as well. That's why we can focus on them as a golden age. Because the Victorians were beginning to become aware of how wrong slavery was and what potential science held, because the Medieval lords at least some of the time held to standards of chivalry which have today been replaced by disinterested, faceless businesses and we can sympathise with their fascination with the achievments of their forebears, because the Ancients' mastery of architecture, science and invention of democracy are things we are still in awe of.

If you set a fantasy contemporaneously do you make it a dystopia because of Nuclear weapons, Robert Mugabe, 9/11 and the support given to Raoul Moat?

And I have read steampunk that doesn't glorify the aristocracy or treats the period like a good setting - The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray and Whitechapel Gods to name but two. Besides which - no one writes about a utopian period! Even when the dangers are wholly external society is rarely if ever shown to be without flaw. Even if it is constitutionally and practically perfect there will be a sociopathic traitor or two who a 'perfect' society would have noted.

Cecrow said...

I think K.R. Smith above sums it up. You can't throw stones at the steampunk genre without smashing your glass house, regardless of the genre you're writing for. They're all dreamy in one form or another, and all novels leave out elements of reality that aren't relevant or spoil the mood of the story (even the really ugly ones, since they leave out the good things).

If he wanted to say steampunk is a sinking ship because it's being buried in more content than the market can handle, or with inferior product ... but then, if he was correct in believing that's the case, the market will corect itself soon enough. And with no harm done to him, if he's not writing for it. I'm surprised by the number of responses you say it's received, Pat. I don't see a point in responding to personal like/dislike rants as more than they are.

Conrad said...

I would title that post: The Comrade strikes again!, but considering that in true totalitarian fashion, comrade Stross does not allow dissent on his webpage, i tend to ignore him since he suggested some years ago that Bush will use the Arny to stop Obama taking power; people who think that way are best ignored since they are not worth taking on and he writes such bad prose to reinforce all the stereotypes of sf being a literature of illiterates and nerds

Joseph L. Selby said...

He could have just conserved words and written "Get off my lawn!" to the same effect.

John M. said...

Dude needs to lighten up and stop taking everything so seriously. If he did that, perhaps he could write books that, y'know... people want to read, as opposed to a computer science essay posing as a novel.

Anonymous said...

Anon said:
Beyond that - the ancient world! A Graeco-Roman/Egyptian/Persian world is hardly the model of modern virtues - you want slavery and surpressed women? Look no further.

My enthusiasm got the best of me. Of course Steampunk is just a medium for telling whatever stories the writers choose, same for our milieu. What I failed to communicate is that the Aether Age stories range from adventures to tales that address issues and concerns of people of various cultures, ethnicity, social status, sex, and so forth. Any sub-genre or milieu can; if the complaint is that there is a glut of Steampunk that fails to do so,my suggestion is that readers might find Aether Age an interesting alternative.


Some call me Tim said...

Joseph L. Selby said: He could have just conserved words and written "Get off my lawn!" to the same effect.

If you had read through Charlie's actual blog, you would realize that he actually used those exact words. In the third paragraph. What no one is pointing our here is that while he does have some (legitimate or not) gripes, his rant is a little more light-hearted than the reactionaries are making it out to be.