Friday, October 5, 2012

Wherefore art thou Steampunk?

I'm a little ashamed to admit this for fear of proving myself terminally uncool, but the Steampunk explosion has baffled me since it began. I've been drawn to it ever since I first saw some of the amazing things people were doing, but I couldn't quite come to terms with it as a category. Especially when it came to books.

Don't get me wrong, I can see the aesthetic appeal. The Steampunk "look" has always been imaginative and lovely, combining the brass and dark wood accouterments of a more elegant age with the endless technological enthusiasm and hope for the future of the industrial revolution. But aesthetics aren't enough to make a genre. Just as there's more to Urban Fantasy than vamps, tramp stamps, and black leather, there has to be more to Steampunk than gears, anachronisms, and airships.

Of course, to look at the explosion of Steampunk publishing, you wouldn't realize this. With Steampunk culture picking up, um, steam, books that have only minimal Steampunk-ish elements are being marketed as "Steampunk" to a steam hungry public. The Peculiars is an excellent example of this "steam washing" (OH HO, I am clever!). While I enjoyed the book itself more than The Book Smugglers did in the review linked above, I have to agree with them that this was Steampunk in marketing only. To quote The Book Smugglers:
The Peculiars is not even remotely a Steampunk novel. There are a couple of innovative inventions created by Mr Beasley and mention of Zeppelins but these are not widespread enough to make it an effective part of the worldbuilding at all. Steampunk to me means that not only a world has these developed technological elements but they also must affect the world at large and the people who live in it. As I keep repeating whenever I see the label carelessly attached to just about any book with a dirigible: dirigibles do not Steampunk make!
I agree with this sentiment 100%, but if dirigibles do not Steampunk make, what does? Because if we're defining Steampunk on a strictly technological basis, then any of China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels (King Rat, Perdido Street Station, etc) would count. In fact, considering how popular and well done Mieville's novels are, they should be cornerstones of steampunk literature, but they're not, which leads me to believe that Steampunk is more than technological.

Another common element in Steampunk besides the actual steam is a Victorian sensibility. The gentleman (or gentlewoman) explorer/scientist is as much a Steampunk trope as the gears themselves.
But one of the most celebrated Steampunk novels, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan (which, for the record, has the best interior decoration of any book EVER), takes place during World War I, decidedly after the Victorian era. Same with Cherie Priest's fabulous Boneshaker, another quintessential Steampunk book that takes place in America West during the Civil War. So while it hits the Victorian time period more or less, it's far more of a Western (which, to be fair, is another area Steampunk loves to co-opt) than a story of Victorian adventure.

Defining what is and is not "Steampunk" can feel a bit like trying to describe the smell of motor oil. You can't really lock it down, but it is certainly a thing all its own. That said, though, as someone who's actively trying to read more "real" Steampunk, the tendency of marketers to take advantage of this nascent genre's popularity by slapping gears, antiqued fonts, and misleading copy on books that have only a tenuous relationship to Steampunk in order to trick me into buying is really pissing me off. Far be it from me to demand 100% truth in advertising, but if something is called Steampunk, then dammit I want more than a passing mention of a blimp!

This line of logic begs the question, though: What do I want from my Steampunk? If it's so hard to define, why is it so popular? What force allows marketers to slap gears on covers to make books sell? Why do we like it so much? What is it about Steampunk that's turned the collective crank of geek imagination so hard?

I've pondered this puzzle quite a bit over the past year as I've tried to get in on the Steampunk fun. At this point, I'm not even sure Seampunk could really be called a genre, not in the same way Fantasy or Science Fiction or Alternate History are. It's probably more accurate to think of it as a stylistic classification rather than a new branch of fiction. But while I have clearly failed to come up with a definition of "Steampunk" solid enough even for my own internal use, I have come up with (and this should come as no surprise to anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis) a LIST! A lovely little list of elements that I think make Steampunk so addictive to the modern geek.

Rachel's (Non-Definitive) List of Probable Reasons Why We Like Steampunk So Much

1) It Looks Freaking Cool

There is absolutely no denying that the Steampunk aesthetic is boss hog. Personally, I think this explains why it's such a popular costuming choice. Who doesn't want to look amazing? Also, Steampunk elements provide almost unlimited costuming potential since they can be freely added to other outfits to make them "Steampunk X" such as "Steampunk Bobba Fett" or "Steampunk Flintstones." Steampunk is like the Ranch Dressing of the cosplay world. It goes with everything!

On a deeper level, though, I think the Steampunk aesthetic feeds our natural human longing for the past. I am thrilled to death that I don't have to wear corsets to be seen in public, but when I see those gorgeous Victoriana gowns, I can't help feeling a longing for the lost elegance of a more mysterious, elegant, and poetic time where a lady wore her gloves even while piloting her mechanical golem. Steampunk stirs the imagination, and while I don't think anyone would actually like to return to the days before internet, women's rights, and modern medicine, it is damn fun to play dress up with such lovely materials.

So the visual appeal of Steampunk is well noted, but what about novels? Looking great at a convention is one thing, but books aren't visually based. You can get pretty far describing brass goggles, but unless you've got a bitching airship to wear them on, they're just flavor. So for Steampunk to survive in novels, it has to bring something more than just a pretty face to the table, which brings me to my next item...

2) Rekindling the Love of Discovery
One of my favorite aspects of Steampunk is the feeling of discovery and adventure it brings along with all those gears. It's the "anything we can imagine, we can build" spirit that fueled the industrial revolution taken to the next level. In Steampunk, it's the scientists and engineers who hold (and usually go mad with) all the power. In this way, Steampunk actually has a great deal in common with the Technology of Tomorrow excitement of the 1950s, but with a less corny aesthetic.

Also, since Steampunk science is very malleable (often through the addition of some kind of supernatural element), science fiction rules of bullshit technology can be applied without penalty. As in "Quickly, Bethesda! Load the Unobtainium into the gyrocopter! We're taking off for Shangri La!" which is just plain fun. I mean, come on, who doesn't want to get into that gyrocopter?

But even deeper than the technology is the feeling of exploration. In most Steampunk settings, even those that don't add in the supernatural, the world is often presented as a more magical, mysterious place. This is why I think Westerns and Victoriana are such common Steampunk settings - both of these cultures had a fascination with exploration and settlement of new lands. For the American West, it was claiming and taming of seemingly endless land. For the Victorians, it was the exploration of Egypt, China, and "Darkest Africa."  And though now we can look back and see this exploitative expansionism for what it was, the thrill of adventure is still there in Steampunk, and we love it.

Humanity loves to discover things, to seek out new worlds. Even Steampunk that never leaves 1900s London is filled with new inventions, exotica from far away, and characters who are excited about all of it. There's a feeling that it's an exciting time to be alive, that the future is happening right now, and that excitement lends its charge to any stories told inside the Steampunk setting.

3) More Rules, More Tension
This one is actually my favorite part of Steampunk. As I mentioned above, most Steampunk takes place in the past, often during the long reign of Queen Victoria or her alternate history stand-ins. By placing a story within the Victorian culture, the author picks up not only a stellar wardrobe, but also a whole host of incredibly oppressive social morality standards (often made even worse in alternate history or complete fantasy Steampunk) that serve as an elixir for instant conflict.

For example, if you had a modern story about a smart young girl who wanted to be a brilliant scientist, you'd have no real barriers to her success other than the pervasive and quiet sexism of academia. This is a huge and serious problem, but it's not the kind of conflict you can easily base an adventure story around. Now, take this same girl and stick her in an alternate history Victoriana setting and suddenly you've got a smart, determined young lass who wants to trade in her petticoats for a leather apron so she can start building her airship and pushing the boundaries of steam technology. The character herself hasn't really changed, but by moving the sexism barrier from difficult to prove hiring discrimination to corsets and mustached old men in bowler hats crying "a girl can not build steam engines!" we move the moral enemy from passive to active, which makes for a much better adventure story.

The heavy handed societal rules found in most Steampunk (Victoriana or not) helps move the fight against the man to a personal battle rather than a societal one, and tension in novels is all about significant personal action. The harsher the rules and the more immediate and severe the punishment for breaking them, the more exciting it is when our heroes upset things, and the harder we, as an audience, can root for them. The Steampunk setting provides an absolutely perfect set of hooks for this kind of storytelling.

4) The Lure of the Strange and Unknown
The final, and perhaps most enthralling aspect of Steampunk is its intrinsic relationship with the strange and unknown. Practically every Steampunk has a mystery or supernatural element of some sort: monsters, vampires, zombies, portals to other worlds, or a mysterious new technology that will turn the world on its head. It takes those classic figures of discovery: the dashing explorer, the mad scientist, the kooky inventor pushing the bounds of human possibility -- the same ones that filled boy's adventure books during the Victorian era -- and retools them for modern consumption. Steampunk takes these old tropes and makes them new again, just as Steampunk costumers stick old gears on top hats to create something unique. It's the classic human cycle: everything old is new again. And, in the case of Steampunk case, everything old is cool again.

Humans love oddity. We love spectacle and the feeling of a mystery and being on the edge of the unknown. This is what Steampunk can deliver at its best: that rush when you see something miraculous, and for a shining moment, everything feels new, exciting, and possible. This feeling is why Steampunk stories are so often described with words like "thrilling" or "adventure." That is what Steampunk gives us, good old fashioned adventures in a strange and unknown world were everything is still possible. It's fantasy dressed up in top hats, parasols, and psudo-science, and I see nothing wrong with that.

All that said, I'd like to end this post by admitting that Steampunk still baffles me a little. When it first burst onto the market I thought it was a fad, but I've been waiting for it to die out for years now and it's still going strong. I've been trying and trying to figure it out, and while I think it brings a lot to the table, when people ask me "do you think Steampunk is here to stay?" I don't know what to tell them. On the one hand, I feel a genre based largely on aesthetic can't last, but it keeps enduring.

So, since I'm stumped, I turn to you, gentle reader. What makes Steampunk for you? Do you think it's a fad or the beginnings of a new alternate history renaissance? Please leave your answers in the comments, because I'm really curious. Also, if you have any Steampunk refs, please let me know! I'm having such a hard time finding stuff that's really Steampunk and not just adventure stories with gears stuck on.

Yours sincerely will bells on,


Forrest Aguirre said...

I like the question you're asking about what one wants out of Steampunk. I'm sure everyone's answer is different. I weighed in on the whole notion of Steampunk being punk *at all* here.

bzyglowi said...

I think you're probably right in that Steampunk is less of a genre in itself than it is an aesthetic skin over other genres. A steampunk story can be pretty much any genre (although fantasy, urban fantasy, and adventure are probably the most common).

Mostly, I see steampunk as having a similar purpose to cyberpunk. Cyberpunk took modern technology and trends and used it to imagine the future, mostly as dystopian and awful because the dependence on machines was seen as scary and dehumanizing. But now that technology is looking more and more like (mostly) our friend with our smartphones and Internet, we've turned our speculation to something entirely different: what if past eras had access to all the current technology we love and which has totally rearranged our entire world? How awesome would that be? More importantly, how would that change everything? That question, I think, is the key to steampunk.

I also think there's a real respect and desire, in the current world of our sleek, mass-produced devices, for the worn, the elegant, and the hand-crafted. It doesn't hurt that the Victorian era produced some pretty awesome fashions and some truly impressive design trends. I think, too, there's some curiousity to re-discover the history of that era, and steampunk can be a fun way to do that and still tell stories that are appealing to a modern audience. The 1800's and early 1900's are now in that interesting point in time where they're just recent enough for people to be vaguely familiar with them, but far enough back that no one has direct memories of how things actually were, so it's a prime candidate to be romanticized. The aura of exploration and discovery from that time period certainly doesn't hurt.

Will steampunk stick around? I suspect so. I think it hits a lot of buttons for people, and there are enough outlets and branches that people can find their niche, whether it's costuming, history, writing, or art. It may not be terribly accurate or sophisticated... but neither are Ren Fairs, and look how long those have been around.

Rachel Aaron said...

@forrest you raise a very good point. Not very punky, is it?

@bzyglowi "I also think there's a real respect and desire, in the current world of our sleek, mass-produced devices, for the worn, the elegant, and the hand-crafted."

YES! I totally forgot about this, but you're completely right. This was actually a big part of what got me interested in the first place. There's just something beautiful and kind of magical about things made by another human being. And I also think you're right about Steampunk sticking around. With the internet to help facilitate subcultures, they can live forever. Personally, I hope it does stick, because I'm still saving up to get one of those badass steampunk keyboards

Kait Nolan said...

Really enjoyed this post! Your list actually hit on all the reasons I really love what I've read of steampunk (my favorites being Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series). And yeah I agree, that it's kind of a label that gets attached to OTHER actual genres. In the way that YA encompasses ALL kinds of subgenres.

Sawyer Grey said...

bzyglowi nailed it, I think. There is steampunk sci-fi, steampunk horror, steampunk fantasy, steampunk erotica...

I believe part of the appeal is that you get what people imagine to be a slower, simpler time while still getting to keep your technological goodies. And of course alternate historical fiction is fun to read (and write), especially the more dystopian varieties.

As to Forrest's issue with the punk in steampunk, it sounds suspiciously like a case of "you kids and your new-fangled tomfoolery, get offa my lawn!" ;-)

Forrest Aguirre said...

Sorry, Sawyer, you're missing my point. Really, it's about the irony in steampunk calling itself "punk" at all. Yeah, I'm sure I sound old-school, but the whole point of punk was do-it-yourself. Now steam punk has gone glossy with huge distribution channels. I'm not really complaining about it, but I had to point out the irony. It's so cool to "be" steampunk that it's not even cool anymore. Frankly, it's starting to bore me. OK, yes, I'm getting old . . .

LycoRogue said...

First off - I just saw "Steampunk" in the title of this post and HAD to read it... I'm that much of a "steampunk junkie". XD

Secondly, I agree with above comments - bzyglowi pretty much nailed it.

Steampunk is sort of both it's own genre (or sub-genre more accurately I think) as well as a "skin" that can be put on any other genre.

I also think a big part of Steampunk that gets looked over is the apocalyptic Steampunk - the sci-fi stories that take place in the year 2145 (or whatever) where technology has failed us and we have to revert back to The Days Of Old, but find ways to makeshift our technology back (a la rockets on bicycles...). Or the more destructive apocalyptic steampunk where humans can't inhabit Earth any longer for whatever reason and we return to the days of Manifest Destiny and Outlaws-are-heroes in search for a new home.

The Joss Whedon show Firefly (and movie Serenity) as well as the anime Cowboy Bebop - though not in-your-face-steampunk, do still hold that steampunk-ness. That Wild West In Space.

Speaking of which, the movie - and therefore the show it was based off of - Wild Wild West was very Steampunk without all the Victorian garb. It also shows that Steampunk has been around for a WHILE (the term was coined in the 80s right about when Cyberpunk became popular). That being said, and the fact that it's picking up steam - as Rachel punningly pointed out - proves that it's here to stay.

Another good example of something having that steampunk feel even if it were unintentional? Pretty much every one of the Final Fantasy games. Airships and gundams anyone?

Susan said...

Great post--like, something I have talked about a LOT with other authors. I am in that uncomfortable position of having the steampunk label thrown onto my book...when I, personally, would just call SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY an alternate historical (or maybe even a gothic historical with some inventions). I think--especially in YA--things get slapped with these broad terms that seem to have commercial appeal. So many books are called dystopian when they have NO dystopian elements whatsoever. Goodness, my own publisher has me labeled as a "zombie" book, when my book is actually about necromancy! Big leap from raising the dead to brain-hungry zombies... My publisher also call me a "paranormal romance" when I only have the tiniest little romantic subplot (that doesn't even have a happily ever after). My point is, so many books get these Hot Commercial labels because publishers put it on there...and I just have to trust 'em to know what they're doing. (Though, it does upset me to get angry mail from people who expected zombies and got ghosts instead. Or they expected steampunk and only got a few elements instead.)

I, personally, love steampunk as an aesthetic. I have my own costume for cons and I could flip through steampunk art all day long...But I've yet to actually READ a pure, 100% steampunk novel that I enjoyed. It's interesting, though, because bzyglowi's comment mentions cyberpunk--I DO love to read cyberpunk in addition to enjoying it visually. Maybe I just haven't found the steampunk book for ME yet is all... And I do so hope this culture of steampunk is here to stay.

Anonymous said...

Steampunk is generally overpriced attire screaming for attention, on par with lame hipster chic, and just unnecessary.

Kait Nolan said...

My favorite steampunk romances are Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series, followed by the lighter and slightly less steampunky (more like romances with steampunk thrown in for flavor rather than the full, detailed worldbuilding of Brook), Gaslight Chronicles by Cindy Spenser Pape.

I've been off the paranormal and fantasy for the last couple of years, but I find myself consistently still picking up steampunk in the midst of a steady diet of contemporaries. Why? Well, other than that addiction to airships (I do love me an airship), I think it comes down to that element of exploration and conflict you mentioned already. Why don't I go to straight historical for that? Well...I like the unexpected that steampunk throws in--whether it's magic or the supernatural or whatever. And as you already mentioned, the aesthetic is damned cool!

I certainly HOPE steampunk is here to stay.

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