Friday, April 15, 2011

GUEST POST: The Dangers of Steampunk – Don’t Forget the Punk

Sophie Playle is living the impoverished aspiring writer’s dream. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing and works as a freelance editor to pay her library fines. Her writings can be found at This article originally appeared on Sophie's website.

Steampunk celebrates the aesthetic goodness of the Victorian era – and herein lies the problem. When steampunk becomes all about the way things look (a pretty parasol here, a cog-powered machine there), and the theory of advanced technology is applied to the creation of a superpower/empire, the genre is in danger of losing the most important part of its namesake: punk.

Paul Jessup addresses this danger in his article ‘The Future of Steampunk‘ which can be found on his excellent blog, Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Review:
Novels not only give us a bit of escapism, but are also inspirations and blueprints to our thought process and our moral centers. [...] Steampunk as escapism that tells us Empire is grand! [...] We need to see more books with an anti-Empire bent, about anarchists trying to overthrow the evils of Colonialism and the wrongs of a Monarchy. Or even more books taking place in worlds that don’t have Empires.
Steampunk has been criticised for ignoring the bad elements of the Victorian society, such as child labour, slavery, extreme poverty, imperialism, racism… etc, simply because of the want to romanticise the era.

C Scott Morris adds to the discussion:
I don’t think Steampunks romanticize imperialism. One of the key features to the genre/subculture is ‘punk’. Rebellion.
Steampunk does not ignore the negative side of the period, nor does it embrace it. With Steampunk, and it’s sister Cyberpunk, there is a feeling of dystopia, of tyranny and repression, and Steampunk rebels against it. Steampunk is away of saying that all those negative things from the past are still going on now, and we don’t like it.
So where is this impression coming from? Could it be that by revelling in the aesthetic elements of Victorian times, people are essentially romanticising the era? Can such a leap be made, from the appreciation of artistry to the acceptance of out-dated values? Perhaps Jessup has a point: despite the innocence of escapism, are steampunks inadvertently attaching themselves to these values?

But wait. As Morris says, we mustn’t forget the ‘punk’ in all of this. There is a difference between Victoriana and steampunk.

Steampunk is not there to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the prettiness of the 19th century. The whole point of setting the genre in the past is to highlight the same terrible issues that are still relevant today. Just as dystopian fiction is usually set in a parallel future society to hold a mirror up to our own, steampunk is set in a parallel historical society to say ‘learn from the mistakes of the past – look what could have happened. Look what is happening now.’ If the steampunk book you’re reading doesn’t have this element to it, perhaps it isn’t steampunk.

(image from ectoplasmosis)


Anonymous said...

If the steampunk book you’re reading doesn’t have this element to it, perhaps it isn’t steampunk.

I think the horse is already trotting down the road on that one, and there's no point in wishing the barn door had been closed. Especially since the reason why steampunk is lasting longer than cyberpunk is quite possibly that cyberpunk did require a viewpoint, which limited its repertoire and its emotional palette. Steampunk being an aesthetic, all sorts of viewpoints can be expressed in it.

Sophie Playle said...

"Steampunk being an aesthetic"

What I'm saying, though, is that steampunk is more than an aesthetic. Otherwise it just becomes Victorian with cogs on. Punk is and was never intended to be *just* an aesthetic.

Anonymous said...

Was intended by whom? And who is this person who gets to dictate to all present and future writers/artists/etc. what they may and may not do in the field of steampunk, and why would anyone listen to him?

Sophie Playle said...

Punk, throughout history and by its very definition, is more than just aesthetic.

I hate to quote from the free online dictionary but my subscription to the OED has run out:

Punk: a member of a rebellious counterculture group

Anonymous said...

If it's rebellious, you can not demand its obedience to what you think it should be.

Sophie Playle said...

I'm not demanding anything. I'm simply highlighting some thoughts.

Timothy P. Remp said...

I'm not seeing much 'punk' in Steampunk either. Everyone seems to be moving away from the negative elements of the Victorian age.

Remember – Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine user. Haggard’s ‘She’ had cannibalism, a powerful feminist figure head. All excellent pieces.


R.S. Bohn said...

I don't see much "punk" in Steampunk either, and as pointed out, a lot of the negative aspects of that particular time in history are often glossed over or ignored altogether by the genre. The question is, should those elements be there in order to constitute Steampunk? Are they essential?

Science fiction is a much broader genre, but when you think of what's been done within it, it's astounding. For instance, Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (and its movie version, "Blade Runner") examine the concept of what it means to be human. I think you may be wishing for Steampunk to take on these larger themes, to "be all it can be," and while I am on your side and wishing heartily for some stronger themes, I think we also need to realize A) how extraordinarily new Steampunk is compared to other genres and B) how much its aesthetic is embraced as the base of its appeal. Simply coming to terms with that and waiting it out is, basically, what I'm doing. I'm waiting to see where this genre will go, and hoping for some huge things on the horizon.

In the meantime, it's not necessarily a bad thing if a book is called Steampunk and is your basic adventure novel set in the 1880s with the addition of airships and goggles. There's room for that and for the bigger issues of counterculture and man's rapid acceleration into technologies he may or may not be prepared to handle. After all, if you look at publishers who ostensibly publish only fantasy, you'll see they do a large amount of spec fic and fantasy/SF cross-over.

So, in short, while a literal and pedantic definition of Steampunk might be what you're looking for, I think it'll pay to broaden the definition and see what else comes along next.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever notice that it's really popular to say "Steampunk ignores the negative aspects of the Victorian age," but no one -- including the author of this article -- ever actually points to a specific example of such? In the meantime, I can point to Priest, Mann, Gilman, and a host of others as refutation of the charge! I really, really wonder who all these commenters are reading in order to come away with this notion.

Do your homework, people! This criticism is as tired as it is false.

Sophie Playle said...

Thanks for all your comments.

Hi Holzman,

I'm not pointing fingers. I'm raising questions, based on others who have raised this point. 'CAN such a leap be made, from the appreciation of artistry to the acceptance of out-dated values?' 'PERHAPS...' I'm suggesting that it's a POTENTIAL danger of the genre.

But with the authors you've highlighted, where have they dealt with the issues I suggested? Child labour, slavery, extreme poverty, imperialism, racism... (I'm not accusing, I'm genuinely asking for examples.)

Hi R.S. Bohn,

You say 'The question is, should those elements be there in order to constitute Steampunk? Are they essential?' in reference to the negative aspects of the time. I'm not saying that they should be, I'm just suggested that perhaps because they are not, it has lead to this portrayal.

Don't get me wrong, I adore the aesthetic element of steampunk, and as you suggest, it was definitely one of the things that drew me to the genre.

I think you are right. Steampunk is a relevantly new genre. Though its elements have been around for decades, it is only recently become established as something in its own right. And it is diverse, evolving and expanding.

Dru Pagliassotti wrote a very interesting post in which she suggests there is such as thing as 'steampulp'. Definitely worth a read:

I wish I could find the article (I think it was on The Mad Hatter's site: where someone suggests that steampunk is defined by its readers and is whatever they want it to be. An interesting perspective.

Dan Holzman-Tweed said...

(Published under HolzmanTweed@AIM because holzman@LJ isn't working right now)

The others who raised this point utterly failed to substantiate it, either, and were rightly taken to task for it.

"Where have they dealt with the issues I suggested?"

This is exactly what I'm talking about regarding homework. It is not possible that you can have read any of these authors published works and ask that question.

Poverty, slavery, child labor, and imperialism are central themes in Gilman's Thunderer, Priest's Boneshaker and Dreadnaught, and Mann's The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual, Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone.

Sexism, racism, and classism are even the central themes in Carriger's light-hearted comedy of manners, The Parasol Protectorate trilogy.

And this is just a partial list of novels. The list of Steampunk short stories by authors like Amal el Mohtar, N.K. Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed, and on and on and on is too long to list here.

And that's just fiction. There's James Ng's art. There's Jha Goh's Silver Goggles blog, Diana Pho's Beyond Victoriana, and Miriam Rocek's Shiola.