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Charlie Stross: "Die, Steampunk! Die!"

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message 1: by Sean (last edited Oct 28, 2010 11:39AM) (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2347 comments Charlie Stross has quite a vitriolic takedown on the Steampunk movement over on his blog.

I am becoming annoyed by the current glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of Tor.com and io9.

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.)

We've been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it's poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it's on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it's over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon. (Take it from one whose first novel got the 'S'-word pinned on it — singularity — back when that was hot: if you're lucky, your career will last long enough that you live to regret it.) Harumph, young folks today, get off my lawn ....

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).

Contemplating the numerous errors of the zombies'n'zeppelins fad in SF makes me twitch, for reasons that parallel China Mieville's denunciation of The Lord of the Rings (except that I have the attention span of a weasel on crack and am besides too lazy to anatomize the errors of a generation at length in such an essay: personally, I blame the internet). The romanticization of totalitarianism is nothing new (and if you don't recognize the totalitarian urge embedded in the steampunk nostalgia trip, I should like to remind you that "king" is a synonym for "hereditary dictator" and direct you to the merciless skewing Michael Moorcock delivered to imperial hagiography in his Oswald Bastable books). Nevertheless, an affection for the ancien regime is an unconsidered aspect of the background of most steampunk fiction: much like the interstellar autocracies so common in space opera (and again, let me cite Michael Moorcock on Starship Stormtroopers). The Science! in steampunk (which purports to be science fiction, of a kind ... doesn't it?) is questionable at best (Cherie Priest, I'm looking at your gas-induced zombies) and frequently flimsier than even the worst junk that space opera borrows from the props department, because, as it happens, the taproots of steampunk lie prior to the vast expansion in the scientific enterprise that has come to dominate our era. But that's just about forgivable, inasmuch as much modern SF doesn't even like to pretend that sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship, and not a metaphor. That leaves the aesthetic ... which I can't find anything intrinsically wrong with, as long as steampunk is nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown. Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world).

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.


I more or less agree. The best steampunk -- The Difference Engine, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, and Terminal World -- are set in pretty crappy worlds, full of grime and poor quality of life. Yeah, the dirigibles are cool, but otherwise you wouldn't want to live there -- especially if your skin is darker than notebook paper.


message 2: by Tashfeen (new)

Tashfeen (tbhimdi) | 28 comments ...I think I kind of agree, but then again, unlike Stross, I have yet to find anything Steampunk that I loved. I'll keep trying, but I think my chances are decreasing.


message 3: by Stan (new)

Stan Slaughter | 359 comments I want to like Steampunk - I really really do. All the components that I like are there.

BUT - for some reason it all just falls flat to me.

P.S.

Where is this flood he talks about - I only remember seeing about half a dozen steam punk books come out in the last 6 months.

A *lot* more books come out in the genera that Stross plays in (Alternative World/Multiverse)


message 4: by Louise (new)

Louise | 5 comments After a month of reading nothing but steampunk, I can see some valid points in what he says. A lot of the newer books are derivative of what previous authors wrote. Some of them are entertaining derivatives, others are just plain rip-offs.

My favorite quote from his post:

That leaves the aesthetic ... which I can't find anything intrinsically wrong with, as long as steampunk is nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown. Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world)


message 5: by Lekeshua (new)

Lekeshua | 14 comments @ Louise, that is also my favorite quote. I haven't read any steampunk lately but when reading the blurbs they all do seem very similar. But new trends of any kind are subject to duplication/ rip-offs so I'm not surprised.


message 6: by Sandi (new)

Sandi (Sandikal) | 1212 comments This is my favorite quote:

We've been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it's poised on the edge of over-exposure.


message 7: by Scruffypoet (new)

Scruffypoet | 4 comments I usually agree with Stross, but I'd like to see Steampunk have its moment, considering the alternatives are sentimental vampire fiction and Island in the Sea of Time rip offs.


message 8: by Tamahome (new)

Tamahome | 5184 comments Yeah, but has anyone really copied the sparkly vampires?


message 9: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2347 comments My favorite part: "I am becoming annoyed by the current glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of Tor.com and io9." Thank ghu I'm not the only one who's finding io9 tiresome. Too often they feel like a hype machine for major publishers, pimping the same stuff that shows up on the front page of Audible and the iTunes audiobook store.


message 10: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2347 comments Tamahome wrote: "Yeah, but has anyone really copied the sparkly vampires?"

Sparkly, not that I know of. But I certainly know what he means by "fang fuckers" -- all those books with covers depicting a woman dressed up to go clubbing, with a tribal tattoo on her back, yet holding some sort of weapon as though she can fight demons in stiletto heels.


message 11: by Brett (new)

Brett McNew | 35 comments Not a Steampunk reader, I've only read Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, which didn't strike me a 'pure steampunk' but it had zeppelins and that seems to be the main criteria for steampunk. And he called her out for 'flimsy science', so maybe I'm not qualified to speak on the matter.

But, I'm afraid, I'm missing the point to the rant. Is he upset because steampunk books are using the same base model for their stories? Of course they are, it's an entertainment business. Books, television shows, movies, magazines, websites almost always jump on the hot trends, and grind them into the ground, till the find the next trend. That is why every movie is in 3D currently, and every book has zombies.

But while a different take on steampunk would be great, I don't want all those stories amazing gritty and bleak,so when your finished your depressed as if you watched: Road to Perdition, Seven, and the Road with no hug breaks.


message 12: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2347 comments Brett wrote: "But, I'm afraid, I'm missing the point to the rant. Is he upset because steampunk books are using the same base model for their stories? Of course they are, it's an entertainment business. Books, television shows, movies, magazines, websites almost always jump on the hot trends, and grind them into the ground, till the find the next trend..."

He's complaining that (1) the genre has reached a saturation point where every hack writer is trying to cash in, and (2) since most hacks are ignorant of history, the books end up glorifying an era that does not deserve glorification -- the era of "Chinese" Gordon, the Congo Free State, and Cape-to-Cairo. Nisi Shawl recently suggested that the genre should more properly be termed "cotton-gin punk" since that would conjure more accurate imagery.


message 13: by Stan (new)

Stan Slaughter | 359 comments @Sean

(1) Stross is not a hack, but he writes in a saturated genera himself.

(2) By that logic then no era should be glorified. Horrible stuff happens to innocent people through all of history.


message 14: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Oct 31, 2010 04:10PM) (new)

Jlawrence | 950 comments Mod
I wonder if the S&L pick The Windup Girl would be classified steampunk. It's certainly steampunk technology-wise (there's even zeppelins!), though it's set in a thoroughly dystopian future instead of a glorified, if alternate, past.

How much a tale set in an alternate history should reflect the injustices of that actual historical era is an interesting question. The only other semi-steampunkish thing I've read is Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1. It is indeed a fun, pulpy romp, but driven more by a 'wouldn't it be great to throw all these fictional Victorian characters together' feel than a 'isn't the Victorian era great!' feel. Alan Moore certainly showed the ugly injustices of the Victorian era *very* thoroughly in From Hell.

Hm, this reminds me that I've been wanting to read some Jules Verne. The original steampunk?


message 15: by Paul (new)

Paul (PaulCavanaugh) | 51 comments I wonder, doesn't most fiction prescind from the horror and terror of daily life? I mean, the world is full of wonder and wonderful things; but as several have mentioned above, the Victorian age is not the only one with massive suffering and deprivation and cruelty. I think some of the impetus for the deconstructionists (who are often complete wankers, imho) was that what fiction didn't tell as was as important as what it did tell. Heck, one of my favorite books, LOTR, describes battles in the most anemic way possible. (See Keegan's The Face of Battle for better descriptions about the joys of sword/armor/arrow,blood, etc.).

I'd add to Sean's list of not-so-bad steampunk Perdido Street Station. China Miéville's world becomes more and more horrific as the book goes on. A beautifully drawn world -- which definitely incorporates physical elements of the steampunk genre -- but one which I do not care to visit. But Jlawrence raises a fine point: how much should a work of fiction reflect its milieu? How much should/ought/might fiction abstract from the world and yet remain good fiction and not devolve into a hack job complete with sparkly vampires. Or lovable, sparkly zombies (hey, why no books about sparkly, cuddly, zombies?).

I think Stross is right -- most of those writers are using a borrowed aesthetic. And Sean is right, too about the ahistoricity of their world vision. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, is it? I really like Stross (and, duh, managed to be busy enough not to look for his blog -- thanks, Sean for the link), but even though I happily purchase each one of his books, I also notice that his "contemporary/realist" fictions do not examine overmuch the world surrounding the Laundry (e.g.,Jennifer Morgue) -- he does not write much about the trials of life as an immigrant in England (the setting for the series). Of course not -- he wants to write about the dangers of demons and the nameless ones coming to destroy the earth! Not much different from Cherie Priest, is it?

Anyway, pre-election evening, afterwork martini #1: I think the normal steampunk reader is making a conscious choice to not read Dickens. Just as I do 80% of the time. Well, 40%??


message 16: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2347 comments Stan wrote: "(2) By that logic then no era should be glorified. Horrible stuff happens to innocent people through all of history."

I'll agree with that. I'm not saying every book should go into full-on James Ellroy mode, but a story set in the 1950s should be closer to Stephen King's It than Leave It To Beaver.


message 17: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Draganov (DarthSparhawk) I am quite amused by this rant as I can really fail to see the point, except the fact that the author is obviously leaning left in his political convictions. So do I, by the way, but I am not against faerie tales with kings and queens and BTW what Marx wrote had much fouler consequences.


message 18: by Patrick (new)

Patrick (HalfAdd3r) I wonder what Mr. Doctorow thinks about this. They are working together right now on a collection, and I think he's rather taken with SP


message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Darth wrote: "I am quite amused by this rant as I can really fail to see the point, except the fact that the author is obviously leaning left in his political convictions. So do I, by the way, but I am not again..."

I have to agree. Expecting steampunk to not only be historically correct, but to include protests about the wrongs of colonial Europe is just expecting too much.

Though I guess communist vampires or a zombie labor strike could be interesting.


message 20: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Draganov (DarthSparhawk) Haha, in "Winner Takes All" by Simon R. Green one firm took zombie workers instead of increasing the salary of the real ones :D


message 21: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2347 comments Darth wrote: "I am quite amused by this rant as I can really fail to see the point, except the fact that the author is obviously leaning left in his political convictions..."

I don't recall Stross's exact political affiliation, but he comes from the same circle of Scottish writers as China Mieville and Ken MacLeod who are both one-time Trotskyites. But I don't think that's relevant except maybe for his complaints about the portrayal of industrialization. I'm in no way left-leaning, but I think it's valid to say, "Hey, in the real world, all the cool Victorian stuff that steampunk's celebrating was built on the back of vast colonial empires, and all the people who read sci-fi who come from countries that were oppressed might like some acknowledgement of this instead of reiterating the ol' Hail Britannia sludge."

I mean, The War of the Worlds is all about colonialism -- the whole premise is "What if Martians came to Earth and acted like a bunch of Belgians" -- so I don't think it's too much to expect people inspired by Wells to address such issues.


message 22: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Draganov (DarthSparhawk) If he is a Trotkyst, I have even less respect to his opinion, as the ideas of Trttsky leave me cold. About steampunk and the real Victorian era. Steampunk is kind of fantasy and like in fantasy it creates a romantic world and not the real one. Besides, I am not sure that ALL steampunk is praising the "good ol'times". For example, in "Clockwork Angel", which is a romantic Young Adult novel, set in the Victorian era, one of the characters definetly represents the evil of the times and he is a greedy, ambitious drug dealer who feels despise for human rights. You also have to keep in mind, when dealing with the evils of the Victorian era, that the times back in these centuries were pretty harsh for humanity in general. My country was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and when it deal with a rebellion here, it was bloody - so bloody that the "evil Victorian Empire" was appaled, at least some intelectuals and politicians there.
So this attack on steampunk is just a rant for me and from what you told me, it comes from a man who followed a monster.


message 23: by Tamahome (new)

Tamahome | 5184 comments There goes Charlie Stross ragging on steampunk again. That's a cool looking cover though.

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-...


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