Thursday, 31 May 2012

Musings on the Steampunk genre, and its Detractors

As the Charles Stross antipope pieces ( Steampunk have reared their ugly heads again in various places across the internet, largely sending Steampunks into fits of disgust or boredom, I thought I’d try to throw some light on possible reasons why and try to get to the bottom of the reaction that Stross and various other writers have to the Steampunk genre (which is what they’re responding to, I’d imagine that most of them haven’t even heard of the subculture or have no opinion on it one way or another).

The first issue seems to be one of classification, Steampunk is certainly fantastic fiction but it differs from its parent, Cyberpunk, in that whilst that genre is a certainly a form of science fiction (albeit one that resembles noir crime fiction spliced with advanced technology in a dystopian tomorrow), Steampunk isn’t; in fact in many ways it can’t be. It isn’t hard SF because the technology it details is so fantastical or anachronistic that the question of how “true” it is to science simply doesn’t apply.  At the same time it isn't soft SF because there’s never seems to be any real attempt to explore how the technology affects the world around it. 

 Rather, like High Fantasy, the genre normally uses technology as a trope, to mesh things together, like dragons and castles (quite why anyone would build a castle when the enemy might have the capacity to fly is beyond me but it’s a standard Fantasy trope that says “accept me and move on, or you’re stopping your enjoyment of the story”).  The same seems to be true of steampunk, we have to accept that the impossible, wonderful technology exists, works and then has very little effect on domestic society and move on.

In the case of Steampunk fiction it’s impossible to write it in a soft SF fashion because if technology is allowed to change society, say automata take over the dangerous tasks at a factory or mine, or airship travel becomes cheap enough for almost anyone to use it, then it begins to undermine the very Victorian society the setting relies upon. This is obviously more of a problem for world building than it is for the actual telling of the story, but it does demonstrate a problem: Steampunk relies on technology as its defining aspect, but it’s necessary to keep access to the technology limited or unique or you risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs because your world will move away from the status quo of history to being something else. Part of the fun, and frustration, is trying to think of domestic technology that won’t completely upset the applecart. Despite this the genre is incredibly flexible, provided the stove pipe hats, bustles and all the rest of it are maintained.

Another facet of this is that the genre has changed over the years. Back at the beginning, at the end of Seventies the genre was far harsher, more in line with Cyberpunk’s ethos (in fact it could be argued that at that time it was Cyberpunk, only set in the Victorian period). Over time the genre has changed; to an extent it’s mellowed and, as the subculture has grown up, the fiction has adapted to become more celebratory. It’s picked up aspects of outside genres, urban fantasy in particular, which whilst that’s no bad thing means that Steampunk is much more of a hybrid beast than it was back in the early days. Another thing to consider is that genre has become extremely popular, something which always means that publishers push more books out. One of the points that Stross makes is that these waves of books will inevitably affect the quality and vision of the fiction published, something that’s hard to disagree with.

Turning to politics, it’s important to remember that Stross, and a lot of other detractors, are left wing, and that Socialism, Communism and other aspects of progressive politics (which means anything other than Conservatism – which was a very different beast to what passes for it today, having largely adopted classic liberalism's clothes) grew up in opposition to the ideas that were touted as great during the 19th Century. The philosophies that Marx, Engels and others created were opposed to Empire and its abuses (and no matter what the history taught in school tells us there were abuses:, the appalling working conditions many people suffered and the demonisation of the poor, the treatment of women and the mad etc, etc ad infinitum, which are matters of public record. This obviously overlooks a great deal of the good things, the technological developments and social changes that came about as a result of urbanisation (which arguably paved the way to the formation the Labour party and the changes that came about in the early 20th Century… like universal suffrage), just as it seems the enthusiasts are ignoring the dark side of the period, which is probably accounts for the relatively small numbers of urchins and chimney sweeps in the community. Given this context perhaps it’s more understandable why there are raised eyebrows from leftwing authors to the vast wave of Steampunk fiction we’re seeing produced.

Of course the problem that arises from the detractors' position is that if, as I believe, Steampunk is fantasy, albeit of an industrial nature, it has about much bearing on reality as superheroes do on law and order strategies around the world and there's about as much in getting into a hissy fit about it as there is superhero physics.  The genre's advantage is that it's incredibly flexible as long as it doesn't egregiously break its Zeitgeist, and I feel that that is the only rule that governs the subgenre.

Perhaps Jonathan Green, the author of the Pax Britannia series is the most accurate when he describes Steampunk as science fantasy, but I have a feeling that this a debate that will rumble on and on.