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Steamed Noodles

It appears to be Bash Steampunk Week. Well, if two prominent SFF writers whacking the genre about the head with its own brass goggles while shouting IGNORANTLY FETISHISING AN AGE OF CODIFIED PRIVILEGE counts as such. Which I think it does.


Now, I haven’t actually read all that much steampunk lit (which I now want to out of perversity, but we’ll get to that). But Philip Pullman can get pretty steampunky. As a kid, I loved Joan Aiken, with her alt-19th Century England and its wolves in the snow. I’m enchanted by Hayao Miyazaki’s strange and grotesque creations. And a lot of my friends – my internet friends, mainly – are really into steampunk, and enjoy sewing their own spats and hanging little Victorian bottles round their necks.   And I think they look great. And I myself do tend to dress slightly 19th Century. What can I say, sometimes putting on a tweed waistcoat and/or a long skirt just sets me up for a long hard day of colonising things and putting orphans in workhouses.

And it gets worse. Twice this year I have dressed as a pirate. Yes, I voluntarily pretended to be a rampaging, violent criminal – whilst ignoring the challenges a female pirate would actually have faced, have I no shame? For another thing, I decided to go to the Last Tuesday Society’s Hallowe’en Ball as an Opium Fairy, (vaguely inspired by the alarming creatures in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). I made a cloak – and really, any time in history where people were wearing cloaks, something shitty was happening somewhere – and I learned how to do my hair like this by watching  this “dress like Marie Antoinette” video on Youtube.

Thus did I heartlessly trivalise the torment of drug addiction and the horrific realities of the French Revolution in one fell swoop.

Catherynne Valente sees steampunk as longing to return to...

A world where fashion covers up all sins, where you don't have to look at brown people if you have enough money to avoid them, and authenticity is defined as looking and acting just exactly like all your friends.

Hmm. I’m not sure about the implication that all fans of steampunk are white, and that people of colour are comprehensively immune to the charms of a nice fobwatch.  In any case, by a logic which makes steampunk aesthetic intrinsically racist because of the dark side of the real-life history,  we have to give up enjoying the aesthetics of every era including the present and any idea we may have of the future – because racism and conformism most certainly did not spring into being in 1837 and nor have they gone away. In fact, wearing clothes at all is really problematic.

I mean, that was a joke, but it IS. Let’s not forget where a hell of a lot of our clothes come from.

Nor that I don’t somewhat get Valente’s point. Time and again over the last few years we’ve seen evidence of depressing racism/sexism/general-erasure-of-the-less-privileged in SFF in general, I’m sure steampunk isn’t any better. I just doubt it’s any worse.

And yes, any kind of uninformed enthusiasm can be tiresome. I once saw a post on fandom!secrets in which the anonymous poster was swooning over the costumes of The Young Victoria and lamenting that s/he had to live in an age as uncouth and unattractive as the early 21st century. That was historically daft to the point of offensiveness.  Meanwhile, I have waistcoats and long skirts, but I don’t have a corset. I can’t see a girl in a corset without it pinging part of my brain that says “do you know that once upon a time, you might have been expected to wear that laced so tight it deformed your organs, and getting rid of the things was quite a long, difficult struggle?”

But on the other hand, yes, they quite likely do know that, and it’s just a garment, that does not, at the present time, deform anyone’s organs, and it likely looks very pretty, and isn’t there something joyous about taking something that used to imprison women, making it not do that and rocking the fuck out of it at 2am on a Saturday night?

Even Charlie Stross admits he can’t find anything “intrinsically wrong” with the clothes, before saying:

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).

Now, steady on a bit. I’m all for not looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. But swastikas? Yes, the 19th Century means the British Empire which means atrocities which are, yes, comparable with those committed under the Third Reich. But we’re talking about most of an incredibly complicated century of politics, culture, art, science and social campaigning, we’re talking about Dickens, Darwin, the Brontes, Mary Seacole, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Thomas Stead, Mrs Gaskell, Josephine Butler... You’re ready to equate all those people with the Nazis?  

Well, maybe I’m getting too hung up on the clothes. I’m not going to get into it on Stross’s complaints of bad science in the sci-fi, because Cheryl Priest has already, awesomely, got that covered. Let’s look at  Stross’s other reminders of the ghastliness of the Victorian era.

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.

Bigotry, discrimination, an overpowered aristocracy, crappy rights for women – check, check, check, check. All true. Although there was also very important work being done on all those counts which should not be forgotten.  “Just climbed out of the age of witch-burning?” Well, the last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1682. And Queen Victoria reigned 1837-1901. The Victorians were thus a minimum of 155 and a maximum of 219 years away from witch-burning. If that counts as “only just” climbing out of it, then I’m not sure another 100-ish years can have helped all that much, and we might as well say we’ve STILL only just climbed out of witch-burning. On a long view, it’s perfectly true.

And priest-ridden? Not really. I was about to say “sure it was a more pious age,” but I’m not sure that’s actually true. In 19th Century Britain, church-attendance was plummeting, the term “agnostic” was being coined, Matthew Arnold was writing “Dover Beach”, Darwin was writing Origin of the Species... and yes, there was a religiously-motivated, anti-scientific backlash against those things. Which seems to be still going on.  But my point is that the doubt, the questioning, the curiosity, the spirit of exploration, the sense of possibility are every bit as Victorian as the blind faith and the prejudice, and those are quite legitimately attractive to any geek.

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" – Stross.

Well, except for how it can also be a synonym for “inherited figurehead with little or no real power” if you had a constitutional monarchy, as Britain did and... uh... still does.  Which wouldn’t matter if we weren’t mainly talking about Britain, but it seems we are. Not to defend the monarchy either then or now, but it seems really odd to use the meaning of the word “king” as ammunition against the Victorians when by definition they didn’t have a king, and having a monarchy was nowhere near the worst or most important thing about them.

Valente also complains about “geek culture want[ing] desperately to side with the British aristocracy.” Really?  The steampunky stuff I have read didn’t seem to cast the aristocrats as the good guys very often. The fashion seems to me to be mostly riffing off the clothes of the middle class, artists and “bohemians” generally, and prostitutes. This was, after all, the age of the emergence of a large middle class. Which naturally, still sucked for the huge number of people who weren’t in it, but we are looking back to a time when more people had access to literacy, ideas and politics than ever before.

And I still wouldn’t go back there for all the tea in the plantations of Darjeeling. But an interest in some era of the past doesn’t mean you think it was utopia (even if you might like to go shopping there) Quite the opposite.  A handy supply of villains and unfair dangers and injustices can be part of the appeal. One of the weirdest questions I ever get asked about my books is “Would you like to live in your Modern Roman Empire?*” You know. The world filled with crucifixion and slavery in which even the privileged can easily find their rights being pulled out from underneath them at a moment’s notice. ... thanks, I’ll stay here.

I did want to write about it, though. And yeah, I did occasionally want to have my hair up in a vaguely Roman way while I did it.

Ultimately, the objections seem to come down to this:

They've created the 24 hour steampunk news cycle, and it's killing whatever grassroots awesomeness the movement ever had—Valente.

It's just that there's too damn much of it about right now... it's over-blown –Stross.

Look, when your real objection to something is that it's trendy my advice is just to grit your teeth, let people have their fun and wait, and...

 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 --Stross.

Hang on. “Good authors who should know better.”  What the hell does this mean? If  they’re good then presumably they write good books. So... the problem we have here is good writers, writing good books, in a successful genre.

...those bastards.

I’m very willing to believe there’s a lot of crap out there, because there always is.  But both Valente and Stross admit there’s some good steampunk too, which doesn’t count for some reason because, er, look over there, it’s another bloody zeppelin!  But “discounting the good stuff, it’s all crap” is true not only of every genre, but of literature in its entirety, every form of art and all of human life on this planet.  I’m not seeing a reason why this is more than usually true of steampunk, or why “discounting all the good stuff because it’s the exception and doesn’t count” is for some reason a more valid thing to do here than elsewhere.

Finally, I think authors bitching about the success of trends that don’t include them and genres they themselves do not write for, just looks bad. It looks mean-spirited and sour-grapesy.  I admit, I got close to it the other week. I’d just been told by my one actual agent and my other potential agent (for a different project) “Nothing’s selling except  American-written Paranormal YA romance”  and ... clearly this isn’t what I wanted to hear. It did not put me in a good mood.  But you know, begrudging  the writers and readers of paranormal romance their pleasure is not the answer. What’s really happening is not that paranormal romance is unfairly swamping other things, it’s that it’s a desert out there and the zombies and vampires and people in monocles are  – for the moment – among the few managing to hold out against the sandstorm. They’re getting people into bookshops. Good on them.

...Kind of.

And yes, at this point I feel I would happily never encounter a fictional vampire ever again, but, BUT,  that doesn’t change the fact that vampires are a wonderfully adaptable receptacle for metaphor: they can be about disease, addiction, parasitism, prejudice, alienation, mortality,  etc. Just because I’m sick of them doesn’t make them a bad subject.  Also, as I’m not reading the stuff, I have no idea what good stuff I’m missing, but I bet there is some. The fact it’s Twilight that led the charge doesn’t mean it’s all sparkly abusers and the freesia-scented wet rags that love them out there.

It can’t be.

Trends happen. They get more people into bookshops. It is entirely possible that this will not lead to them buying your book, or the kind of book you like, but they might and they’re better than no one buying books. Trends also pass. Your favourite thing may be next. In the meantime, they are fun for the participants, you can always try reading and writing more of the stuff you like. Because however energetic the trend, I guarantee there is something you want to read out there.

 So, basically, I’m feeling contrary: sling me steampunk recs. I need some new books. Maybe even some vampire books, what the hey. Not steampunk vampires, though, that’s further than I’m prepared to go.


*Not the weirdest. The weirdest was “Will you please put on this Christmas Hat?” in a menacing Dutch accent.




Nov. 7th, 2010 12:24 am (UTC)
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<i><Where, John, do you see rage in anything I've written?</i>

Not necessarily here; this argument's been bouncing all over the net the last week. If this were rage here, I wouldn't be responding. Arguing on the internet, and all that. Not good.

<i>If you can't bear to name a single book or author, then fine, don't, but "I read this one book set in 1889 where a black lesbian Catholic became Queen of England and nothing was said about how this was possible..." is that so hard?</i>

No, it's not, but unless there's a lot of books where that's the case, you might as well name it. I'm not saying that it's better to tar everyone in the hopes of not making any one person feel picked on. I was merely suggesting that that may have been the reason for it, rather than anything more cowardly and/or malicious. That's all.

<i>If, on the other hand, you haven't read enough, or can't remember what annoyed you beyond a "vague impression" then by definition you don't know what you're talking about.</i>

Perish the thought that someone who's read several books and enjoys the art but not kept copious references to hand should a vast debate break out on the internet have an opinion. Particularly when what I was mostly suggesting was that the two authors' original arguments seemed largely to consist of "most of the stuff we've read/seen/whatever [whatever it was] is badly written" and therefore I couldn't see a major issue with that as an argument per se, not that I was of this opinion myself.

And still assuming you mean me, annoyed? Yes, I think someone who believes (for instance; this is not the specific thing I remember, but merely an illustration of the difference between SP science fiction and reality - I'd love to use the people I remember, but while the exhibition in question was at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science and while there are a couple of clips on the BBC website, neither of them are the 'interview with visitors' one) that just because someone can build <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/altertheearth/4794542359/in/pool-1493677@N22/">a piece of steampunk sculpture</a> whose description says...

- "Portable cartridges power The Regulator. The steam pressure flows through the central passage into the resonating dome in the rear of the weapon. The energy is then channeled down a central tube through the topaz chamber and is then focused through the crystal at the muzzle of the weapon." -

... means that these things are achievable, or indeed, make any sense if a fucking idiot. Or you could say, "Talk about the luminiferous aether all you like, there's no such thing". Or, "Steam really isn't that good a power source for most applications; thermodynamics generally isn't its friend. Hence electric trains."

For the artist who created the Regulator (and a string of other weapon sculptures) and for most fans, it's part of the fiction, it's Science! and it's all cool. But there's a tiny crank fringe - just as there's a crank fringe as you say in a lot of fandoms - who actually believe these things could work because they want to believe life is more magical than it is. Those guys take it too seriously, just as, like you say, the people who believe they're reincarnated blue aliens. I loved the idea of having a Victoriana PC case and all the trimmings, not that I could afford $1,000 for a solid metal typewriter-style keyboard, but I'd never fool myself into thinking that the brass pipework on the outside was there for any purpose other than the look of the thing, or that the whole thing wasn't actually running on the exact same modern day electronics as every other computer.

<i>But most importantly, handing out "passes" means the whole argument doesn't work.</i>

Maybe my terminology was poor, but that's totally wrong. If your argument is "not enough books in genre Y cover X", then any book in Y that does cover X would by definition get a pass. It's one of the successful few. Hooray! If the argument was "none of them do!" then, yes, that'd be ridiculous to claim exceptions. But then that wasn't Stross's argument (which is summed up, way down in the comments on that post: he doesn't think that the current crop of steampunk in general contains not enough punk).

(... cont...)
Nov. 7th, 2010 12:26 am (UTC)
(well bumholes; LJ doesn't like html. :( Pooo.)

I'm not sure a man who attacks the Victorians by talking about kings, witch-burnings, priests, ancient Egyptians and Nazis is on that firm ground when he complains others don't know their history.

Is it historically wrong to say that the era and individuals within it sowed the seeds (Stross's point, not that they were around then) for the eventual rise of the totalitarian ideologies of the early 20th Century? Marx, Nietzsche, Galton's eugenics, etc.? Rule by royalty not popular in an era named for a monarch and in which large swathes of old Europe were run by such? The Egyptians I missed, despite seeing the first serious cracks in their role as arbiters of public morality and respectability, religious institutions and religious individuals were still very influential and respected, and the witch-burning reference was hyperbole.

Way of life... well, so what? Goths, rockers, hippies, and I'd argue sci-fi geeks ... also ways of life as well as hobbies, all potentially a bit annoying, all associated with some perfectly good art.

I never disagreed. In fact, I said the same thing myself. Although I don't know if CSI counts as "art"...

* If he wasn't actually convinced he WAS a 19th C inventor, I don't think a man who's particularly devoted to his hobby is quite on the level of a man who believes he's a vampire.

Nor I. But a man who believes that people can see in the dark through aetheric harmonics or genuinely shoot someone with bullets fired from a gun relying on acid mixing with water (from which, at best, you'd get a puff of steam) for its propellant pretty much is. They're both believing in magic; exactly how magical a thing needs to be to happen seems kind of irrelevant, if it's off in fairyland either way.

And I guess I do feel enough people over the years have said "fuck sci-fi" and variations thereof, in just this "I am so superior" way, that a pair of sci-fi/fantasy writers should know better.

Is that what they said? Stross starts by saying he doesn't dislike SP and citing books and authors (mostly old classics from the 80s, but hey) that he's liked in the past. He just says: too much of it, too much not very good, why does no one much seem to do the whole "grimy Victorian colonial unpleasantness" thing like I want them to? Valente's a lot harsher, but even she says it's not total, that there are exceptions that she has, presumably, read and enjoyed. Her main beef seems to be that in her opinion there's too much that's the same and that no one's pushing the boundaries or doing anything really great, in her opinion, yet. That SP is running on its potential to produce something (IHO) genuinely awesome.

(And yes, she's overblown but her "... in hell" line you mention isn't that "I'm surrounded by steampunk writers - this is hell, what horrible people" but that: "every reader but me read from their "upcoming steampunk zombie novel" in excited tones as though they were the only one doing it. I felt like I was actually in hell, where everyone was writing the same book but no one was aware of it." Which is, again, overblown, but very different.)

Valente's is much more of a broad attack on the genre, but it still boils down to "I wish people wrote better books". (Or, if you prefer, "I wish people wrote more books I like".) Grumpy and curmudgeonly as it may be, as woefully lacking in sources or citations or even as wildly incorrect as it may be, I struggle to see the nature of the argument itself as a terribly big a deal, and certainly not the favourite-puppy-kicking that some people on the wide world of the internet have taken it as. Sturgeon's Law in everything, and all that.
Nov. 7th, 2010 12:28 am (UTC)
*"... in general contains enough punk". Damn my tired eyeballs!
Nov. 7th, 2010 08:27 am (UTC)

* I didn't mean you in the first place. I meant Stross and Valente, as in the paragraph before.

* I'm not "some people on the wide world of the net" and can't answer for them. This is my argument, here.

* That said, S & V did a LOT more than grumble comfortably about Steampunk being overplayed. Saying it "boils down to" wishing people wrote that doesn't change the fact that they accused the steampunk writers and their fans a like of bottomless ignorance and racism and being sad, depressing and horrible. Valente said "Nothing good will come out of it." Is it really surprising if people who like the odd necklace made with gears and cogs a feel a tad upset?

*However, MY experience of "some people on the wide world of the net," is more of seeing readers/writers snark and mock. But I didn't go looking for such things until after I posted this (only the day after Valente's post, after all.)

* Complaining that people "aren't writing enough of X" is balls anyway, as the obvious answer is, well then write it yourself. Or the second obvious answer is "here is something that does exactly what you complain is missing. And if you keep saying "ah but that doesn't count" or handing out "passes", then any kind of identifiable point slips further and further away. Exactly how much good stuff has to exist before you can stop discounting it and say the genre is a genre, fulll of good and bad, like any other?

* Sturgeon's Law is EXACTLY THE POINT and is what Valente and Stross are ignoring, ironically since the law was created for sci-fi.

* You can't do html on LJ as an anon commenter, only when you're logged in.

* I made a flow-chart. http://sophiamcdougall.livejournal.com/8718.html
Nov. 7th, 2010 09:50 am (UTC)
* I didn't mean you in the first place. I meant Stross and Valente, as in the paragraph before.

My error then. Though I don't think either of them mentioned "vague impressions" - that was me.

* I'm not "some people on the wide world of the net" and can't answer for them. This is my argument, here.

Never for a moment thought otherwise.

... they accused the steampunk writers and their fans a like of bottomless ignorance and racism and being sad, depressing and horrible...

Where? Where did they do this? Stross says he doesn't think people should ignore the unpleasantness of a lot of Victorian attitudes when they write stuff riffing off it, like wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt while ignoring the reality of what he did and was involved in, instead of glorifying the old days of empires. Valente says she's depressed by what she sees as endless production of the same old stuff and that people continue to lap it up. She says she loves the people on the cultural side. Neither of them call writers/readers horrible, sad or racist.

All both of them do - and make it clearer in their responses to comments, which IIRC include acknowledgements of Sturgeon's Law from each, since it's that not that they're ignoring, but that Valente in particular is largely restating - is say that "Adventures! With gears! Look at the toys!" is being used as a device to breeze over a lot of poor writing in something that can be genuinely interesting that so happens to be in the grip of something of a craze at the moment. Valente herself says all crazes create bad end products, and I'd agree with that as a tendency as it's applied to other writing crazes in the past.

Exactly how much good stuff has to exist before you can stop discounting it and say the genre is a genre, fulll of good and bad, like any other?

Well there we are. That's the argument of the two authors, not mine, since I don't have one as such. And other people would only end up disagreeing in the end anyway.

* You can't do html on LJ as an anon commenter, only when you're logged in.

Nah, it was just because my idiot fingers cocked up the first italic tag and gave it an extra "<" at the end. Confused the system. :(

* I made a flow-chart.

Yeah, I saw. Gave me a chuckle. :)
Nov. 7th, 2010 10:06 am (UTC)
Yes, but you seemed to be saying that if Valente and Stross couldn't pinpoint exactly what they were referring to, it might be because, like you, they were working off a "vague impression".

Where? Where did they do this?

Uh, Valente said it was about longing for a world where "you don't have to look at brown people" and Stross said it was like wearing a SWASTIKA.

If they didn't mean it that way, they sure as hell left room for confusion.

Nov. 7th, 2010 10:44 am (UTC)
No, that wasn't what I meant. I meant they may or may not have had time to chase up links or what have you, but I was (theoretically working) in a coffee shop in the early hours and couldn't. That was all. :)

Valente was comparing the mass production of steampunk titles to the real Victorian era. You added the part about readers/writers longing for it. The assumption I made when I read it - and I could easily be wrong, of course; my direct experience isn't too broad - is that most steampunk fiction concentrates on the actions of white Europeans in Europe and glosses over everything else. (Though - if it were the case - the same's true for so many other genres.)

In the end, maybe steampunk is giving us the 19th century in some subtle way. A glut of cheap, mass-produced products that are identical and bland instead of cottage-made and rough-edged, forged by underpaid workers who must smile and pretend everything is perfect when the foreman comes to visit. A world where fashion covers up all sins, where you don't have to look at brown people if you have enough money to avoid them, and authenticity is defined as looking and acting just exactly like all your friends.

Not: "You're all longing to pretend brown people don't exist". She's talking about the books here.

Stross, as I said, was comparing adopting the fashion without checking the origin. (Quite what swastika fashion he was talking about I don't know, unless it's the Marilyn Manson-esque neo-30s fascist gothic thing, but there we go. I've never seen anyone saying, "Hey, burqas are cool!" either. Che's the only really obvious one he cites.)

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).

Not: "anyone writing steampunk might as well grow a Hitler 'tache and go goosestepping around the living room". The context's not ignoring the social realities of the thing on which you're doing is based; I wouldn't have mentioned swastikas myself for fear of veering towards Godwin, but hey.

It seemed clear to me, anyway. But then I could be wrong 'n all. :)
Nov. 7th, 2010 11:54 am (UTC)
She's saying "the 19th C was all that, now Steampunk is maybe giving us that back" ... I just don't see how to read that without it meaning that the steampunkers, at the very least, feel more comfortable in a world where you don't have to ... etc.

The Che thing, I could maybe see Stross having a point, and it reminds me of what I said above about feeling somewhat uncomfortable about corsets. Although as I also said, I think such elements of a rational argument in that feeling are pretty easily countered. But if he'd left it there, okay. (I'd still have things to say about his BREAKING NEWS! THE 19TH CENTURY HAD SOME BAD STUFF IN IT! revelations) But with swastikas, damn right he Godwin'd, and some push-back is both inevitable and appropriate.