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-les
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.
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.
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.