The Crossroads of the Aether
Here's an interesting post I found on Facebook this morning. Valid or not?
Steampunk is one of those subgenres of sci-fi that’s easy to get into because it has those old world sensibilities combined with just enough grit to make it charming. On the other hand, the best aspects of the genre are mostly underutilized, so it leaves something to be desired. And before you draw your 19th century alt-history airship pirate cutlass on me, just hear me out for a second.
First, I’ll start by saying—the aesthetic? Sexy. Perfect, even. Steampunk is a genre obsessed with design mechanics, blurring the line between tool and decoration, form and function. This is coming from someone who doesn’t even wear jewelry: I have spent evenings ogling steampunk-themed pendants and pocket watches, brainstorming the best ways to wear brass cogs and gleaming scarab beetles. But what more is there, aside from the parasols, zeppelins, and goggles? So far, not much.
I hate to say it, but steampunk has to do better than that. Even the biggest advocates of retrofuturistic fandom don’t necessarily move beyond the awe of the modded analog style. Conventions across the country boast things like “a carnival atmosphere of the old mixed with the charm of the historic,” and the most common theme you might be able to find across the board is that steampunk is about nostalgia, craft, and admiration of ridiculousness. But you might also find that across the board, steampunk tends to produce some of the lamest narratives. Of course, there are a few outstanding works here and there (see Bioshock, and authors like Kenneth Oppel and Scott Westerfield), but one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard about it has to do with its general lack of substance and meaning. And with retrofuturist culture steadily entering the mainstream, it’s not enough for steampunk to simply be a stylistic genre.
If you start by looking at the origins of our excitement for steampunk, you’ll see a lot underneath the surface just waiting for people to dig it up. Steampunk is a romantic genre. It taps into a time when adventure, discovery, and spectacle were all in fashion. It’s often inspired by the Victorian era whose zeitgeist is characterized by crazed optimism and grand ideas: the idea that through rigorous intellectual and spiritual pursuits we too can become perfect, that anything can be categorized, analyzed, pathologized, and that the expansion of western civilization will bring everyone closer to living in model societies.
But modern steampunk narratives are written in times where we know that all those things are silly. We look at the Victorian era now and think, “Aren’t you just the cutest.” In fact, there were a lot of terrible things about Victorian society, and seeing it all in retrospect allows us to look at alt-history through a really awesome critical lens. Though even then, it’s not enough to have us encounter characters that proclaim “Girls can’t build airships!” only to see a spunky female character put on a leather apron and build an airship.
It’s still a young genre, and it’s spent its entire lifetime being good looking. But really, Steampunk needs to be honest about its love affair with itself. It needs to figure out what the past really looks like. Is it ugly? Is it naive? Where did it go right? Where did it go wrong? While cyberpunk examines technology, power, corporatization, and socially-constructed identity, steampunk can pose provocative questions about rigid gender roles, imperialism, and flaws in the worship of science and technology—the discovery of things that ought not to be discovered. In order for steampunk to establish itself as a power player in sci-fi—in order for it to be truly good, it should allow us to love the aesthetic of the past without our necessarily wanting to go there. We can still have our adventures, but like any critical narrative, all that optimism ought to come with a dose of scary realism.
Sounds like the original poster needs to try harder to me. How many cons have they been to? How many other events, Tea in the Park, or Steampunk Train Rides? I don't quite see enough interest to open a permanent theme park similar to a ren-faire, (though I would like to see it), but it certainly has a wide variety of ideas out there. What are they really wanting? It's unclear to me. It's almost like they are saying it's not close enough to REAL history...isn't that the point? By being fantasy, it allows everyone to experience the genre to it's fullest and not limiting participants based on race, gender, social station, etc. or at least working it into their character story and making the most of things. I don't think steampunk NEEDS to do anything but have fun. I don't want to go to a ren-faire and experience plague, torture, filth, and obscene poverty. I go to experience the romanticized version of history that celebrates the fun and entertaining aspects. I feel the same about steampunk. I don't think it needs a dose of "scary realism", just enough to help guide or drive a story line at times. I think we can have plenty of "scary creative fantasy" when required instead.
The funny thing is that I read this and I see several issues I disagree with and several I like. I am going to focus solely though on the subject of the aesthetics.
I am new to steampunk but the genre is not new to me. I have seen the fashion and the accessories make their way more heavily not just into mainstream but into the other fandoms. I know more then one blacksmith who makes things with a steampunk feel to it. But the aesthetic has the issue of being to easily dumbed down or overrun by pointless attachments.
I vere away from gears of any sort. At least exposed. These simple mechanical devices have become a centerpoint for much of the aesthetic. If you look it is nearly impossible to find a reference to steampunk without finding a gear or two. Yet during the age this is most often set we have not just a desire to expand our minds with science but a desire to make everything as beautiful as well as functional. This was not a time when gears or pistons were exposed, for such things require grease and oil. They would be wrapped in a shell that was designed to draw the eye. A pocket watch didn't show it's workings. No it had a case of steel that was etched or engraved with patterns that wrapped around it and drew your eye along till it found the face of the watch.
The gears of any machine would be covered. The workings of these masterpieces kept secret to all but those trained in their ways. From watches, to automobiles, to the steamship. Now we know how all this works because in our age we have all seen the plans or descriptions of every tool. And anything made today can be examined as well. Yet to the Victorian mind it wasn't knowing how the tools worked that excited them, it was knowing that the tools worked to help explain how the world worked.
Alternative history is a wonderful thing. It gives us the freedom to explore the world as they did but with tools merely dreamed of. So why do we not explore the world in this light more then we explore the mechanisms used to do such exploring?
I work damn hard during the week. And I have a long-standing interest in history, so I know what the Victorian Age was really like.
Steampunk is my playspace. While I admire those who feel that they need to be doing something worthwhile with their time ( I blame the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, where any energy not used for productive work is considered to be wasted), I am here to relax and enjoy the fanatsy.
Critical narrative? What is wrong with a smashing good story? These young people today, all so idealists, changing the world and all that.
Must say, I agree.
You know, you are quite right, steampunk must have a big element of fun in it. I don't mean triviality or silliness, but just good old fashioned fun with no pressure and lots of friends around. Life is seriousness enough without dragging glumness and bean counting into the fray.
I do hope noone takes my original post to mean we should be more authentic to the Victorian Age. I mean we should just take a more victorian approach to our devices. Don't just leave the workings hanging out but cover them in some highly decorative way!
Take that ray gun and engrave the brass! ( Cheap dremel engraver at any home improvement warehouse). Gonna make a new leather holster? Grab some embossing tools from tandy and put something fancy on it. Hell paint something fancy if ya want. Let's just make it even prettier.
You really would think so wouldn't you? *Laughs*
But decorating our gear and equipment is not such a bad thing is it?
In immediate response-speaking to the literary critique- the summary posted would seem to reveal a person who has not read very widely into the vast stories encompassing steampunk. Therein is a knotty rub as the inclusive storied surrounds are of much ongoing debate, particularly in the resurgance re-calling "proto-steampunk" tales or many alternate history narratives re-considered as influencing the so-called triumvariate of James P. Blaylock,K.W. Jeter, and Tim Powers. Even in the proposed founding fathers there is much substance behind the mirthful surface, albeit most questionally aligned. Powers, though evasive as to claiming a distinct direction under the re-heralded Steampunk banner has remarked upon the delicate balance in embedding distinct ethical platforms that essentially disrupt or sacrifice a good story. Using the example of C.S. Lewis-who Powers admires- there is warnings of overt moralizing corrupting a writer when they begin to value set beliefs over the probable or possible magic sprung from wondorous paths where the outcome is not always known or set.
Certainly there are those who have underlying motives toward addressing or redressing steampunk, as the presumed authorial instigators did and continue to conduct in its odd coinage and most ironically in such "Victorian Fantasies" being the next big thing; as Jeter jokingly foretold.There is a recurring paradox in attempting to insert appropriate grounds that contain steampunk that is lost on many. Jeter, out of all it is my guess, is having a long laugh at all of this re-justified compositions taken to a higher level or plumbed to a decent depth.
What next ? Will we be asking a butterfly to try harder ?
Do we need to take the world by storm?
Do we want to be taken seriously?
Does the past have to have a set look, considering each writer re-writes it to fit their story? Recently I wanted Ben Franklin to be in my story, but the year was totally wrong, so one of his inventions was a longetivity potion, destroyed once created, so no-one else could copy it. How can that possibly fit into what the past really looks like? I will grab elements of the past that fit, rewrite some to make them fit, and gloss over others because to address them would completely derail the story.
Yes we can create questions, but each person can create their own, because it is a reimagined world. As cyber punk has no set future agreement, steampunk has no set past.
And I have read various stories. Some I cannot finish as they try to give their story too much substance and meaning. Others I enjoy and cannot put down as they are a rollicking adventure, purely ficticious, but yes, it still works, it is still able to seem believable!
And as a last point, I have never felt so good about myself till I started dressing in neo Victorian / steampunk style, I am now more confident, outgoing, and allowing a hidden kookiness to rise. What is wrong with a little self love? (those last two words sound wrong, but you get the idea. yes Zack and Wally, I know I left myself open there....)
Well now James! The Christ did say that one should love one's neighbors as one loves oneself, or something of that nature. :-)
Facebook commentaries on Steampunk are invariably erroneous and inflammatory. Perhaps the author has spent more time "ogling" Steampunk than delighting in its enchantments. Those who choose to view Steampunk through a narrow lens will oft be perplexed by its amaranthine wilderness. They attempt to assuage their discomfort with pseudo-intellectual arguments and/or criticisms.
"It needs to figure out what the past really looks like." An insistence on portraying Steampunk with exact historical accuracy is misguided. Demanding precise boundaries shows either a lack of experience or an interest gone askew.
"In order for steampunk to establish itself as a power player in sci-fi..." This is telling evidence of a flawed ideal. Serious devotees to the genre have never aspired to promote Steampunk as a "power player in sci-fi".
The author is also indecisive. First yearning for Steampunk's concentrated reflection on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Victorian society, and then sprouting a glimmer of understanding by petition. "...it should allow us to love the aesthetic of the past without our necessarily wanting to go there."
If this grand community ever drifts beyond the rainbow, necessitating a "critical narrative", I shall abandon ship.