The Steampunk Empire

The Crossroads of the Aether

     Has steampunk reached the end of its shelf life? It has certainly reached the mainstream and the conventional wisdom of any sub-culture is that, once that has happened, the sub-culture is doomed.

     "I was a steampunk before it was cool."

     But even though I dress up and go to cons, my interest is not so much in the sub-culture. It is the sub-genra of science fiction literature that interests me and, in that respect, I don't think it has hit its proper stride quite yet. There are a lot of good works out there and a lot of good authors but, it seems to me that steampunk still has a lot to say. It hasn't exhausted its usefulness as a commentary on the modern social condition.

     Stempunk seems to be in a transition zone right now. The first part was before anyone knew it was a sub-genre of science fiction. Such as in the 70s when Harry Harrison published "A Transatlantric Tunnel, Hurrah" and Manly Wade Wellman mashed up Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells in "Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds". Then there was the period of time around K. W. Jeter's defining of steampunk as a genre. Seminal, defining works such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's "The Difference Engine". Now, I think we are in that middle ground where we have a few sophisticated authors that "get it" such as Gail Carriger and Scott Westerfeld but we also have a lot of authors who just "slap some gears on it."

     I think the next stage is for more quality authors to get in on the program and for the rest of the world to begin to notice that. So far, the mainstream has really only noticed the costume aesthetic. I look on this next period as being comparable to the Golden Age of science fiction with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And just as Hollywood grew out of it's B-movie phase to produce "2001-A Space Odyssey", so to will the sub-genre of steampunk be shown to have reached it's pinnacle when Hollywood makes a good steampunk movie.

     And then, the next stage will be the mainstream forgetting about it as something special, new or trendy and steampunk will slide back into a respectable obscurity, at least amongst the public at large. It will become less a sub-genre and become just another fiction.

     It will be at that point that steampunk looses its freshness. Which won't be a bad thing, necessarily. Science fiction as a whole has passed that point and is not the worse for it.

    Past its freshness date in literature is not the same as past its frashness date in your refrigerator.

 

 

 

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Comment by CoastConFan on October 1, 2012 at 4:38pm

I'm still waiting for steam television!

Comment by CoastConFan on September 30, 2012 at 11:49am

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) published Tom Sawyer Abroad, in 1894, pretty much saying that Jules Verne was no longer fresh by parodying his works such as Eight Weeks in A Balloon, 1866 and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1870 in this book.  The roots of Science Fiction grow deep and are in some pretty obscure places.  The concept of airships was so common by the late Victorian era it was considered cliché over a century ago.   That is to say, no longer “fresh”.  Yet SF (although nameless at that time) revitalized under the hands of Hugo Gernsback and others in the 1920s to gain new prominence (and a name).

 

Grotesque popularization of SF in the 50s and 60s made one ashamed to be seen in public with a book, yet some of the best works were written in those times.  For those who can remember, at one point the “new wave” SF movement said that old style narrative was dead, yet here it is.  Some idiot in the 1950s said that all novels were a dead end.

 

SF and its subgenres are always going through engenderment, popularization, vulgarization, stagnation and then suddenly … revitalization, new growth, new avenues of exploration.  Stimulation can come from new unexpected areas, such as the graphic novel explosion of the 1980s and from fan fiction and the general explosion of information and human contact the web.  Yes there are fads, but some of them stick around and become solid old growth forest, rather than a fresh sprig.

 

There was a time when most people had to go to those rare conventions that were close enough to attend to meet fans.  Now they are a click away.  Many years ago there were nearly no conventions to addend, now there are hundreds.  With this sort of fermentation, it would be absurd not to expect a renaissance in SF.  There are a lot of really great fans out there and it’s going to be a heck of a great roller coaster ride!

Comment by CoastConFan on September 30, 2012 at 7:07am

I agree with a great deal with what you have to say on the subject.  I’m an old fan too and have a bit of perspective.  On the good side is the fact that steampunk is here to stay and I think we are about over the first blush of enthusiasm, for good or bad, and are settling in for the long run.  I expect a die-off of the few fans that follow from fad to fad, but hope that the residual fans will really support steampunk.

 

You make a good point that steampunk, often with no name, has been around for decades and it will continue to be around for a long time under its current name or a new one.  Actually, freshness is an illusion.  More importantly the exterior aesthetic needs to go to the core of fandom and create an interior, solid aesthetic of thoughtful quality to avoid being another fan fad. 

 

(Warning minor rant I the offing)  Science fiction fandom is beset with fansumers who simply attend conventions with no sense of wonder or sharing, merely treating the genre as another accessory for console gaming, discarded when the new version comes out.  I really like emerging fandom movements, which have energy and drive such as anime and steampunk.  There is a lot of hope out there and I expect to see energizing effects of a younger generation of fans electrify fandom with new ideas, new causes, new literature, new movies, and new ways to experience science fiction.

 

Clearly, people have cashed in on the easy part of the subgenre but cranking out cliché and crap for a few fast bucks.  I agree that the time of just “sticking a cog on it” and nothing else is about over.  We have a lot of artists, dreamers, writers, and costumers out there just waiting to burst forth with a renaissance of creativity.

 

Science fiction as a genre survived Hollywoodization in the 1950s and sleazy SF book covers of the 1960s of publishers cashing in.  Each generation creates science fiction as a genre anew, although the progress may seem slow to us as it overlays previous efforts.  I think this is one of the brightest generations I have seen in a while and because they grew up with cell phones, computers and 200 channels of TV, they are growing immune to the constant bombardment of ADD-enhancing nonsense that so bewitched the previous generation.  I put my money on the younger fans, myself.

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