Catherynne Valente stirred up the internet a little with her ranty (and it has to be said, a touch curmudgeonly) post about the rage-inducing failings of steampunk as a literary genre. It’s worth sifting through the comments on that one because they are respectful for the most part, and consist of some very interesting defences as well as criticisms of steampunk.
One question which seems to emerge from the post and the comments is: Does it count as a legitimate literary movement if there isn’t a great work (a Neuromancer) to spark it off? I’m not sure that it doesn’t. While a single iconic work is a great way to market a subgenre and give it that kickstart to inspire a bunch of writers around it, the idea of one book representing a whole subgenre also doesn’t sit well with me. Our methods of academic and criticical literary discourse are moulded by patriarchal methods, and there is something that feels very “male dominated academia” about singling out one book and holding it up as the flagbearer of a subgenre. Even if that book is Bridget Jones’ Diary…
As a canon-buster and someone who prefers inclusionism to reductionism, I’m actually much more interested in the idea of a literary movement that isn’t led by one book.
The most interesting thing to me about steampunk (though I’m not really an enthusiast, more of a vaguely interested observer) is that it isn’t a literary movement at all. It’s very much a mixed media movement with a huge emphasis on artwork, craftsmanship and costuming. That’s where the greater passions of steampunk seem to lie, with the literary aspect desperately trying to catch up. There’s a flashmob sensibility to it, rather than a single line of influence. Many people in the comments of Catherynne’s post preferred to define steampunk as an aesthetic, rather than a literary movement or sub-genre. I also agree heartily with the many people in the comments who suggested that the most interesting literary steampunk was happening in short fiction rather than novels, though some novels like Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld have certainly caught the imagination of readers.
For my own part, I find steampunk (or gaslamp fantasy, its magical twin) far more intriguing when there is an artistic aspect to the story – like Girl Genius, or the Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle, or any cartoon appearance of TikTok of Oz… Also, while I really enjoyed Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, I can’t help feeling that the illustrations from that book and particularly the “grand map” by Keith Thompson are the steampunk masterpiece of 2009 more than any single piece of fiction.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t overly convinced we needed another Steampunk Fortnight over at Tor (I much enjoyed their month last year, but it honestly didn’t feel like it had been a whole year since then) but I ended up really appreciating how they used that fortnight to interrogate steampunk as a genre rather than just waving the clockwork pompoms. In particular, this post by Nisi Shawl is excellent in the way it points out the problematic nature of a genre celebrating a pretty awful period of time, and the importance of dealing with the political, racial and gender issues of Victoriana rather than just hand wavy-ing.
It feels like we’re having a much wider discussion about race, gender and diversity in speculative fiction than ever before, or perhaps it’s that this discussion is becoming more “acceptable” to writers and readers and critics in positions of power, so it can go on longer before being shut down… and I wonder what effect it this discussion will have on “new” literary movements (I’m aware that neither steampunk nor vampire romance for example are “new” though their incredible popularity and mainstream zeitgeistiness is still a reasonably recent phenomenon). I hope that getting to apply the discourse on race, gender, class, privilege, etc. earlier in a subgenre’s history means that we may get to the good, crunchy, brain explodey works faster. It seems to me that diversity in authors and protagonists and concerns can’t help but make a subgenre more viable (because you know, it doesn’t get boring so fast). I think it’s probably a good thing for steampunk that we’re having these discussions now.
It’s probably not too late for epic fantasy and cyberpunk and space opera, but no matter how crunchy and diverse they may become, the male-dominated history of those subgenres is always going to be there (and in the perceptions of the readers who mostly only remember the male authors who contributed). Hopefully by interrogating subgenres by steampunk this early, people’s awareness may broaden and the works that are remembered as important to the movement will not just be the ones that blindly celebrated a shiny corsets-and-cannons version of Victoriana, but the ones that made us think a little harder.
One steampunk novel of the last 24 months which I think has been supremely overlooked by the spec fic community (especially in comparison to Scott Westerfeld’s excellent but entirely rated Leviathan) is Richard Harland’s Worldshaker. This is a book about steampowered tanks/cities that travel around the world, crushing everything in their wake, ruled over by a pompous and elitist Victorian-style aristocracy. It’s a story that takes everything cruel and wrong and terrible about the industrial revolution and shows it, warts and all, in clear-cut YA storytelling. Most of all, it’s about a young man who is forced to confront his privilege when he discovers how his family’s wealth and success and survival are built on the literal backs of an enslaved underclass. It’s brilliant, crunchy stuff, and while kids & school librarians around the world are lapping it up, I’m yet to see much discussion of it among the SF critical community. If anyone’s looking for a piece of steampunk which goes some way to addressing the problematic and uncomfortable nature of Victorian history, Worldshaker is worth checking out.
I’d also like to recommend Cat Rambo’s lovely recent story Clockwork Fairies up at Tor.com – rather more gaslamp fantasy than cyberpunk, but is has clockwork in the title! And it also does those things that Nisi Shawl and Catherynne Valente were hoping steampunk would do more of. [if anyone knows Cat, I am dying to know if the story was deliberately written in homage to Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” and would be utterly grateful if someone could find this out for me]
Catherynne followed up her “get those steampunk kids off my lawn” post with a rather more positive one about the top ten things she loves about steampunk, and unsurprisingly, most of those points relate to the aesthetic of the movement rather than the literature. Is it true that we like looking at steampunk more than we like reading about it? Does that mean publishers are getting it wrong or getting it right to encourage the craze?
Steampunk: it’s pretty. But it’s more interesting when it’s crunchy, too. I’m not sure why that conjured up an image of breakfast cereal full of random cogs and gears, but it totally did…
PS: I did not mention zombies in this post. But yes, I am a touch over them. Not for once because of the overwhelming amout of crappy stories featuring zombies (I don’t finish reading crappy stories, so they barely touch the side) but because of the overwhelming amount of excellent zombie stories. There’s something deeply wrong when I can’t enjoy a Maureen McHugh story because too much, too much. I am officially taking a break from the brain chompers.
PPS: Just as I hit send, Scott Westerfeld let loose with a rant of his own, which is totally worth reading.