What is Steampunk for?

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“corsets and well-hidden ankles”

So, in a Steampunk London, a romantic young actor collides with a robotic actress who is her roles… I won’t spoil it for you, it was pretty good.

Thing is, that Steam Punk short story  could have been written by Asimov, except he’d have set it in the Far Future with Positronic brains and Humans in Spaaaace. And, it’s obviously inspired by Ovid’s Pygmalion, which we can grandfather in as Fantasy.

Then there’s the wonderfully bonkers Predator Cities series, with whole cities on tracks playing dog-eat-dog on the dried up seabeds of the world’s post-apocalyptic oceans – and Zeppelins. Guess what? I’ve seen that before in a  Clark Ashton Smith Science Fiction yarn. There was also a predatory flying city in the once-notorious War of the Powers, Fantasy in more ways than one.

Let’s play cross-genre brain transplants…

It’s a great pub game – take a story or premise, and transplant it between genres. Here’s a book I loved:

Rendezvous with Rama is a novel by Arthur C. Clarke first published in 1972. Set in the 22nd century, the story involves a 50-kilometre (31 mi) cylindrical alien starship that enters Earth’s solar system. The story is told from the point of view of a group of human explorers, who intercept the ship in an attempt to unlock its mysteries.

Fantasy? Easy – this is just Dungeons and Dragons, or, with less smiting, Myst.

So, what about a Steampunk version of Rendezvous with Rama?

This is where it gets interesting. It would be the same story, but with top hats and corsets.

Ah.

Is Steampunk just an aesthetic?

So, is Steampunk just an aesthetic for people who prefer corsets and well-hidden ankles and uptight male leads to science and extrapolation? Something for Goths who’ve discovered brown?

Well,  I won’t argue with the aesthetic. However, I think it’s more than that.

The elephant in the room is that extrapolation in Rendezvous with Rama is broken, just as it is in Asimov and most modern Space Opera.

The Future is broken

The real future is one where food comes from vertical farms and biotec – no agricultural worlds needed. Technology is woven with AI, there are no robots except for fun, and no human space miners, probably no factory workers to speak of either.. all thanks to 3D printers and nanowibbletech.

All this means if there are any space bulk carriers, then these are unmanned, and there certainly won’t be tramp spaceships or pirates (except Charles Stross ones).

Meanwhile, AI and nanotechnology together break both Military SF –  unless you like stories about microscopic robots locked in robotic combat? (sorry, no Space Fighters!) – and crime capers.

There’s also stuff we can see today.

Eminently sensible health and safety – and anti-terrorism – legislation plus an atmosphere of litigation, means no half-mad scientific geniuses working in isolation, no wildly dangerous untested products released into the wild, no… and of course increased specialization and professionalization makes it unlikely that anybody who isn’t trained for it can get a shot at saving the world.

From a 20th-century SF point of view, the Future is simply broken.

All genres are aesthetics

However, we still read old Science Fiction like Clark and Asimov for pleasure, and we don’t complain overmuch when new writers ignore the looming future.

Guess what? For most readers, the extrapolation in Science Fiction was just a gateway to a sensawonder emanating from rivets and supernovas. Sure, we want some hard science in there, but – increasingly – we want proper Martial Arts in Fantasy, and realistic police departments in Fang Fu Urban Fantasy. It’s called verisimilitude.

No surprise then that the other genres deliver distinct aesthetics; swords, magic and pre-modern archetypes from Fantasy, American noir meets Brothers Grim from Urban Fantasy and so on.

However, some stories simply sit better in one genre than the other. For example, Lord of the Rings works best in Fantasy – creating the same scenario in Space Opera would involve dollops of techno-babble. What’s going on?

Does genre determine theme?

Is Science Fiction about science and aliens, and Fantasy about magic, swordsfolk and elves (sorry, e’lves)? Does genre determine theme?

No.

As soon as you abstract a little, you find this is not so. The themes of Honor Harrington would fit Game of Thrones nicely, and those of Flinx would thrive in the world of Name of the Wind. Conversely, a significant portion of Lord of the Rings was about Industry and Industrialized War.

It’s not the themes, it’s the milieu.

Genre is about milieu

Broadly, Science Fiction lets you write about modern things, and Fantasy about old or archetypal things. There don’t have to be offices and corporations on Mars, or Magicians battling Vikings on a flying pyramid, it’s just that we readers are not thrown if there are (some people call these  gimmes).

These are more than just aesthetic choices. They let a writer explore very specific things in detail, for example the workings corporations or the experience of battling your externalized inner demons, or if you like, the downside of feudalism (Fantasy need not be  conservative).

What about Steampunk?

So what is Steampunk for?

Don’t be mislead by the Victoriana. Sure, the Industrial Revolution era is interesting and dynamic. However many successful Steampunk series either treat it as a fun genre marker (e.g. the very excellent Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences), or don’t bother with it at all (e.g. Predator Cities).

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_ImageWhat’s important about Steampunk is that (1) it can have governments, corporations, lawyers and intelligence agencies, Feminism, soldiers and any other aspect of modernity as required, and (2) unless it wants them, it can ignore the limiting or corporatising factors of the late 21st century modernity, and the adventure-crushing  wibble-tech  just over the horizon. It can do this because it doesn’t have to pretend to extrapolate.

The comfortable milieu of Steampunk is the same as that of all of Science Fiction past and present, meaning the full range of Modernity from – say – 1850 onwards, as long as you stick a top hat and corset on it, or wrap it in an alternate world.

Yes! With one leap, Steampunk leaps over the inconvenient facts hemming in Science Fiction.

In other words–

Steampunk lets us write about Modern things without becoming mired in the detail of Modernity.

–and that’s what it’s for.

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7 comments on “What is Steampunk for?
  1. Douglas says:

    You say: “increased specialization and professionalization makes it unlikely that anybody who isn’t trained for it can get a shot at saving the world” and you call that real-future.
    But surely this is one of the premises behind Lord of The Rings? You have these specialists (whom Tolkien calls The Great or The Wise) like wizards and ring-wielders and they are in a kind of arms-race stand-off become war-of-attrition and war-of-technology, and yet these Hobbits whom everyone ignored come along, mess up finely calculated plans, and save the day.
    The Loser is the Arch-Specialist, and the winner is the specialist who embraces chaos theory and lets the butterfly wave its wing (how many metaphors did I fit in?)

    • mharoldpage says:

      Yes, it’s the premise of the Lord of the Rings, which is Fantasy.

      In a modern setting, you’d send the SAS or some other specialists. Neither rugged hero with mysterious past nor quirky everyman need apply!

  2. Douglas says:

    Oh, and I can see a real world space future involving piracy.
    You could have pirate drones suborning drone transport tugs.
    Or pirate viruses redirecting drone tugs.
    Or even spoofing the drones with ground signals in order to capture them.
    Oh, people are doing that last one already with military drones…

  3. Andy Taylor says:

    I disagree about the future as it will be somewhat Dystopian as most of human relations are concerned with conflict over resources, unlimited resources lead to a loss of status for the elite, therefore the elite won’t commit to the massive programs required for unlimited resources as it’ll lead to a loss of status.

    However I have to agree that Steampunk, is largely an aesthetic genre, quite where it begins and ends though is another question…

    • mharoldpage says:

      You may be right about the dystopian future. However, if it is dystopian, then it will be so in a boringly crushing way. We’ll be oppressed by drones and nanites will fight the war. Fighter jocks need not apply.

      The point about Steampunk is that you can have the fighter jocks if you want… 🙂

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