I've Got a Problem With Steampunk: a Rebuttal
Some time ago, Sparkitor Josh Perilo aired his grievances with the genre of Steampunk in this here article. So, our esteemed contributor Paul Kirsch decided to write a rebuttal, defending Steampunk in its many forms.
I took it upon myself to study Steampunk from an academic standpoint during graduate school. What drew me into the genre initially was the lack of a centralized canon. There was no single example of epitomized steampunk from which the rest of the works drew inspiration. Steampunk was, and always should be, by its very nature, a context still in production.
With that said, a discerning reader can still track down the “historic” foundations of Steampunk, a term coined by the author K.W. Jeter. He wrote the hilarious and emotionally resonant Infernal Devices and Morlock Night. They are quite good, but they don’t necessarily pave all of the groundwork for the genre. Does a genre even require a canon? I doubt that hypothesis. In this case, the genre was initially defined by a collective of authors who recognized an emerging trend. Once it became widespread enough for the popular audience to embrace, Steampunk was ours to manipulate as we desired, and I will be the first to admit that it’s stumbled along the way.
To the point that Steampunk is supposed to be about solving problems, I could not disagree more. Read Paul Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy or Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, and tell me that Steampunk has made anything easier. Steampunk is beautiful technology used for inhuman purposes. Like a great deal of popular fiction, Steampunk showcases real-world problems in the most exaggerated ways possible.
Most of the literary Steampunk inventions don’t solve problems–they make problems. They use wildly complicated, fallible, earth-annihilating devices to cover potholes, not solve anything. The romanticized airships are still filled with volatile hydrogen, bursting into flames at a moment’s notice. It’s appropriate that airships are one of the most iconic representations of steampunk. They work beautifully until something goes wrong. Something always goes wrong, and the results are invariably catastrophic.
I don’t normally cite the Steampunk-inspired movies, but Doc Brown’s ice machine in Back to the Future III is another perfect example. It took a massive steam engine and who knows how much fuel to produce some ice to chill his whiskey. Imagine if Doc put those resources to better use?
It’s no coincidence that Steampunk often takes place in dense, metropolitan areas. Cities are the perfect staging ground to demonstrate societal unrest and the shortcomings of a political system. Steampunk is the tool of the rebel and the fascist alike, its only morals tied to the whim of its users who are interested in death, no matter what side of the conflict they stand on. Just because Steampunk is beautiful does not mean it heals the souls of its inventors. Take a look at Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan to find Steampunk in the horrors of World War I, where even our sainted Nikola Tesla is portrayed as a madman.
To the criticism of convention goers, the types of people who glue perfectly good gears to top hats, I could not agree more. Steampunk is more than a bulging corset and modified Nerf gun. I find it increasingly difficult to love and hate Steampunk so much at the same time. The Steampunk literature which I’ve referenced above is storytelling at its finest: historically resonant, thought-provoking, with characters navigating the most uneven terrain imaginable. My only criticism is that not enough of the Steampunk enthusiasts seem to be reading it. Instead they’re playing dress-up, and frankly making me look stupid.
And that’s the crux of my argument. A lot of people are taking Steampunk at its face value by donning vests and their grandfather’s aviator goggles. I wish more of them were reading. I’ve got a problem with Steampunk too, but it has nothing to do with the genuine origin of Steampunk: books. For clank’s sake, read a few. Pick up an anthology, find out who’s writing this stuff, and start buying from the authors you like. It works for me every time.
Unlike your Nerf gun.
What do you think about Steampunk?