So I’ve been spending the past month and a half working my way through two steampunk-themed short story collections as preparation for another collection I plan to review somewhere else. Truth be told, I did not have a particularly good time with these collections. Rather than vent about the stories directly, which I’m not really in the mood to do, I’d like to talk a little more generally about my own feelings towards this thing called “steampunk,” whatever it may be.
Steampunk seems to be something I can never quite escape. I first heard the word round about 2004, just before it really exploded into the mainstream. At the time, I was quite heavy into the online alternate history scene, so it was pretty natural that I would find my way into steampunk. Stories set in the nineteenth century, but containing greater elements of science fiction and fantasy? Sounds like fun! And for a while it was fun. Over time, though, I began to feel a disconnect with the culture that really kicked into gear around 2006. Everyone seemed to be far more interested in the “maker” and craft side of the culture, which didn’t interest me in the slightest. By contrast, the literary side, the aspect that interested me the most, seemed to be of secondary importance. Most of the books people talked about just seemed to be reheated pulp in mock-Edwardian dress, pulling their references from other steampunk works rather than from historical sources. Meanwhile, works from the 1990s and early 2000s, works that made me fall in love with the idea of “steampunk” in the first place, were forgotten.
Now, the criticism of steampunk as blinkered, reactionary, and obsessed with aesthetics is one that has dogged steampunk ever since the genre/subgenre/style/movement really hit it big. Certainly it’s a criticism I’ve made myself a few times. And yet, over the years, I’ve grown to feel even this criticism is a cliché of its own. Anytime anyone rails against steampunk on the internet, the same talking points come up again and again: you’re neglecting the class divisions, you’re neglecting gender inequality, you’re endorsing imperialism, et cetera, et cetera. People write stories to “challenge dominant narratives,” or something, and some people have even gone so far as to try and make steampunk into some sort of DIY-centered leftist-anarchist political movement. I don’t doubt the sincerity of people using steampunk in this way, but I feel that the thing they don’t quite realize is that they are as addicted to image as the people they criticize, with their poison of choice being the imagery of left-wing activism rather than the science fiction/Victorian-Edwardian period-pop culture hybrid of “mainstream” steampunk.
Which of these is the “true” essence of steampunk? It doesn’t matter. The term “steampunk” has grown to describe something so bloated and omnivorous that even people who like steampunk can’t explain what it is. It’s a problem others have had when discussing steampunk in critical circles, and it’s one I had when reading those anthologies. When you have straight pulp in period dress placed alongside full secondary world fantasies, which are up against cyberpunk stories set a century early and straight-up fairy tales, leavened with stories that deal with their genre elements so lightly that were they to excise a single paragraph they could be sold in mainstream magazines, what connections are you supposed to make? Are there even any connections to begin with?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. I don’t know how I can answer them. What I do know is what I like, and I know I like two things. I like seeing other worlds undergo industrial modernization, of seeing other civilizations grapple with the same issues ours did, with their own personal peculiarities. I also like seeing settings where our own modernity has been warped by the author to reveal something we all suspected but never saw all that clearly before. My catch-all term for these is “industrial fantasy,” a portmanteau that doesn’t have much purpose beyond getting away from that other word.
There’s something else too, something I can’t quite put into words. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Ferretbrain attempting to defend the idea of steampunk, which I concluded by listing a number of “steampunk” novels I thought were of great merit. I still revisit these novels today, though today I would replace Polystom with Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion. What all these books share (aside from Jack Faust, which is a straight comedy) is a deep concern with nostalgia. I’m not talking about revisionist nostalgia, the desire to turn back the clock; this isn’t that straightforward. Rather, the protagonists of these books (and, perhaps, some of the authors), are caught in the grips of a desire for something, a home, a perfect relationship that they know in their heart of hearts they will never achieve. The worlds of these books are ones where this realization may have been achievable, once upon a time, but the moment passed long ago and the best anyone can do is resign themselves to an unsatisfactory present. These aren’t desires you can wave a banner for; they’re all much too personal for that. It’s something that resonates with me, even if I can’t explain it very well. (I do have a helpful book, of course, which I’ll get around to reading someday.)
(Ha. I’m just reading over that last paragraph thinking, “Ya know, given that Joseph Roth was your favorite author in university, are you really that surprised that’s what you get out of steampunk?” No, me, I suppose I am not. [By the way, go read The Radetsky March. It’s fantastic.])