Steampunk Unloaded, Uploaded, Reloaded, Remixed, Cooked, Stuffed, and Codified
Recently, as co-editor of Steampunk Reloaded, I participated in a Salon Futura podcast about Steampunk with writers Karin Lowachee and Lavie Tidhar, conducted by Cheryl Morgan. We talked about everything from ideas of empire in the subgenre to some of the subtleties of colonialism, as well as mad scientists, balancing fun and reality, and one segment on Naughty Stuff. In a nice bit of coincidental timing, as part of the extra-content push for Steampunk Reloaded, Beyond Victoriana and Tachyon Publishing also posted some Brazilian/Portuguese Steampunk in translation. Links:
--Jacques Barcia's "A Life Made Possible Behind the Barricades" (PG-13)
Ever since 2008 when this NYT article appeared, Steampunk has hit critical mass. It's everywhere, sometimes so ubiquitous that it causes either intense bliss or intense annoyance, depending on your tastes. What is Steampunk? Modern steampunk fiction, a type of Victorian-era alternate history fiction or retro-futurism, derives at least in part from the influence of works by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the 1800s and early twentieth century that featured steam-powered inventions, airships, and (sometimes) mad inventors. These books tended to be somewhat cautionary in nature, with a healthy unwillingness to accept “progress” as always inevitable and good. Wells' work also commented on the nature of empire, even postulating an attack on New York in The War in the Air, typifying the U.S. in this way: “cheered the flag by habit and tradition, they despised other nations, and whenever there was an international difficulty they were intensely patriotic, that is to say, they were ardently against any native politician who did not say, threaten, and do harsh and uncompromising things to the antagonist people."
More than eighty years later, Michael Moorcock's warlords of the air series, which was deeply critical of the British Empire, as a way of commenting on the rising American empire, made him the godfather of Steampunk. However, K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus Magazine in 1987, and he, along with Tim Powers and James Blaylock are credited with being the first wave of steampunk writers. They were hugely influenced by Henry Mayhew’s book London Labour and the London Poor. They were quickly followed by Gibson and Sterling with The Difference Engine in 1990. The subculture first rose in the 1990s, and has branched out into fashion, movies, comcs, making/DIY, art, and more. It is such a sprawling community at this point, with outposts in South America, continental Europe, and beyond, that it can’t be said to be just one thing at this point.
Perhaps in part because of this lack of a center, this year has brought its share of controversy within the fantasy/science fiction community, with Mobylives providing many more of the relevant links. It's perhaps ironic that at a time when multiculturalism is beginning to enter Steampunk in significant ways, as in SF/Fantasy in general, some are expressing reservations about escapism in Steampunk that seem more about a received idea of the genre from the past or a larger issue of escapism in commercial fiction generally than a true vision of what's happening at street level these days.
What is happening? Well, Beyond Victoriana and Silver Goggles are providing interesting multicultural viewpoints about Steampunk, SteamPunk Magazine continues to move along a progressive/ DIY/ anarchist axis, creators like Jake von Slatt bring a devotion to the ideals of Victorians like John Ruskin, who abhorred industrialization, and authors like Ekaterina Sedia and Karin Lowachee are infusing Steampunk with feminist and non-white points of view. Novels like Aurorarama and The Dream of Perpetual Motion are using Steampunk trappings for aesthetic experiments that infuse retrofuturism with reimagined influence from Wells/Verne mixed with sources outside the subgenre like Shakespeare and Nabokov.
Even the commercial success of Cherie Priest isn't based on "escapism" as properly defined, in that her novels feature strong female characters and don't gloss over the iniquities of history. Indeed, the anthology Steampunk Reloaded, edited by my wife Ann and me, features a fairly even mix of male and female writers, a lot of stories turning a critical eye toward Victorian-era ideas, and featuring much more fiction that isn't set in England or the United States. That anthology focused on the last ten years; in another five years, such an anthology would have an even more diverse contributor list.
There's also the importance of recognizing and reclaiming unusual works that pre-date the current craze. One such is Tobias Buckell's first novel Crystal Rain (2005), recently reviewed on Beyond Victoriana. Said Buckell about Crystal Rain, a title which may be unfamiliar to many Steampunk readers: "One of the cool things about getting to write a first novel was that I finally had a massive canvas to play on. So I right away set about creating what I called a 'Caribbean Steampunk Novel.'...While I loved the genre, like most things SF-nal, I bounced off of a lot of the pro-colonialist imagery and aesthetic, so I tried to synthesize something wholly different in Crystal Rain. Caribbean airships, Aztec airships, people of various backgrounds. Steam-powered trains, and of course, the steam-powered ship that converts into the mother of all snowmobiles later in the book. Brass and rifles and jungle, mysterious underground sewers in the urban landscapes. The world of Nanagada was built from the ground up to let me play with my own Caribbean flavored steampunk aesthetic, but without the trappings I found problematic."
Next year, the Steampunk Bible co-written with S.J. Chambers, will attempt to give a comprehensive overview of the entire scene. In the meantime, Steampunk hopefully will continue to change in interesting ways and the blogosphere will continue to argue about what parts are good or bad, and what it all means. As I said in the Salon Futura podcast, for Steampunk not to stagnate its commercial success has to "open up possibilities for lots of strange and interesting stuff to be published under that term," with "more and more emphasis on "international and multicultural steampunk."