Help me out here: Steampunk leaves me cold

So,  I have this admission to make. I don’t get Steampunk. I have nothing particularly against it, and I don’t believe I’ve gone out of my way to avoid it. It’s simply that the aesthetic, the approach to science and story, do nothing to attract me.

And yet, it seems to be very popular. Certainly as a literary sub-genre it seems to have been holding its own for a few years now and it’s cropped up in various guises in the movies (although given its obvious visual fascination it’s a wonder there’s not been more). And of course it’s biggest impact has been in alternative fashion and lifestyle circles. All well and good, but none of it twigs me in any way whatsoever.

Maybe its because I grew up with an ingrained respect of the works of the enlightenment (the Scottish one) and the amazing real technological advances that stemmed from it. Maybe its because I find it difficult to vaseline-lens the social iniquities of the Victorian era. And fantasying up/down either of those would have the nagging voice in my head going “but, but, but!” For a similar reason, I don’t really dig re-use of historical personages either.

Or perhaps it’s those visuals – which for me, although they can be very well done and hugely admirable amounts of work can go into them, especially in the hobbyist sphere – always make me think of set dressing from the Flash Gordon  serial, or George Pal’s version of The Time Machine, or something really hokey with the great Doug McClure in it and rubber dinosaurs.

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps, subconsciously, even intentionally standoffish (because I never like what all the kids like)? Anyone want to take a pop at turning me? Show me what I’m missing?

Here’s the deal. Make a steampunk novel sound hot enough to me and I’ll buy it and read it.

34 thoughts on “Help me out here: Steampunk leaves me cold

  1. Nah. I won’t try. I think you nailed it when you mentioned the “obvious visual fascination”. Mushroom-headed nails on ironwork do look great, and steam is water plus fire (in a metaphorical way). Powerful aesthetics and symbols.

    Also a philosophy stemming from the idea that human progress is unstoppable–an Enlightenment concept, by the way–and essentially good. Nostalgia of a time when it was still possible to believe that science would free humanity and erase our basest instincts. Then the twentieth century came, heralded by the most barbaric war of all time, where the death toll of one single battle equalled a war of the past. New technology made new weapons possible, and not even WWII compared to the brutality displayed (by everyone) during the Great War.

    Steampunk–and particularly euchronic worldbuilding, not actual Victorian settings– erases the twentieth century and its horrors. It washes it all away.
    I think this is one of the roots of the fascination for steam and surrogates.

    I did like a few Steampunk tales, but when I think back on them, I realise that I loved the characters and their interactions. So much for the mushroom-headed nails. 🙂

  2. I nominate Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as the true taproot of steampunk.

    Also, Around the World in Eighty Days (Disney version,) Wacky Races, Dastardly & Mutley, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mouse on the Moon, and so on. Cinema and TV have been giving us adaptations of classic Romance, Scientific & Ruritanian, from the 1950s… and pastiches of such.

    But particularly Chitty is the quintessential “numina (ex) novum arcana,” as I hereby dub it.

    It’s marvellous, “le merveilleux” in poncy French lit crit terms, a numina in me own system, injecting a boulomaic modality of “should happen.” In short, it’s *cooooool*! Want one!

    (Hell, the title song is all about just how cool Chitty *is*!)

    Like many such marvels, it’s the (real world) novum of old — automaton, car, zeppelin, plane, steam train, submarine — no longer novel but retaining its wonder. Arguably, with those ex-novae now familiar, we take them for granted, but when we look to prototypes & originals, they’re defamiliarised. We consider the technical impossibilities (for a mere human) made possible by them, and that reinvests them with wonder; the mundane is made marvellous once again. Over and above the simple numinosity of beauty and empowerment, I suspect this is why enthusiasts oooh over the wonder of classic cars, trains, etc..

    Anyways, hence numina (ex) novum.

    But more, Chitty belongs to a bygone era conceptually dislocated from our own, categorically severed from our present. If the past is another country, our era and that era don’t even share a border; World War One is the English Channel between them. When we look back, I mean, we’re not seeing the Victorian era at all, so much as we’re seeing Ruritania as a discrete elsewhen rather than elsewhere. So the movie sets itself just on the edge of that (England in 1910 or so) and springboards from there into a full-blown Ruritanian fantastication.

    The point is, objects *of* that other era — like objects of the future, outer space or unexplored corners of the globe back in the day — are not expected to play by our rules; indeed, that can be turned around so they’re expected to *not* play by our rules, so we have no idea what rules they *do* play by. They become arcana.

    Basically, casting yer doohickey as paradigmatically *of* that era (making it clockwork, steam-powered, even just aesthetically styled as Victorian Baroque) conceptually unlimits its potential even though we know those technologies were actually more limited than what we have now. Give the car running boards and we’ll more likely buy it flying; it ain’t rational, but it’s how we think. (Mostly.) So you end up with Chitty — the numina (ex) novum of a classic automobile, now a black box ancient artefact with unknown capacities, an arcanum.

    And that’s what Steampunk is all about, I’d say. Steampunk as a genre or subculture is an aesthetic based on quirks in the mold of Chitty — numina (ex) novum arcana.

    Why is it so appealing? A numina like Chitty becomes even *more* wondrous with the additional “should *still* happen” of nostalgia, the desire for things to be now as they were then. The Ruritanian era is a construct of such desires. Doesn’t matter if it *never* actually happened that way, if we’re nostalgic for a Ruritania that never was; the desire is still there. And actually because it’s a setting for adventure we can even be nostalgic for the *bad shit* of that other era, because it would be awesome to overcome the wicked Childcatcher, it would be cool if the villainy we had to deal with was as straightforward as moustache-twirling fiends in top hats.

    (A side-effect: steampunk doesn’t have to irresponsibly elide those iniquities; there’s no reason it can’t subvert reactionary nostalgia, critique the phony construct, the actual period *and* iniquities of our world that might be figuratively represented in a twat of a Ruritanian monarch.)

    But in the arcanum there’s also a more complex yearning, a sort of “should *still be able to* happen” desire, where it’s less about wanting the lost wonders of then, (ah, that teddy I had as a kiddywink!) more about *not* wanting the added constraints of now (oh, if only I could be that kid with the teddy, so my teen and adult life was pure potential again.) Like, basically, those classic/antique marvels are playing on a desire for the past as an *unbinding* of the present, I’d say.

    It maybe even gets into the territory of C.S. Lewis’s “sehnsucht” — an inconsolable longing for we know not what. Like there’s a positive anticipation for something that should & *shall* happen, like a kid on Christmas Eve. And then there’s the melancholic yearning for the return to that state — almost a yearning for yearning itself. And that’s what Chitty taps into.

    I think about this stuff *way* too much.

  3. Thanks both for your thoughts. Very interesting, especially as you both use the Great War as a point of disconnection (as it was in many spheres of life I guess).

    Hal, your examples have me thinking that maybe there was an element of “can’t quite take this seriously” in those old films. Mad inventors abound. Here’s something I’m wondering actually – am I right in my feeling (and bear in mind that I’m just guessing here – if anyone wants to set me right go for it) that there aren’t *a lot* of British practitioners of steampunk in fiction (and no Scottish writers seem to be getting involved as far as I can see)? So, I’m wondering if it’s a mainly American interest? Are Brits perhaps a bit too close to the source material? Or would we be more likely to turn it into Carry On R101?

    Hmm. Carry On style steampunk. Now *that* I could go for.

  4. I’m not a Steampunk fan, either. I certainly don’t ‘get’ China Mieville’s world. However, I did come across an intriguing book that ‘does’ Steampunk & it really worked in the world – Terminal World by Alastair Reynold. I’m not claiming it’s the greatest book, ever. But the world is certainly fascinating & I thoroughly enjoyed the premise.
    I do think it is an exercise in sideways nostalgia, though…

    1. Cheers for that. I’ve not read one of Al’s books for a while. That might make it a good candidate for my steampunk challenge.

  5. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? I can just picture Fleming pitching that one to his publisher. “I’ve written a children’s book – it’s a complete departure from my Bond novels!”
    “That sounds alarming, Mr Fleming. You had better give us a quick summary of the plot and we’ll decide whether or not to take it any further.”

    No, I’m going to praise one that you’ve probably already read. K.W. Jeter’s ‘Infernal Devices’ is a love song to the glories of nineteeth-century fiction – the highwater mark of the novel as a popular entertainment – and that is where its real heart lies. However, Jeter doesn’t want to present us with faux-nostalgia for an age we never lived through; instead he gives us a mundane everyman who is oblivious to the wonders that surround him in what is a perfect example of the ‘ominscient reader’ viewpoint. It’s a writer’s book. It is also one of the few examples of the subgenre that is genuinely funny. For that novel alone I am willing to suffer any amount of idiots in velvet waistcoats.

    1. Aaagh, Jim. Infernal Devices is one of the few Jeter books I never managed to get hold of. The Glass Hammer, yes, and Morlock Night, and even *shudder* Dr Adder, but Infernal Devices has always slipped by me.

      Going to make that a priority in my Eastercon trawl of the yellow spine dealers.

  6. “I’m wondering if it’s a mainly American interest? Are Brits perhaps a bit too close to the source material?”

    Interesting question. In my country (Netherlands) I know some writers who are quite enthusiastic about steampunk, but it certainly doesn’t sell in big numbers. I myself wrote a blog post once about how steampunk means something entirely different to the British than it does to the Dutch, because the Dutch trade empire had ceased to exist by the Victorian age. Interzone even has a story of mine based on our own Golden Age (no steam engines!), in which the bad shit (e.g. slavery) is precisely NOT shuffled under the carpet.

    That said, I’m afraid I can’t point you to any novels that would help you appreciate the subgenre. I think most of the stuff *is* set dressing. The best I’ve read is The Difference Engine.

    1. Paul – thanks for your input. I was being intentionally Anglo-centric, just focusing on the two main markets (which is bad enough). I really enjoyed your Mannikin in Interzone,and thought the way it pointed up the similarities and differences between the British and Dutch empires was one of the most interesting factors about it – I’m used to hearing my own story, it was brilliant to hear someone else’s.

      The Difference Engine, I had a copy for years and read about a third of it, but somehow it went missing at some point. Never got another copy. Maybe one day I should.

      1. Thanks, Neil. And by the way, I have to agree with Jim regarding Infernal Devices. I borrowed it from a friend once (when it was still called ‘mad Victorian fantasy’, I believe) & loved it, and I would certainly like to find again.

  7. “So, I’m wondering if it’s a mainly American interest? Are Brits perhaps a bit too close to the source material?”

    Well, it’s easier for the past to be another country, it’s the past *of* another country. That whole thing about arcana being like novae or exotica –” objects of the future, outer space or unexplored corners of the globe back in the day” — we may be past the point where a setting of some far-flung land helps us suspend disbelief in people with faces in their stomach, so exotica like that have to become the novae of aliens. But the exotic often has a numinous quality too, just from being other. And that might play a part in boosting the appeal for Americans, I guess; that Ruritania has all manner of strange shit looking at it from the outside. But I dunno if I want to assume that. I think of Moorcock’s Bastable books and Talbot’s Luther Arkwright as important benchmarks — though it’s notable that the former is solidly anarchist and anti-colonialism, and I’m sure I’ve seen Moorcock himself tear strips out of steampunk’s apologias for imperialism. Point is, that Ruritania is still severed enough from us Brits temporally for us to Romanticise it pretty much the same way Americans do; I’m not sure we’re that much less prone to do so.

    Can’t help thinking of the notion of Albion here. Maybe being on the inside does automatically shift focus. Like, can we situate ourselves in Ruritania without automatically sliding to Albion, to the End of Empire, WW1. Maybe it’s harder for us not to think Ruritania > the Great Game > the Great War. Maybe we’re more likely to end up with British Sea Power and Derek Jarman if we’re just a *bit* more aware that we’re living in what was built over the ruins.

    Also, all of that tends to have a very English slant, no? If Ruritania translates to Albion… to what degree do Scots automatically *dis*identify with that?

    1. >Point is, that Ruritania is still severed enough from us Brits temporally for us to Romanticise it pretty much the same way Americans do; I’m not sure we’re that much less prone to do so.

      Quite. And the reason I raised the question was that I’m so ill versed in the genre that I don’t know the answer beyond a general sort of feeling that most authors who identify with the SP label tend to be American.

      >Also, all of that tends to have a very English slant, no? If Ruritania translates to Albion… to what degree do Scots automatically *dis*identify with that?

      Well, obviously there is a role for the Scot in Ruritania. He’s the lecturing professor of anatomy at the royal college, or the the practical, grease-to-the-elbows engineer, or the barking loud, but soft hearted – and therefore doomed – cavalry sergeant throwing down his life to extend the margin of the empire by the width of his barrel chest.

      I don’t know if Scots would see anything particular to romanticise in all of that. Some would have you believe, of course, that Scots inventors were almost entirely responsible for the technologies being lionized here, but that’s a particularly parochial failing of ours anyway. yes, Watt, Kelvin, Bell were all “significantly involved” in various endeavours, but so were a lot of other people in. (Clerk Maxwell, though was fucking genius, no question).

      Certainly, I go back to what I said earlier: I don’t know of any Scots writing Steampunk at the moment.

  8. There seem to me to be a couple of different styles of steampunk, one less practiced than the other. In steampunk as SF, the authors have written an alternative reality with no electronics and with energy technology limited to coal. This for some reason tends to be accompanied by a social setting that harks to the Victorian / Edwardian era, even if it isn’t actually that time any more. Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! is like this, with a Victorianised 1970s, while The Difference Engine is set in Victorian times. Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter, has the Victorian era accelerated by discovery of an anti-matter fuel that can be manipulated by brasswork technology. This is what Alastair Reynolds is doing with Terminal World, but without the Victorianism, which moves it away from being steampunk for me. There aren’t that many of these, as they have been overtaken by the other kind.

    The other, and much more common, kind of steampunk is fantasy, but with a technical / industrial / enlightenment aesthetic rather than a bucolic / feudal / mediaeval one. This is I think where Charlie Stross had it wrong when he was complaining about the technical implausibility of it: he was reading it as SF. Gas zombies are not new, btw, Warren Ellis did them in Blackgas, and they were mentioned in Shaun of the Dead. But what we have there and elsewhere is a fantastic conceit that is rationalised by invoking a technology. It’s done with machinery, and the machinery doesn’t have to make technical sense, it looks right so it works. It’s Science! rather than science, an arcane wizardry that ordinary people can’t be expected to understand, and the white coats or oily overalls are part of the mystical trappings. If you look into alchemy and other forms of magic you find similar justifications and rationalisations; ‘as above, so below’, and so forth. Top hats and frock coats are part of this fantasy aesthetic just as much as cloaks and robes are part of castle opera.

    I think this is why people seem to raise China Mieville when they talk about steampunk writers; he writes fantasy with machines in, in a world that isn’t cod-mediaeval. Stephen Hunt is a lot closer to writing steampunk for me though than Mieville. Steam Cybermen! Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road and Ares Express don’t seem to be regarded as steampunk, even though they’ve got steam engines in; I think it’s because they’re missing the frock coats and top hats.

    So, if we’re looking at steampunk as fantasy with quasi-Victorian trappings and an aesthetic of magic as done by implausible machinery and by implausible inventors and scientists, I’d go for James Blaylock. Lord Kelvin’s Machine and The Digging Leviathan have all the Disney-movie From the Earth to the Moon style of fun that you could want. With a more serious tone, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest has zombies and a digging machine and electric ray guns, but what it is actually about is the relationship between a mother and her son and shame and truths that people don’t want to admit. Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable stories, The War Lord of the Air et al., are about imperialism. The Girl Genius comics by Phil and Kaja Foglio are about fun with mad scientists.

    1. Thanks for this, Elaine. Must confess I was hoping you’d chip in because I know you’ve read quite a lot of this sort of thing. Yeah, I totally get the difference between the F and SF takes on the genre. And it’s the F kind that you talk about that makes think of it in terms of semi-comic movies of yesterwear (eg, IIRC, Peter Cushing’s doddery professor act in At The Earth’s Core). Of the British writers you name, I’ve never placed Mieville in that category – his books are very much of their own thing. And McDonald’s Mars books – definitely not. But I’d heard that Hunt’s books were good examples, and Toby Frost too(?).

      Blaylock: I’ve read most of his eighties novels. I don’t remember too much (it was a long time ago!) about that series, except that they were good fun. I think I thought of them as cod-Victoriana adventures, but never really believed there was enough mileage in that caper to extend to a whole sub-genre and beyond. Priest kinda interests me, but I’m never reading another book with zombies in, nuh-huh.

  9. Cod-Victoriana adventures is as good a description of steampunk as I’ve seen. Jeff and Ann Vandermeer seem to want it to be more Serious, in line with what Gibson and Sterling were doing with The Difference Engine. I guess that there are enough people around doing that to make a decent case for it, but I’ve always felt that steampunk is the brass goggles brigade; Space 1889.

    One along those lines is Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder. I’m part way through reading it and it’s not bad in a throwing in the kitchen-sink kind of way. It’s got a couple of minor errors that make me think the author (or maybe the proofreader) is American, but it’s got a nice blurb by Michael Moorcock which led me to pick it up. In language it’s Dickensian, where I prefer Holmesian, but it’s readable and fun.

    I didn’t like The Affinity Bridge by George Mann for language reasons, although the story was fine. He was trying for a Holmesian style, but trying too hard. If you actually read Conan Doyle, you find that his prose is formal, correct and very transparent, in a way that becomes stilted if imitated by someone who doesn’t have a feel for it. In just the same way, Austen’s beautiful prose clanks in the hands of Gail Carriger but sings for Suzanna Clarke.

    I’m not burned out on zombies, although I got bored very quickly with P&P&Z and I haven’t picked up any others of that ilk. The ones in Boneshaker are fast and vicious and quite good. I like the Hunt books, which have a Victorian feel although they’re set in a made-up world. I haven’t read any of the Space Captain Smith ones, they seem quite silly.

    1. Hmm. Language is important, I agree. And I’d definitely prefer a Holmesian approach to Dickensian one if I had the choice, although my fear is that many authors will miss both and end up wallowing in the Van-Dykean. *Shudder*. That would *really* turn me off a book fast. Would be interesting if anyone were writing anything with more of a Sax Rohmer vibe to it (I think someone mentioned that Robert Rankin had done something of this nature recently).

  10. Moorcock’s The Metatemporal Detective (Pyr) is riffing off Sax Rohmer. The eponymous detective is “Seaton Begg,” a deliberate and acknowledged nod to Sexton Blake. I wouldn’t class it as steampunk though, just Moorcock at his most Kim Newmany — pulp pastiche/bricolage.

  11. Lots of good discussion so far, but I’m still looking for a stick on recommendation though. Preferably a contemporary book too. Sell it to me.

    1. You could try The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes, for Sax Rohmer-style Edwardiana fantasy. He gets the language exactly right, and it’s an entertaining conspiracy/horror/murder mystery just like the Fu Manchu stories. I got my copy as a freebie at WFC.

      I’d go with the Priest, otherwise. She gets language and setting right: gold-rush West with an extended Civil War. She doesn’t shrink from social inequity, it isn’t mannered or affected, and it’s a damn good story with characters that are fully rounded and worth investing time in. I have a copy of Dreadnought in my to-read pile, which is set in the same background but isn’t a direct sequel, and may not have zombies since it’s set away from Seattle. It does have Steam Men.

      Also go with Stephen Hunt, for secondary-world fantasy with an aesthetic from the nineteenth century rather than the fourteenth. He’s a British writer so he knows enough not to mangle the language and it has more, and more interesting, nods to Victorian social situations (kids up chimneys repairing the gas struts of pneumatic high-rises and so forth) than you tend to find in the American authors.

      1. Good suggestions. The Barnes sounds interesting, but it’s Priest who’s making the most industry noise…have to admit that “steam men” have finally piqued my interest.

  12. Isn’t that a bit like saying that you want to find out about this jazz thing with an album recommendation from this decade? 🙂

    1. Not *really*, Jim. Steampunk’s supposed to be one of the trending topics in genre publishing. I’m not looking for something that *defines* the genre, but something that explains why it’s currently popular.

      1. I tend to think that it’s popular because fantasy readers are bored with cod-mediaeval castle opera and are picking up head kicks from cod-Victoriana adventure stories with Zeppelins! and Science! That doesn’t mean that much of it is any good; most of it is derivative of Disney movies and SFX artists’ conceptions of how Sherlock Holmes Should have Looked. Probably the seminal steampunk stories of the current movement are the Girl Genius comics. (Free on the artists’ website – well worth a look)

      2. That pretty much takes me back to where I started. 😀 I’ve seen Girl Genius before (mainly because you keep going ON about it! ;p) but sounds like I need revisit.

  13. No novel, and you may already have done so, but you could take a look at the VanderMeers’ Steampunk I & II anthos. (Although I must confess I haven’t seen them myself yet.)

    1. I usually pick up the V’s books as soon as they come out, Paul. But my steampunk “issues” got in the way of these ones. And there’s also the forthcoming Steampunk Bible that Jeff has been assembling in conjunction with Selena Chambers. Which I’d guess to be a pretty much must have item for fans of the genre.

  14. Gio Clairval, “not even WWII compared to the brutality displayed (by everyone) during the Great War. ”

    You have got to be joking!
    20 million Soviet citizens dead – most of them civilians, German cities flattened. Caen flattened to “liberate” it. Two whole cities destroyed by a single weapon each. And I’ve not yet mentioned the death camps.
    WWII was way beyond anything that happened in WWI. Especially in its callousness towards its victims – which was quite deliberate. (In WWI for the most part it wasn’t; Falkenhayn on the Western Front and the Armenian genocide notwithstanding.)

    Neil, I don’t know if they’re steampunk exactly but are Ian R MacLeod’s The Light Ages and The House Of Storms (2003 and 2005 respectively) contemporary enough for you? They stray into fantasy a bit but are real novels. (Warning: the editions I read are littered with typos, which took a lot of the pleasure away.)

    And yes, no Scots that I know of write this sort of thing.

    1. Jack – very quickly, I’ve read The Light Ages. Enjoyed it a lot. Waiting to get round to the sequel, one day.

  15. To be honest, I have absolutely no idea why it’s so popular just now as well, Neil, unless the gothy vampire types are getting tired of their wardrobes. I am much more interested as to why no Scots are writing it (aside from the odd short story from Mark Harding and one or two others). That’s a much better question. I suppose we could also claim that we did it first time around with Conan Doyle.

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