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Steampunk and its discontents
October 27, 2010 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Two critiques of steampunk: The Hard Edge of Empire by Charlie Stross and Stupid Things We Say by Nisi Shawl.
posted by Zed (219 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?


I wrote a proposal for a series base on this, basically it would've been the worst idea ever to give the Victorians even more ability to do whatever they wanted - wonder if I can find it ....
posted by The Whelk at 1:23 PM on October 27, 2010


I did like the description of the fashion elements of SP as 'when goths discover brown', though. That was really funny.
posted by Fraxas at 1:26 PM on October 27, 2010 [29 favorites]


A reply from Tobias Bucknell.

Me, I'm with Stross block on this one - he's pretty much nailed everything I find creepy and crappy about Steampunk.
posted by Artw at 1:30 PM on October 27, 2010


Oh oh oh I can't wait to read these.

I don't really like steampunk, generally, as I find it all kind of surfacey and shallow and, more, find the distinctions the community makes between what's, like, poseur steampunk and not really arbitrary. But I went to Capclave this weekend, and I have to admit that, when Jeff VanderMeer showed off parts of the steampunk bible he's working on, I couldn't help but salivate over how pretty it all was.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:31 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I too, would adore more Steampunk if it was more grounded in actual alt. history stuff. I sold my Steampunk story pretty much so I could address this. That being said, I echo Kenobi here. The aesthetic is really appealing. I just wish there was more substance behind it - are there more substantive SPunky stories out there?
posted by The Whelk at 1:34 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I want to remember that The Difference Engine actually was very well done in terms of historical content. But that was probably so early in the gestation of Steampunk that no one remembers it.

As someone who is researching a period that stops just before Steampunk proper begins, I get very edgy at the genre as a whole, simply because I see so many glaring historical errors in the base material they are working from that the results are laughable. And these are just basic technological errors, not even to get into societal and cultural ones.

And yeah, my mind has the very angsty ghost of Said in my head yelling about western gaze and Orientalism and imagined geographies every time I look at anything Steampunk. But I make it a point not to bring it up with my friends who are really into it, because most of them are just having fun and don't care about the history. And it is Fantasy. So... meh.
posted by strixus at 1:35 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Wait, Stross's argument is basically "I don't like steampunk because it isn't historically accurate enough"? Okay, yes, there are a ton of bodice-ripper series out there now. But seriously? Isn't that just complaining that a fictional book is too fictional? It's not like steampunk is declaring itself to be historical fiction or anything.

I have a suspicion that this is somehow rooted in the SciFi/Fantasy debate. I consider steampunk to be more historical-ish fantasy. Sounds like Stross thinks it should be extra-historical SciFi.
posted by specialagentwebb at 1:36 PM on October 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hey Charlie, if you pop in here, I would actually read your "revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic" if you wrote it. But I have found very few steampunk novels or stories that were worth the paper they were printed on. Steamboatpunk is a whole different beast though.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 1:39 PM on October 27, 2010


The Difference Engine

I re-read it for background into the SP genre and it holds up. Clunky-ass narrative, but thought was clearly put into the effects on society and world history. They get out a *lot* of trapped by having Britian become a "Technological Meritocracy" early on and I liked how changing the technology base makes everyday technology like people searching or police records seem completely alien and invasive. Still a slog tho.

A lot of what bores me about SP is just the lack of imagination. Here's an idea, for free - the Seproy Rebellion with gigantic DIY elephant-shaped guns hurling flaming cannonballs at a Company pleasure zeppelin.
posted by The Whelk at 1:39 PM on October 27, 2010 [15 favorites]


The Whelk, I think I love you, just for that mental image. I'm actually imagining elephants in giant mechanized exoskeletons with cannon mounted on their backs.
posted by strixus at 1:42 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


You are welcome.
posted by The Whelk at 1:43 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


As someone who is researching a period that stops just before Steampunk proper begins, I get very edgy at the genre as a whole, simply because I see so many glaring historical errors in the base material they are working from that the results are laughable. And these are just basic technological errors, not even to get into societal and cultural ones.

I have a crit partner who is brainstorming what she's calling a steampunk novel for NaNoWriMo. She wanted to set it in an untapped time period, and so was weaving this story around an alt-history version of the Battle of New Orleans, which is a really cool idea. But we were brainstorming together and she wanted there to be airships and mutants from uranium. And some other stuff that just isn't appropriate for the time period. I'm not a history expert, but just a little googling was enough to tell me that the airship stuff wouldn't have happened for another 40 years. And while, again, I think her incipient idea of something evocative set around then is super nifty, I think that's the problem you get when people who really don't know history try to do alt-history. You get big reaches, and tropes used in a pretty shallow way that would drive any history major nutty.

Not that, say, the science I use in my SF stories are perfect. But blatant Did Not Do the Research stuff is always going to rankle people in SF. It's a nerdy community, and you've gotta show that you've done at least a bit of your homework.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:44 PM on October 27, 2010


I don't know much about the Steampunk genre but can anyone tell me how Aurorarama fits in? Is is typical of the steampunk genre or is it even a steampunk novel at all?
posted by cyphill at 1:44 PM on October 27, 2010


Stross's critique of steampunk because it valorizes what he considers an historical era characterized by rampant social injustice might just as well be a critique of fantasy and fairy tale worlds in general, since most fantasy worlds look backwards and the past was full of social injustice. It's like criticizing the Beatles for wearing military band uniforms on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper", since the military, in the days when they wore such uniforms, was engaged in the murderous colonial enterprises whose consequences continue to mar the lives of millions. I see steampunk not as some nostaligic trip into the past, but as an expression of the love for visible complexity and taking pleasure in ingenuity that could be appreciated as a surface quality of created objects -- rather similar to the pleasure one gets from reading the Victorian prose of a Wilkie Collins and his like. There may be too much steampunk out there, as he suggests, only producers worry about a surfeit.
posted by Faze at 1:45 PM on October 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


I went to a gallery opening one time and there was a guy there dressed in steampunk gear as though he just, like, casually wears it around all the time. It was pretty awesome, but I can also totally understand the impulse to punch him in the throat.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:45 PM on October 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


Wait, Stross's argument is basically "I don't like steampunk because it isn't historically accurate enough"?

No, his argument is the same as Mieville's about Lord of the Rings: that it's a tritely romanticized image of a time that was demonstrably worse than our own. It's like thinking back to your parent's abusive relationship and sighing happily about how your father gave your mother flowers to apologize for beating her senseless.
posted by fatbird at 1:46 PM on October 27, 2010 [32 favorites]


Anyway, there was some long ago comment on mefi in another steampunk thread, saying how all they want to do is play WW2 over and over again and I kinda agree. There was so many weirder places you could go form that initial Well What If....

What about the energy required to run these things? Goodbye Eastern Africa, hello World's Largest Strip Mine?
posted by The Whelk at 1:47 PM on October 27, 2010


Stross's critique of steampunk because it valorizes what he considers an historical era characterized by rampant social injustice might just as well be a critique of fantasy and fairy tale worlds in general, since most fantasy worlds look backwards and the past was full of social injustice.

People make those critiques all the time (sooo many essays on how Tolkein et al were writing about a mythical England that never existed for many people), and the fact that they're obvious doesn't make them invalid. I mean, every time I go to a Renaissance Festival (in costume, mind you), I joke about the plague and arranged marriages and the fact that all those chicks with their cleavage bared would be burned as witches. The romanticizing of past time periods is kind of a weirdly naive misappropriation, and it seems right to acknowledge that even as you might say that all those gadgets made of cogs are nifty.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:50 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


What about the energy required to run these things? Goodbye Eastern Africa, hello World's Largest Strip Mine?

Oh man, I would love to read steampunk that acknowledged that sort of thing. If it hasn't already been written, Whelk, get on it!

(And if it has, give me a heads up, please.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:50 PM on October 27, 2010


Related: Multiculturalism in Steampunk.

My own thoughts after World Fantasy last year boil down to: Sci-fi asked, “How does technology shape society?”, Cyberpunk asked, “How does technology enforce/break status quo?”, whereas Steampunk asks, “Is Colonialism excusable and/or a necessary evil?”

It's still an evolving scene, though, so, as Nisi states, it could still branch out and give us more stuff like Steampunk Nusantara - though whether these end up becoming useful cross-connections or simply follow most other geekdoms and result in self-segregation, we'll have to see.
posted by yeloson at 1:52 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing Charlie is off the BoingBoing xmas card list now.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:53 PM on October 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


fatbird: "No, his argument is the same as Mieville's about Lord of the Rings: that it's a tritely romanticized image of a time that was demonstrably worse than our own. It's like thinking back to your parent's abusive relationship and sighing happily about how your father gave your mother flowers to apologize for beating her senseless."

The Lord of the Rings argument makes even less sense to me than the steampunk one. Both take place in times/worlds that are distinctly NOT our own, so I find it strange to complain about romanticizing them. It's like listening to your friend tell you how her father gave her mother flowers, and not thinking about your own parent's relationship at all because it's not really relevant.
posted by specialagentwebb at 1:54 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


To be honest I can't really make head nor tail of the Nisi Shawl peice. It almost seems to boil down to Steampunk has to be all multicultural and cool and not a paeon to colonialism because she likes it, and here's a pitch for a novel. Hmm. Yeah.
posted by Artw at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2010


Wait, Stross's argument is basically "I don't like steampunk because it isn't historically accurate enough"?

I don't think it's a lack historical accuracy per se, but rather the limited number of narrative voices. The stories of the marginalized people of history would be interesting to read. A fantasy universe which focuses on rich white people in blimps misses about 99.999% of the human condition.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 1:58 PM on October 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


Hey Charlie, if you pop in here, I would actually read your "revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic" if you wrote it.

Yeah, me too.

OTOH, the New Britain segments of the Merchant Princes world already come pretty close to that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:59 PM on October 27, 2010


I just today read Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters", and it's all kinds of awesome. And not a Babbage Engine in sight.
posted by Leon at 1:59 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


overeducated_alligator: "I don't think it's a lack historical accuracy per se, but rather the limited number of narrative voices. The stories of the marginalized people of history would be interesting to read. A fantasy universe which focuses on rich white people in blimps misses about 99.999% of the human condition."

Okay, THAT I can understand, and even agree with. I do enjoy the steampunk genre, but I would sorely love to see some original perspective in the novels coming out. Also, fewer vampires/werewolves. I'm sorry, Gail Carriger.
posted by specialagentwebb at 2:01 PM on October 27, 2010


The only "steampunk" book I've read (AFAIK) is Anubis Gates, which did a great job of weaving the brutality and lack of options/mobility of 17th century England into the story. However, I did not classify it as steampunk until I read Charlie's piece. I take it most contemporary steampunk is a far cry from this.

Wait, is Perdido Street Station steampunk? I guess I've read two steampunk books and liked half of 'em.
posted by Mister_A at 2:02 PM on October 27, 2010


I dunno, spec fic goes through fads like this. Cypberpunk anyone? I don't think anyone really wanted to be governed by corporations run by psycopaths and AIs, but that didn't stop Molly Millions from being cool.

Besides if liking Michael Swanwick and Kurt Schroeder and Robert Charles Wilson is wrong, I don't want to be right.

The real moral here appears to be that anything inspired by a Wiliam Gibson novel should be used as kindling.
posted by bonehead at 2:02 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and here's a comment which speaks strongly to me:

What killed steampunk for me was when I tried to get a bunch of the local steampunk aficionados to show up to a local antique steam and gas engine show. The concept of actually learning something about the technology behind the corsets, and perhaps even running a 16-ton, 12 horsepower steam traction action was just anathema, too out of there for them.

Fuck glueguns and silly hats, if you don't like the sound and smell of actual steam engines part of your soul is dead.
posted by Artw at 2:03 PM on October 27, 2010 [32 favorites]


If you punch him in the throat, though, you'll probably break your knuckles on his brass-rimmed leather goggles.

Streamboatpunk would be what happens when Fevre Dream meets The Light at the End.
posted by adipocere at 2:04 PM on October 27, 2010


if you don't like the sound and smell of actual steam engines part of your soul is dead.

Hells yes.

No, his argument is the same as Mieville's about Lord of the Rings: that it's a tritely romanticized image of a time that was demonstrably worse than our own.

Isn't this a criticism of ANY story set at any point in the past? You could just as well remove "steampunk" and replace it with "swords and sorcery" and the whole thing would read exactly the same.

Perhaps the real issue is that a futurist doesn't like the past. Way to root for the home team, Charlie.
posted by GuyZero at 2:09 PM on October 27, 2010


If you punch him in the throat, though, you'll probably break your knuckles on his brass-rimmed leather goggles.

HE ACTUALLY HAD THESE
posted by shakespeherian at 2:09 PM on October 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


What about the energy required to run these things?

Actually, that would make a pretty good mundane steampunk novel: start off with the usual premise (somebody builds Babbage's analytical engine in c.1840 and starts a steam-and-indentured-servant-powered information age) and let it run for 50 or 70 years, or even all the way forward into the present. I suspect the world would be a pretty goddamn grim place. It wouldn't be brasswork and goggles, it would be boiler explosions and smog masks.

What the premise boils down to is basically accelerating the progress of technology ahead of the underlying society, and it's not hard to find instances where that has actually happened and it's at best disruptive and at worst leads to entrenchment of really unpleasant social structures.

It would be interesting to read a 'mundane steampunk' treatment of global warming or the fossil-fuel runout, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:10 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't this a criticism of ANY story set at any point in the past? You could just as well remove "steampunk" and replace it with "swords and sorcery" and the whole thing would read exactly the same.

Well there is a larger ghost issue here - There Are No Black People In Space - which has dogged SF/F for some time.
posted by The Whelk at 2:11 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't this a criticism of ANY story set at any point in the past?

Well, stupid ill-thought out stories from the past, certainly.

if you don't like the sound and smell of actual steam engines part of your soul is dead.

Hells yes.


Unfortunately in stupid ill-thought out stories from the past everything runs on fucking magic, because nobody can be bothered finding out anything about how actual steam works.

Perhaps the real issue is that a futurist doesn't like the past. Way to root for the home team, Charlie.

Pretty much all of my favorite stuff of his is either set in or heavily grounded in Cold War history, so you may not be to accurate in your assessment there.
posted by Artw at 2:13 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I did not classify it as steampunk until I read Charlie's piece. I take it most contemporary steampunk is a far cry from this.

"Steampunk" was coined in 1987 in a letter by K.W. Jeter as a joke suggestion for a name for genre of "Victorian fantasies" being written by himself, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock, e.g., The Anubis Gates. Just like what's now called "urban fantasy" doesn't really resemble what was originally identified as urban fantasy (in just about exactly 1987... hmmm), most of what's now called steampunk doesn't look all that much like the works Jeter was referring to.
posted by Zed at 2:13 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, my idea of a great steampunk book is "Airborne" by kenneth Oppel and it's sequels "Skybreaker" and "Starclimber". First, a warning, these are definitely YA books but the good kind that have reasonable characters and good writing while still being somewhat simplified compared to an "adult" novel.

Anyway, these books are clearly set on Earth, but not our Earth. Calling Vancouver "Lionsgate City" while Paris remains Paris sets the books off to the side of history, not straight back. As for the general shittyness of life, well, ok, but so what? People were born and lived and died under oppressive regimes and like Stross describes, most of their stories are stories of hardship and suffering. But a lot were not. So the author choses the less shitty ones because a book about working in a button factory all day, well... if you're not Upton Sinclair it's probably not going to be a big seller.

It's not like Stross writes books set in the Foxconn factories of the future where people spend all day loading palettes of surface-mount diodes into pick-and-places machines for the latest iPhones.
posted by GuyZero at 2:15 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well so turns out I like steampunk. This day sucks! Fuck you, Wednesday!
posted by Mister_A at 2:16 PM on October 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


Well there is a larger ghost issue here - There Are No Black People In Space - which has dogged SF/F for some time.

Which is one of the reasons I LOVE the Earthsea Cycle. Ursula K. Le Guin pretty much reverses the typical fantasy trope. All of the good characters tend to be darker (communicating a lifestyle outdoors and communion with earth) while the evil characters are described as very pale (usually because they have a strong association with death). I simply refused to watch the recent miniseries because they completely ignored the skin color descriptions while forming a cast of pretty much white people.
posted by cyphill at 2:16 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Stross's critique of steampunk because it valorizes what he considers an historical era characterized by rampant social injustice might just as well be a critique of fantasy and fairy tale worlds in general, since most fantasy worlds look backwards and the past was full of social injustice.

That does sound like the SciFi/Fantasy debate, which seems to to come down to the degree that people are willing to suspend disbelief.

I too, would adore more Steampunk if it was more grounded in actual alt. history stuff.

I've never understood why the look of steampunk, which is gorgeous, has to be connected with history and the past. Seems like an unneeded anchor.
posted by nomadicink at 2:17 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, stupid ill-thought out stories from the past, certainly.

I am unsure of the necessity of having someone write a criticism of badly-written books.
posted by GuyZero at 2:17 PM on October 27, 2010


You could do a really cool critique of steampunk by starting with a typical genre figure, like a young dilettante off on his first trip to the colonies or something, and then have the protagonist become totally disillusioned with the reality of the situation (strip mines and slave labor) and end up leading a revolt. I'd read that.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:19 PM on October 27, 2010


Wait, is Perdido Street Station steampunk?

I wouldn't consider it so, but it weaves threads from so many different genres its hard to say no completely.
posted by bitdamaged at 2:20 PM on October 27, 2010


"whereas Steampunk asks, “Is Colonialism excusable and/or a necessary evil?”"

Mike Resnick has written a lot of colonialism-tinged SF. Not "steampunk", but definitely worth reading, IMO.
posted by Leon at 2:21 PM on October 27, 2010


You could do a really cool critique of steampunk by starting with a typical genre figure, like a young dilettante off on his first trip to the colonies or something, and then have the protagonist become totally disillusioned with the reality of the situation (strip mines and slave labor) and end up leading a revolt. I'd read that.

Are you joking or did you just summarize the plot of Avatar by accident?
posted by GuyZero at 2:22 PM on October 27, 2010 [16 favorites]


Pretty much all of my favorite stuff of his is either set in or heavily grounded in Cold War history, so you may not be to accurate in your assessment there.

Huh. I guess I was thinking more of Accelerando but yeah, I suppose he gets around as a writer.
posted by GuyZero at 2:23 PM on October 27, 2010


There is the Great White Hero Saving The Natives Issue.

Better having some Kuypling character enter actual poverty and the loss of a social net.
posted by The Whelk at 2:23 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I also want to read that novel cstross. A short story even.

Having grown up on the pleasant side of of a landowner / practically indentured peasant economy, I also miss the common people in most steampunk. It may be some residual guilt or soemthing, but every time I see a top hat I think of some poor hatter going mad from mercury poisoning, and when I see a zeppelin I picture child miners in an aluminum mine.

I know it is not exactly steampunk, since the pneumatic safety bicycle was only available during the last few years of the Vicotrian era, but I accidentally showed up to a tweed ride as a victorian bicycle factory worker: covered in grease and grime, with red eyes and a runny nose, wearing torn clothes and coughing like a sick dog. I did not make it to any Flickr set.
posted by Dr. Curare at 2:26 PM on October 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


As I have said elsewhere, when people watch Wuthering Heights on PBS they imagine themselves as the gentry when in fact they have a social standing at about the same level as the guy who shoveled Heathcliff's horse's shit.
posted by GuyZero at 2:29 PM on October 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


Are you joking or did you just summarize the plot of Avatar by accident?

Is that a steampunk book? I haven't read many of 'em since The Difference Engine.

No, seriously, I'm thinking that it could be done, and done well even, but in order for it to be effective you'd have to make the systemic injustices really graphic and explicit, probably to the degree that it'd no longer be marketable as steampunk. Not to mention the "Great White Hero Saving the Natives" issue that The Whelk brings up, although it might be interesting to then subvert that in the sequel. I don't know.

Now that I'm thinking about things a bit more seriously, colonialism isn't the only angle you could take. Maybe something with the protagonists as union organizers could be interesting.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:29 PM on October 27, 2010


I think you might just be better off re-writing The Jungle with bigger and better cow-crushing machines and several more people falling into the lard rendering tub.
posted by GuyZero at 2:31 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's pretty much exactly what I was thinking.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:32 PM on October 27, 2010


Is "The Windup Girl" steampunk? Probably not, but it's on that fringe somewhere. It's got airships and elephant-wound springs and femme fatales. It's also a great look at the costs of colonialism and how social breakdown happens.
posted by bonehead at 2:32 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think you might just be better off re-writing The Jungle with bigger and better cow-crushing machines and several more people falling into the lard rendering tub.

With lasers!
posted by shakespeherian at 2:33 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


What the premise boils down to is basically accelerating the progress of technology ahead of the underlying society, and it's not hard to find instances where that has actually happened and it's at best disruptive and at worst leads to entrenchment of really unpleasant social structures.

Could you expand on what you mean by how a technology can be accelerated ahead of a society? I tend to think in terms of technology being fairly neutral in terms of its existence (ok that's an oversimplification) but that it can be applied in different ways, with these ways reflecting the society in which it is made available. Society responds (or declines to respond) to the technology that is made available as a reflection of its mores, socio-economics, fashion, etc. I agree this can have all sorts of unseen impacts (social entrenchment, environmental, etc) but you seem to be implying that there is some sort of overarching pegging of societal advancement to technical advancement and I can't see how that can be.

Applying 'disruptive' as a description of a technology's impact does not necessarily imply a negative, the term has a specific meaning in technological innovation and can be (and often is) societally beneficial. (Though I guess this depends on whether you take a Marxian or Schumpterian perspective.)
posted by biffa at 2:33 PM on October 27, 2010


The Difference Engine does actually address some of the ecological problems mentioned here; there's a bit where they have an air-quality disaster similar to the real-life Big Smoke of 1952.

I think that the real problem with steampunk is that, like space opera, it's taken an aesthetic associated with solid scientific speculation and used it to dress up a fantasy story; you take all the brass and exposed rivets and pipes and analog gauges and gears and skin it over the usual air cars and robot butlers, even though you know that they still won't exist (in any real usable form, Roombas and ultralights notwithstanding) over a century later. Brown leather and brass is a pleasing aesthetic, if it's done well, just as black leather and chrome was, but if you have no more of a grasp on the limits of what Victorian technology could realistically accomplish than your average third-tier cyberpunk dabbler had regarding the limits of, and problems with, cybernetic implants, then you should just admit that you're into it because it's fun to cosplay in.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:35 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am unsure of the necessity of having someone write a criticism of badly-written books.

Well, it may encourage people to read and write better books, that's good, right? Or at least encourage them to think about why something is good or bad.

Hell, if this essay encourages someone to write non-shitty Steampunk out of shear contrariness then that's a result.
posted by Artw at 2:38 PM on October 27, 2010


I for one would love to see some real grit and class struggle in my steam punk.
The Communist Manifesto in the World of Tomorrow?
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:38 PM on October 27, 2010


I think you might just be better off re-writing The Jungle with bigger and better cow-crushing machines and several more people falling into the lard rendering tub.

With lasers!


SOLD
posted by Artw at 2:39 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


A fantasy universe which focuses on rich white people in blimps misses about 99.999% of the human condition.

On the other hand, 99% of (english language) history books focus on the rich, white people...

But we were brainstorming together and she wanted there to be airships and mutants from uranium. And some other stuff that just isn't appropriate for the time period.

That doesn't really matter, unless the 'alt' is actually at the battle, you can have any tech you like. If the steam engine had been invented in the first century AD and applied to industrial applications, where would technology be by the early 19th century? Of course the trick is picking a divergent point that still allows the historical events you want to write about to be plausible.
posted by robertc at 2:41 PM on October 27, 2010


When people ask me what I'm working on now, I tell them "a steampunk version of Ramona." I've read a ton of post-colonial theory, but not any steampunk novels, and these articles don't make me want to start. Is anything with airships and corsets automatically steampunk? I've been told that if you want to write in a genre, you should read it first, but what if there is nothing you want to read?
posted by betweenthebars at 2:41 PM on October 27, 2010


Or at least encourage them to think about why something is good or bad.

Fair enough. If the tl;dr summary of Stross' piece is "it looks great but MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE and smacks of privilege throughout" then sure, it is indeed a fair point that most people would be well-served to understand.
posted by GuyZero at 2:42 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


"it looks great but MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE and smacks of privilege throughout"

See, that's the bit I'm 100% behind.
posted by Artw at 2:44 PM on October 27, 2010


I've been told that if you want to write in a genre, you should read it first, but what if there is nothing you want to read?

Reading for research is different than reading for pleasure? And you want to make sure that you at least don't repeat the mistakes of other authors? Or tread too heavily on things that have been done before? Plus be in a position where you can speak authoritatively on what you're doing? Because you don't want to be called a poseur?

I mean, as someone whose last project was YA paranormal romance, I empathize. But you should probably swallow your lumps and do it anyway. And who knows--you might find some hidden gems and stuff worth reading and at the very least it should be instructive about what not to do.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:46 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Since Stross mentioned China Mieville's critique of Tolkien, I'll say about this what I said about that: dismissing fiction simply because it embraces "bad" ideas like empire is short-sighted. The conflict between empire and democracy, between the many and the few, and between the heroic and the humble is not finished, and probably never will be. Like it or not, all of these concepts have a continuing impact on Western society and the Western worldview; as such, they deserve better than to be viewed through a single lens of automatic approval or disapproval.

At their best, novels which romanticize history allow authors and readers to explore these ideas and draw their own conclusions. They allow us to hold a mirror up to our own unexamined questions; they allow us to look beyond one-dimensional answers in search of uncomfortable truths about ourselves, our morality, and our world. And yes, "it was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing" is an extremely one-dimensional answer -- I don't doubt that people living 150 years from now will say the same about us, but that doesn't mean that their novels would be accurate if they all portrayed every single aspect of 20th/21st century life in an identically neo-post-postmodernist negative light. The ideas we're uncomfortable with have as much or more power as those we embrace; the best fiction has always been about exploring the tension between the two, not about denying that any such tension exists.

That said, I'd love to read a mundane steampunk novel like the one Stross describes in his last few paragraphs. But just as it took time for mundane sci-fi to come out of the hero-with-a-lasergun stuff, it'll take a while before people start deconstructing steampunk (much of which is, admittedly, very poor writing focused squarely on the author's navel).
posted by vorfeed at 2:46 PM on October 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


What about if instead of the history, we looked at literary roots. Considering these are novels, that does seem fair, doesn't it?
They're often just re-rendered early twentieth century adventure novels. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:46 PM on October 27, 2010


Related SA Weekend Web.
posted by brownpau at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2010


I mean, as someone whose last project was YA paranormal romance, I empathize.

OH ho ho ho ho ho ho. Boy, howdy. I'm sorry.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is anything with airships and corsets automatically steampunk?

To some folk, yep.

I think, to a certain extent, the whole thing as it exists now is an aesthetic movement that takes it's cues from various Final Fantasy video games and similar Japanese works that have a distorted and somewhat romantisised view of late 19th to early 20th European culture with an emphasis on idealising anyone vaguely authoritarian. The actual Victorian era itself, real history of Europe and stuff like how-machinery-actually-work are not really concerns for people coming at it from that angle.
posted by Artw at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


the whole thing as it exists now is an aesthetic movement that takes it's cues from various Final Fantasy video games

Mmmm . . . Magitek armor.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:53 PM on October 27, 2010


A fantasy universe which focuses on rich white people in blimps misses about 99.999% of the human condition.

As opposed to a fantasy universe which focuses on impoverished minorities in blimps.

Sorry, I just thought the "in blimps" part made the whole sentence really funny.
posted by The World Famous at 3:06 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


All of these suggestions about politically-sensitive steampunk novels sound fucking horrible. But the problem isn't that they're bad; it's that the political side is just as much of an ideological fantasy as" rich white people in airships" is. The politics in sf always, always end up resolving into a caricature where there is one solution to every problem (usually some version of libertarianism and/or anarcho-communism) and a well-defined set of bad guys whose overthrow is bound to lead to utopia. This typically results from a mindset in which the best response to an implicitly politically problematic narrative is an explicitly political one, which is total bullshit that makes for awful writing. (Ursula Le Guin is a great writer, I'll give her that, but the woo-woo earth-people bits in the Earthsea trilogy were definitely not the best thing about those books.)

I honestly don't know what you people think you'll be accomplishing by writing My Life in the Brass Goggle Factory. The politics of your fictional world are not a good place to act out your frustrations over the inability to create change in reality, at least not if your goal is to write well. And if you do write a novel about proletarian uprisings or whatever, so what? It'll just be another Hollywood-approved "scrappy rebels versus the Empire" fantasy that does precisely nothing to increase support for systemic change.
posted by nasreddin at 3:09 PM on October 27, 2010 [21 favorites]


I think Stross is right but not interesting, here. I don't read the stuff he's lambasting, anyway. I did enjoy The Difference Engine, which pretty much gets right all the stuff the genre apparently now gets wrong.

But did you guys read the second essay? A "steampunk" set in the Belgian Congo could be horrific and amazing.
posted by grobstein at 3:10 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


While reading Stross' article, I came across his references to "zombies and zeppelins" and immediately formed the awesome mental image of Zombie Led Zeppelin.

Can someone please invent the new genre of 1960sBritishInvasionUndeadPunk so that Zombie Led Zeppelin can become a (fictional) reality?
posted by The World Famous at 3:13 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Impossible - Punk kills the bloated corpse of Prog.
posted by Artw at 3:15 PM on October 27, 2010


A "steampunk" set in the Belgian Congo could be horrific and amazing.

Check out A Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt.

Airships. Submarines. Even impoverished people and a slightly multi-racial POV.

And a living, sentient jungle that eats people alive and takes over their brains.

I liked it much better than "The Court of the Air" to which Kingdom is a sequel.
posted by GuyZero at 3:17 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"it looks great but MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE and smacks of privilege throughout"

Nthing that this is a critique of a lot of historical-esque fantasy and that part of the problem is that "steampunk" is really a fantasy genre and not an SF genre. I cop to not having (recently, at least) read the Mieville piece on Tolkien, but if it's anything like the Brin hit piece on Star Wars from some years back, I'm not inclined to bother. Fantasy genres, and again, I class both most of what I've read that's currently described as "steampunk" and Star Wars as fantasy genres despite the lack of sword and sorcery trappings, are not particularly progressive, right-thinking, "politically correct", morally-sound-if-in-the-real-world, or whatever other term along those lines you might care for genres. But pleasure reading isn't necessarily about moral correctness. Sometimes it's just for fun, even if some of the fun comes from imagining yourself wealthy and powerful in worlds where wealth and power come from the sweat equity of 90+% of the rest of the population.

The whole thing reminds me of something I once read about new age reincarnations: most people imagine they were previously incarnated as kings and queens and the like, but despite the fact that most people throughout history have lives short, brutal lives at subsistence levels, very few people remember being incarnated in that sort of life. Our fantasies are not about being poor and miserable, and that's what a lot of historically-accurate fantasy would be about.

On preview: I've read some explicitly libertarian sf, nasreddin, and that's part of what made me accept that fantasy whose politics I'd find horrifying in real life wasn't criminal to enjoy. The libertarian SF I'd run across was so un-fun to read that it was like a funhouse mirror image of Soviet tractor art. Why would I want to read that when I could watch Star Wars again?
posted by immlass at 3:18 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Oh yes - and coal-powered sentient robot-men.
posted by GuyZero at 3:18 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


A while back I remember listening to a podcast on Steampunk and one of the people said they had got into it via Wild Wild West which frankly explained a lot. And possibly contributed to me wanting to want to write a dark reactionary anti-Steam Punk novel, sort of like From Hell meets Elephant Man but with lots of crushing people beneath cruel machinery. But as ever it goes on the back burner due to the sheer amount of research needed to do it properly.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:18 PM on October 27, 2010


Check out A Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt.

And on non-preview, I second this recommendation.
posted by immlass at 3:18 PM on October 27, 2010


Oh yes - also dinosaurs.

I'm unsure why this isn't MeFi's favorite book because it's ticking off all the boxes here.
posted by GuyZero at 3:20 PM on October 27, 2010


Impossible - Punk kills the bloated corpse of Prog.

I have no problem with Joe Strummer the Slayer emerging victorious against Zombie ELO, Zombie Yes, and Zombie Genesis. As long as he joins forces with the MC5 and the Stooges in order to find a way to defeat Zombie Jimmy Page (who is, obviously, in league with the Devil). Zombie Keith Richards, on the other hand, is a) invincible, and b) identical to the real-world Keith Richards in every way.
posted by The World Famous at 3:20 PM on October 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


So Stross thinks Steampunk should be grim and gritty? Something like The Dark Knight Returns...

This should be unbearable. I should be a insufferable load of muscle - broken, spent, unable to do my Lord's bidding. And were I an older gentleman adventurer, I surely would be...But I'm a man of 30..of 20 again. The steam in my face is a baptism. I'm born again.
posted by nomadicink at 3:21 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I honestly don't know what you people think you'll be accomplishing by writing My Life in the Brass Goggle Factory.

An interesting take on a genre that has a lot of potential for interesting fiction but is currently swamped with poorly thought-out crap? I don't know; I wasn't actually planning on writing anything at all – much less "increase support for systemic change" – just sort of thinking aloud about what a steampunk novel might look like that took some of Stross and Shawl's critiques into consideration.

And yes, grobstein, I think Belgian Congo steampunk thing would be awesome, and am totally fascinated by the Belgian Congo anyway since an industrial band called Severe Illusion did a concept album, Accomplishments of Leopold II, about it; the booklet was a send-up of grade school history textbooks complete with discussion questions like "King Leopold cut off people's hands to make sure people were afraid of him. Do you think he was mean to do that?"
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:22 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


On preview: I've read some explicitly libertarian sf, nasreddin, and that's part of what made me accept that fantasy whose politics I'd find horrifying in real life wasn't criminal to enjoy. The libertarian SF I'd run across was so un-fun to read that it was like a funhouse mirror image of Soviet tractor art. Why would I want to read that when I could watch Star Wars again?

Yeah, exactly.

Speaking of Soviet tractor art, the only work of sf I've run across that does the political thing exceptionally well (albeit with a kind of existentialist bent) is The Doomed City by the Strugatsky brothers. I'm not sure whether it's been translated, but it's really an incredible response to utopias and dystopias of all kinds.
posted by nasreddin at 3:22 PM on October 27, 2010


What the premise boils down to is basically accelerating the progress of technology ahead of the underlying society, and it's not hard to find instances where that has actually happened and it's at best disruptive and at worst leads to entrenchment of really unpleasant social structures.
cf. Meiji Restoration Japan.

Actually, if you want your 'swords and steam' story ... why not write one where a samurai wakes up one day and finds a fleet of black iron clads in Yokohama harbor; then realizes that his precious katana is now totally obsolete. Oh wait ...
posted by bl1nk at 3:30 PM on October 27, 2010


but with lots of crushing people beneath cruel machinery. But as ever it goes on the back burner due to the sheer amount of research needed to do it properly.

I am curious about what sort of cruel-crushing-machinery research you had in mind. I figure you can probably just wing that part pretty well.
posted by GuyZero at 3:38 PM on October 27, 2010


I honestly don't know what you people think you'll be accomplishing by writing My Life in the Brass Goggle Factory.

This is pretty much the premise of the first third of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, as it happens. I do think it's Swanwick's best, but I could also be convinced of Stations of the Tide, I suppose.
posted by bonehead at 3:42 PM on October 27, 2010


Can someone please invent the new genre of 1960sBritishInvasionUndeadPunk

Done.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:49 PM on October 27, 2010


From a technology policy perspective it seems to me the long domination of the Tokugawa shogunate was the more interesting element, essentially holding back the adoption of a technology in order to prevent the end of a social order and was very much about the entrenchment of unpleasant social structures. I have to admit to being fascinated by the film of the Last Samurai, in that you don't see too many defences for the replacement of Feudalism (which isn't to say it wasn't an arse film). On this basis, I would argue that this period wasn't an example of a technology accelrated beyond the underlying society but was actually the repression of a technology by sufficiently powerful elements of that society for reasons of self interest.

This actually goes to the point I think Stross was making, in that the focus was on the samurai (ie the top of the social ladder) losing out rather than the start of the making of modern Japan (and rather than the samurai being toppled as an oppressor of the common man). An argument for disruption as the precursor to overall increase in welfare.
posted by biffa at 3:49 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


The N.K. Jemisin story from the second link, which features a Haitian lesbian spy who takes an airship to New Orleans, is actually pretty decent. So is her recent fantasy novel series.
posted by amber_dale at 3:56 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


These hypothetical projects are starting to remind me of Illusion. It's the wrong era, (French Revolution), but an interesting and non starry-eyed vision of what it might be like, complete with futuristic-y war machines. I've never thought of steampunk as being anything but fantasy. Illusion is definitely fantasy, too, and likely YA. I never know how they differentiate YA from regular adult.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:56 PM on October 27, 2010


the whole thing as it exists now is an aesthetic movement that takes it's cues from various Final Fantasy video games

It's entirely possibly that I am suffering from a long-suppressed desire to write Final Fantasy fanfiction. Suppressed because it would be based on Final Fantasy VII. And I would totally read My Life in the Brass Goggle Factory if it was Dreiser-style melodrama, maybe with people falling off airships instead of boats.

Actually, if you want your 'swords and steam' story ... why not write one where a samurai wakes up one day and finds a fleet of black iron clads in Yokohama harbor; then realizes that his precious katana is now totally obsolete. Oh wait ...

Yeah, Meiji era w/ robots has already been done.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:04 PM on October 27, 2010


Can someone please invent the new genre of 1960sBritishInvasionUndeadPunk so that Zombie Led Zeppelin can become a (fictional) reality?

Why, there's a whiff of exactly that in Pynchon's Inherent Vice.
posted by tangerine at 4:14 PM on October 27, 2010


Crossover!
posted by Artw at 4:21 PM on October 27, 2010


the awesome mental image of Zombie Led Zeppelin

Hey hey Mama
Said the way you move
Gonna make you sweat
Gonna eat your brain...

...

Squeeze my braaaaaaiiiins
Until the braaaaiiiiins run down my braaaaaiiins
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:26 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


...some poor hatter going mad from mercury poisoning, and when I see a zeppelin I picture child miners in an aluminum mine.

Can we change the children to Orcs slaving away in the mines? That'd be ok, no?
posted by sammyo at 4:27 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why, there's a whiff of exactly that in Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

A whiff is insufficient. I demand an entire genre, complete with daily BoingBoing.com posts about it.
posted by The World Famous at 4:27 PM on October 27, 2010


I've always wonderes if you could do Middle Earth from Sauron's perspective, a technological revolutionary, looking to undo centuries of feudal tradition and enslavement, brought down by the representatives of the old guard.
posted by The Whelk at 4:33 PM on October 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Obligatory link to the Chomsky and Zinn audio commentary for Return of the Kind
posted by Artw at 4:36 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Damnit Art, I just got here with that link. Comedy gold.
posted by GuyZero at 4:37 PM on October 27, 2010


We need to combine the worst of the Tolkein rip-off fantasy with the worst of the Steampunk genre. Elves on blimps. Orcs with steam-powered tanks. A plucky hero who tries to defend the widget factory at the edge of the world.

From shirtless vampires.

Oh. Yeah.

I'll call it The Bitter Taste of Steam and Twilight
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:38 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Really not far off my feelings about Tolkien and the whole "Kings are great!" style of Fantasy, TBH.
posted by Artw at 4:38 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Elves on blimps. Orcs with steam-powered tanks.

And thus World of Warcraft was born.

I mean, seriously, this was the original Warcraft, no?
posted by GuyZero at 4:39 PM on October 27, 2010


We need to combine the worst of the Tolkein rip-off fantasy with the worst of the Steampunk genre. Elves on blimps. Orcs with steam-powered tanks. A plucky hero who tries to defend the widget factory at the edge of the world.


Ah! I've seen you've played Arcanum
posted by The Whelk at 4:42 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


(paraphrase): "I looked up, hoping to see Zeppelins. I like Zeppelins."
posted by ovvl at 4:45 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The politics in sf always, always end up resolving into a caricature where there is one solution to every problem (usually some version of libertarianism and/or anarcho-communism) and a well-defined set of bad guys whose overthrow is bound to lead to utopia.

That's actually not what people are asking for though. When talking about the Steampunk movement, the question is:

1) for "alternative history" why is there still so much focus on European colonialism
2) as a good thing?

An example of well done Steampunk that breaks out of that? The Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon. (Sure, it has a utopian-esque ending, but hey, for 7 year old kids and also, the genocide is never reversed or magicked away...)

The issue is not "Let's all have happy (& simplistic) novels" as much as, "Um, your escapism seems to be mostly about escaping the existence of other cultures and peoples - except as appropriated stereotypes and props for your squee - what's up with that?"
posted by yeloson at 4:46 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The (non 40k) Warhammer universe is fairly teched up in parts. Of course, everything Warhammer is tinged with cynicism and bastardry to a certain extent so I'm not sure it counts.

Oh, and what is this "Great Underground Empire" that people speak of?
posted by Artw at 4:47 PM on October 27, 2010


The libertarian SF I'd run across was so un-fun to read that it was like a funhouse mirror image of Soviet tractor art.

Ahem. Soviet tractor art is awesome.

(note: last image is NSFW)
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:49 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


ovvl - Almost right. It's airships. And there weren't any. There weren't any the next time either, very sad.
posted by Artw at 4:51 PM on October 27, 2010


The politics in sf always, always end up resolving into a caricature where there is one solution to every problem (usually some version of libertarianism and/or anarcho-communism) and a well-defined set of bad guys whose overthrow is bound to lead to utopia.

I don't think you've read much science fiction! It seems like your impression was formed by Jerry Pournelle in the 70s and 80s or something.

Ah! I've seen you've played Arcanum

Don't be dissing Arcanum. It had problems but at least it wasn't the same old crap we always get!
posted by Justinian at 4:54 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


yeloson: "Related: Multiculturalism in Steampunk.

My own thoughts after World Fantasy last year boil down to: Sci-fi asked, “How does technology shape society?”, Cyberpunk asked, “How does technology enforce/break status quo?”, whereas Steampunk asks, “Is Colonialism excusable and/or a necessary evil?”

It's still an evolving scene, though, so, as Nisi states, it could still branch out and give us more stuff like Steampunk Nusantara - though whether these end up becoming useful cross-connections or simply follow most other geekdoms and result in self-segregation, we'll have to see
"


I had a friend of mine, who explained to me she actually loves the DIY ethos of the steampunk costuming, and being an Asian American, relishes the opportunity to sort of re-forge a bit of history to where people that lloked like her or her friends cansort of stake out a new space in an alt-histpry.
posted by ShawnStruck at 4:54 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


t's airships.

Tsk. And I'm sure you know that, and were paraphrasing deliberately and not just typing from memory. I am a know-it-all fool.
posted by Artw at 4:55 PM on October 27, 2010


Don't be dissing Arcanum.

I don't diss! non-dissing! anti-Diss! SANS DISS.
posted by The Whelk at 5:10 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


nasreddin: The politics in sf always, always end up resolving into a caricature where there is one solution to every problem (usually some version of libertarianism and/or anarcho-communism) and a well-defined set of bad guys whose overthrow is bound to lead to utopia.

Or worse, political commentary as the BDSM scene involving a tube of superglue.

There is a fair bit of "do as I say, not as I do here," as many of the same criticisms can be fired at Stross's own novel-long wank that starts with privileged intelligentsia getting into a conflict that doesn't matter to ~6 billion humans, spends a second act on mind uploads, and concludes with the fantasy of superluminal routers lurking around brown dwarf stars.

Granted, I didn't find Boneshaker to be very good. But, Cherrie Priest, at a minimum, does a half-assed job of addressing privilege. And I can see her zombie apocalypse the same way I see a grey-goo, AI singularity, as a magical plot device that looks cool in print used to create dramatic conflict.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:10 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


ObInfernokrusherLink: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/006381.html
posted by pantufla_milagrosa at 5:13 PM on October 27, 2010


Oh, man, that China Mieville takedown of Tolkien makes me so mad I could spit. It's like he never bothered reading The Hobbit, or he thought Strider was the main character, or that the Orcs were anything other than the Wehrmacht personified...

So, if that's the Stross model for Yet Another Fantasy Crit - I am dissapoint. Old hat, often debunked. Read moar Pterry.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:14 PM on October 27, 2010


I find the whole genre oddly...specific? As an aesthetic, I'm already tired of looking at it, but whatever; as a type of literature, it seems incredibly limited as well as so abstracted from the real world as to just be a species of pure fantasy, meaning that the sf-as-social-commentary angle can only be explored in the most roundabout of ways. Doesn't mean it's going anywhere, though. I've been waiting for everyone to get over zombies since about 2006.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:15 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I dunno, I think Stross is lobbing most of his grenades from where he sits on his own genre spectrum, and whilst it's very trendy in SFF circles (especially the Livejournal SFF circles, gag) to criticise books based on their political spin etc, I actually think the problem is much simpler than that (which Stross also touches on, to be fair), namely: Genres get popular and become polluted with crappy writers and not-crappy writers looking for a quick buck at the urging of their publishers. (Victorian novel + monsters anyone?)

The role of marketing and marketers is more to blame than anything else. I don't think steampunk (admittedly, I don't read a tonne of it) is inherently worse than any other kind of genre. Indeed, I don't think any genre is inherently bad in and of itself. Writers are bad. Books are bad.

More broadly, take a look at the bestsellers in any genre, or overall. The fact of the matter is people read (and like) shitty books. They're really very popular. It would be easy to chuck off on this trend (let's face it, who isn't tempted to when you see someone reading Dan Brown, or [controversial!] Robert Jordan?), but the fact is, I watch a lot of crappy television and I'm a-okay with it, so I'm reluctant to get all judgey about people's reading habits.

I think a problem for the Livejournal criticism crowd is their soviet-era tendency to equate good politics, with good art. The two are not necessarily conjoined, as a quick survey of fascist architecture, banned soviet literature, and Wilkie Collins' later novels demonstrates - just to think of a few examples.

This doesn't render books immune to political criticism, but it's just one component of the critical mosaic.

In this regard, steampunk is no better or worse than any other genre you care to name, really. There are good books and bad books, most of them are bad. And that's okay. And it's certainly not the genre's fault.
posted by smoke at 5:18 PM on October 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


Zombies and zeppelins....yeah, I read Cherie Priest's Boneshaker...Drivel. Pure Drivel.

I like the idea, and think it worked well when put to anime for Last Exile, but I just haven't read anything yet that makes me want to search for more of it.
posted by rhythim at 5:18 PM on October 27, 2010


...what is this "Great Underground Empire" that people speak of?

Probably some retro-geeky thing that only a flathead would understand.
posted by bonehead at 5:21 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I find the whole genre oddly...specific?

This is what chafs me. It doesn't have to be. Alt-History crazy tech 19th century? I am so down with that, but a lot of it never goes outside this WHEE ISN'T IT GREAT BEING RICH AND WHITE world and is such a shallow reading of the premise.

I don't want to make The Brass Goggle Factory Worker I wanna make The Brass Google Factory Worker Who Gets Seeped Up In A Critical But Badly-Managed Political Movement And It All Goes To Hell. I still hold that one of the S's in SF can be Social, that SF can be used to explore the possible effects and situations borne out of new technology, and since a few of Us Americans have noticed the push toward The New Gilded Age, the artifacts of that time take on a kind of resonance, and SP can be used to explore the idea that hey, maybe rampant oligarchies and bought politicians and wartime adventurism isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread. It's hard to read about The Great Game or the Spanish American War or White Man's Burden without thinking of our own circumstances, and I feel SP lit should address that.

And also, as I said before, the lack of imagination. The What If.. lede for SP is *great*, you could go in a hundred directions with that, but they don't, and the direction they do go in is kinda troubling and strange and same-y and mostly, boring. Like I feeling not a whole lot of thought was put into creating their worlds, and as a SF/F reader, that is one of the bigger sins.
posted by The Whelk at 5:28 PM on October 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


The Brass Google Factory Worker Who Gets Seeped Up In A Critical But Badly-Managed Political Movement And It All Goes To Hell.

I call it Bolshevikpunk, who's with me? We can claim growing rye in winter turns it into grain!
posted by The Whelk at 5:30 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Reacting to the second link, I'll certainly give Nisi Shawl's novel a shot when it gets published. Which I think is another strike against Stross's argument that people are not addressing the uglier aspects of the 19th century.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:32 PM on October 27, 2010


See now I keep wanting The Crimson Petal And The White but with ROBOTS.


(wait I already sold that to DC, damn)
posted by The Whelk at 5:34 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Brass Google Factory Worker Who Gets Seeped Up In A Critical But Badly-Managed Political Movement And It All Goes To Hell.

Again, Swanwick. Also includes psycopathic dragon masters, blood sacrifices and a sex majic university. There's a lot in that book.
posted by bonehead at 5:34 PM on October 27, 2010


I enjoy this thread cause it's pointing me to books I would have never read.
posted by The Whelk at 5:35 PM on October 27, 2010


And also, not to rant but I am, the entire PREMISE of Steampunk is alt.historical in nature, well what if you did introduce an advanced technology into the past? And I don't see a ton of investigation into what that actually means. It's just lazy writing, the Past is a different country, totally alien you to you or me, with it's own agendas and motivations and I just don't see a lot of that in the new crop of SP stories. For the little SP story I sold, I had to write a lot of characters talking about the Natives in a realistic way a Director-Governor in Dali would talk about them, and it was kinda depressing cause I was writing these bombastic White Man's Burden talks taken from sources and they're totally fucking depressing and patronizing and all that.

I mean, think about fucking pants. Bloomers. It was illegal for a woman to wear pants in public for a long ass time. As late as 1920 you could get a ticket for wearing pants, in public, as a lady. It was dangerous. Bicycles got outlawed in some areas cause you couldn't ride them "modestly". Anti-Bloomers leagues started, and suddenly super-huge Dress Reform was a HUGE legit social issue, because men could make laws dictating how women could dress, and as a result, bustles became popular. As technology was driving some aspects of female independence, other technology and social strands were trying to lesson it. Isn't that interesting? Wouldn't a sudden huge leap in technology result in people using it to enforce "traditional" values? Maybe giving a ravenous super-power EVEN MORE power isn't a hugely wonderful idea? Where are the saboteurs, the turncoats, the reformers, the anarchists, the elements of the 19th Century so fucking strange?
posted by The Whelk at 5:48 PM on October 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Could you expand on what you mean by how a technology can be accelerated ahead of a society? I tend to think in terms of technology being fairly neutral in terms of its existence [...] but you seem to be implying that there is some sort of overarching pegging of societal advancement to technical advancement and I can't see how that can be.

I admit to not having given this enough thought to construct an entirely coherent model, but I do think that there is a relationship between social and technological development (which we might choose to call "progress", if you agree with cstross' assertion that the present is a much nicer place than the past; I personally agree with him but I've talked to people who seem to disagree, particularly if you go back to before the development of agriculture).

Technology isn't developed in a vacuum, and it doesn't -- initially, anyway -- just fall from the sky; it gets developed, typically, to solve some problem in a particular social context. Technology isn't something abstract, like math; it's by definition applied.

It's tough to come up with a Sid Meier-esque dependency graph, because we've really only gone through the process once, but even just based on that I don't think it's much of a stretch to show that some technological developments were spurred by social ones, or would probably not have occurred if the social conditions had been much different.

The European Renaissance is typically attributed, at least in part, to the decline of the Church and traditional feudal power structures in the wake of the Black Death. It's not hard to imagine how it might have happened earlier had conditions been right, or might not have happened until much later if they had not been. I think you can make similar arguments about many other periods of revolutionary technological change, e.g. the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, technology changes society at the same time that society affects the direction of technological development; there's a very strong feedback loop at work.

But when we take some piece of technology out of the development in which it was developed and drop it into some other society, the results are often unpredictable. I agree that 'disruption' is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think there are risks when a group of elites are able to cherry-pick technologies from outside their society: at the extreme, you get the Taliban, who seem to have found no hypocrisy in enforcing their ideal society (which is a mismash of things but seems to look an awful lot like the early Ottoman Empire circa the 14th century) using the best weapons the 20th century has to offer, while simultaneously denying (or attempting to deny) the use of technology which would have led to disruptive social change (satellite TV, abortion, birth control). The Taliban are an extreme example, but you can see the same choosiness among lots of socially conservative groups, even in the U.S.

I can think of virtually no situations where this sort of cherry-picking by elite power groups has been beneficial for a group of people as a whole, and in some cases I think it leads to worse consequences than no outside technology at all. It's difficult to envision a solution that isn't unacceptably parental, but I think it's still worth putting thought into.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:57 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


The European Renaissance is typically attributed, at least in part, to the decline of the Church and traditional feudal power structures in the wake of the Black Death. It's not hard to imagine how it might have happened earlier had conditions been right, or might not have happened until much later if they had not been. I think you can make similar arguments about many other periods of revolutionary technological change, e.g. the Industrial Revolution.

If you believe Umberto Eco, it was beans.

Also reading glasses.
posted by The Whelk at 5:59 PM on October 27, 2010


Typo correction, to my 6th para:

But when we take some piece of technology out of the development environment in which it was developed...
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:00 PM on October 27, 2010


Also, it's naive euro-centric bullshit to believe colonialism (by Vicki's time already 300 years a fact) is the only, or even largest elephant in the room. Nope. It's Bleeding Kansas, and then The War Between the States. Didja know what Sherman did after his March Sea? He won the Indian Wars, and in much the same way. Modern war, and not old-as-humanity ethnic/class bullshit, is, was and will be the intractible reality of steampunk.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:01 PM on October 27, 2010


I mean ...RUBBER. You need rubber for all this stuff, and Rubber is basically the reason why the British had Huge chunks of the South Pacific. Fordlania, the strange not-country built by Ford to harvest rubber in South America? That the Germans developed artificial Rubber cause they didn't HAVE any easy access to rubber-producing colonies?
posted by The Whelk at 6:05 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


And cosmic thread convergence.
posted by The Whelk at 6:18 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Genres get popular and become polluted with crappy writers and not-crappy writers looking for a quick buck at the urging of their publishers. (Victorian novel + monsters anyone?)

Could be worse for cstross. He could be working in YA, and have to contend with people doing that PLUS throwing in really lazy, over-simplified portrayals of teen characters, plus loads of talking down to your audience, because writing for kiddies sells and kiddies can't tell the difference.

PLUS all that crappy, poorly conceptualized steampunk stuff.

(I'm looking at you, Scott Westerfeld.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:35 PM on October 27, 2010


The funny thing is that Stross has actually written a bit of steampunk himself. And it's online! Read the bit starting at "Report 1".
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:37 PM on October 27, 2010


Nah, Rubber gives you Infantry and Marines. It's Iron (cold iron) that gives the British the Man-O-War.
posted by bonehead at 6:46 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Cold iron also stops pesky faerie infestations.
posted by The Whelk at 6:48 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Brass Google Factory Worker Who Gets Seeped Up In A Critical But Badly-Managed Political Movement And It All Goes To Hell.

Also, upon reflection, this is kinda Iron Council too, but I can't in good conscience recommend that.
posted by bonehead at 6:49 PM on October 27, 2010


Whelk: I wanna make The Brass Google Factory Worker Who Gets Seeped Up In A Critical But Badly-Managed Political Movement And It All Goes To Hell.

Okay, so that's why I love Mieville, because that's what most of his books seem like to me.1 It gives me a confused sad to see people talking him down here... I mean, come on, Perdido Street Station had a machine that ran off of pure dialectical materialism. If liking that is wrong, I don't want to be right.

[1]: Though with an extra "also there's magic spiders and some freaky monsters that will eat and then shit out your soul" element on top
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:49 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Y'know what steampunk oughtta be?

It oughtta be all about what happens when the Romans take a look at Heron of Alexandria's little steam toy and, instead of dismissing it as a novelty, a smart Roman realizes the potential and by 150 CE Rome is a steam-powered, mechanized, truly world-girdling empire.

Rome understood the value of incorporating the local culture and values into the far-flung regions of the Empire, which would probably give a far more multicultural aspect to the milieu, even with slavery as an integral part of the social fabric. Roman slaves were not so exclusively... Well, brown as the British Empire's peons.

I wonder how long it would take steam-powered Rome to totally deforest Europe?

Anyway, everyone's missing the point, steampunk is just an excuse to create all kinds of awesome illustrations, models and sculpture!
posted by zoogleplex at 8:02 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hellenepunk

FEAR MY TALOS!
posted by The Whelk at 8:04 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ahem. Soviet tractor art is awesome.

OK, I admit that the first one was pretty awesome.

smoke really nailed what I was getting at. Well-done art can be political, but political art for politics' sake can be really awful. While I have enjoyed art that I thought had critical politics in it--the Hunt novel mentioned upthread comes to mind--Sturgeon's law and Ellison's corollary apply with feeling.

Technology isn't developed in a vacuum, and it doesn't -- initially, anyway -- just fall from the sky; it gets developed, typically, to solve some problem in a particular social context. Technology isn't something abstract, like math; it's by definition applied.

This is why I tend to be kind of wary of alt history (steampunk included) written by people with a lousy sense of history. Ill thought-out and badly developed alternate history has turned me off more movies, tv, and rpgs than I like to think about over the years. /history snob
posted by immlass at 8:36 PM on October 27, 2010


Ill thought-out and badly developed alternate history has turned me off more movies, tv, and rpgs than I like to think about over the years.

This is why Jo Walton is so awesome. Harry Turtledove, she ain't.
posted by bonehead at 8:43 PM on October 27, 2010


I actually had thoughts similar to this when reading The Diamond Age. Most of the main characters are "Neo-Victorians" and live in lovely clean psuedo-Victorian houses, on their highly fortified islands where they build molecular clockwork. It's like the Victorian era stripped of all the actual real things that made it real and horrible, leaving... I don't know what. A lovely fantasy.

Okay, so that's why I love Mieville, because that's what most of his books seem like to me.1 It gives me a confused sad to see people talking him down here... I mean, come on, Perdido Street Station had a machine that ran off of pure dialectical materialism. If liking that is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Me too- I love the world he manages to spin in that book. I'm not that widely read on steampunk but it's partly because I feel like I loved his Bas-Lag world so much that almost anything else would feel a bit of a let-down. Hell itself has an embassy there. If anything screams "Dickensian steampunk", his books do.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:40 PM on October 27, 2010


Right. I mean, steampunk, eh, I can take it or leave it. but dialecticspunk? That's just perfect.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:06 PM on October 27, 2010


(I'm looking at you, Scott Westerfeld.)

Westerfeld saddens me. His Evolution's Darling is wonderful. Then he decided that he liked making enough money to like feed his family and fend off poverty and such and began writing YA crap. And is, to my understand, unlikely to ever reverse the process.

So I'll pretend he died instead.
posted by Justinian at 10:37 PM on October 27, 2010


Good thread, guys.

I read the thread before checking the original articles, thinking, "Surely Stross doesn't hate Girl Genius? Girl Genius is awesome." I was happy to see he made an exception.
posted by painquale at 10:42 PM on October 27, 2010


Zoogleplex wrote: It oughtta be all about what happens when the Romans take a look at Heron of Alexandria's little steam toy and, instead of dismissing it as a novelty, a smart Roman realizes the potential and by 150 CE Rome is a steam-powered, mechanized, truly world-girdling empire.

It's been done, sort of. L Sprague deCamp wrote a classic science fiction story about a man who accidentally travels back in time. He introduces things like distillation and a printing press. Frederick Pohl riffed off his concept ("The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass") - his hero got the idea of time travel from DeCamp's story and introduced the Romans to things like antibiotics and modern agriculture. By the end of the story the earth's surface is one wriggling mass of people and they've started draining the seas to provide more room. It's not a happy ending.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:51 PM on October 27, 2010


Boing Boing is looking rather interesting right now.
posted by Artw at 11:13 PM on October 27, 2010


Artw I was going to ask you if it was 2002 again, but I stand corrected, that is interesting!
posted by smoke at 11:19 PM on October 27, 2010


Westerfeld saddens me. His Evolution's Darling is wonderful. Then he decided that he liked making enough money to like feed his family and fend off poverty and such and began writing YA crap. And is, to my understand, unlikely to ever reverse the process.

His adult stuff is really good? I'll admit that despite what I said upthread, I've only read the first two books of the Uglies series, but they were sooo weak in terms of the speculative fiction elements. Just really lazily developed and not well thought-through and so obvious in theme that they were anvilicious (a friend of mine recently reviewed Uglies and Leviathan on his site and I think he really pinpoints what bugs me about Westerfeld's writing). I've avoided his adult stuff because I suspected he was just kind of not very incisive generally, but I wonder if he genuinely is dumbing stuff down for kids. Not that he'd be the first writer to do so.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:45 PM on October 27, 2010


The Whelk, if you ever set about turning your ideas into novels or comics or what-have-you, I pledge my pocket money in service of your cause.
posted by Rory Marinich at 11:50 PM on October 27, 2010


I feel Charlie was reacting to how I felt after having the misfortune of reading Cherie Priest's latest Dreadnought.

Since a steam locomotive is the title character one would have thought that she would have at least read something about steam trains to help in writing her book but I guess that was too much effort. I've never considered my self a train buff but I guess I must have picked up somethings through osmosis. From her book I now know that

1) Trains (whether coal, gasoline, or hydrogen powered) take a week to travel from 1 side of Missouri to the other.

2) The conductor of a train is the one who drives it.

3) Steam trains have practically no crew (such as engineer, firemen, brakemen, etc.)

4) The caboose is the cute car at the end which is used as a dining car for passengers.

5) The (non existent) crew doesn't have a caboose to sleep in, even though it takes a week to cross Missouri.

I guess all of this doesn't matter as long as there is a mysterious natural gas that turns people into zombies and the cool people have zeppelins which appear to fly because their fuel tanks contain liquid hydrogen.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:45 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


immlass despite the fact that most people throughout history have lives short, brutal lives at subsistence levels, very few people remember being incarnated in that sort of life.

Perhaps no-one remembers being a vanillager because only heroes and villains get to reincarnate at all, and do so spread across many new souls, each with only vague memories of the experience and attitudes of their great priors. (Well, it's an explanation, which given that we're talking about something effectively untestable, makes it as good as any other.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:56 AM on October 28, 2010


As technology was driving some aspects of female independence, other technology and social strands were trying to lesson it. Isn't that interesting? Wouldn't a sudden huge leap in technology result in people using it to enforce "traditional" values? Maybe giving a ravenous super-power EVEN MORE power isn't a hugely wonderful idea? Where are the saboteurs, the turncoats, the reformers, the anarchists, the elements of the 19th Century so fucking strange?

Right; there are technologies that naturally serve to destabilize existing power structures (think the Gutenberg press), and others which serve to reinforce those structures (think Diebold voting machines or almost anything devised by the military). I'll venture that the main themes in destabilizing technologies are:
1) Easily Distributed, and
2) Cheap.
These two features combine to give power to people who ordinarily wouldn't have it, thus destabilizing the existing power structure. The increase of power to the marginalized generally comes in the form of either better access to knowledge or communications or deadly force. The three biggest destabilizing technologies I can think of are the Gutenberg press and the AK-47.

On the other hand, stabilizing technologies are those which are expensive and easily controlled. The best example is broadcast media; it is freaking expensive to run a TV station, so generally it's done by the rich or the state. In either case, the messages run on the TV end up as propaganda machines. In the realm of force, expensive non-lethal police weapons are very much a stabilizing force in the US, allowing the police to use near-deadly force to suppress dissent without incurring the outrage that cheap, ubiquitous bullets would stir up. (Compare: Kent State, Vancouver G8.)

And then you start thinking about computing. On the one hand, massive computing power is of great utility to the status quo. Information is a tool of control. IBM was hired by the Nazis to build a system for tracking (and eventually exterminating) the Jews. On the other hand, the personal computer (and the internet) perfectly fit the necessary requirements of a destabilizing technology. It's cheap and ubiquitous, gives massive amounts of fast knowledge to all kinds of people, and makes for cheap, instantaneous communication across vast distances. And yet it seems that the force of computing for the status quo has almost entirely won out over the revolutionary aspects of the internet.

I expect that if you introduced steam-powered computers and smart-phones to Victorian England, the result would be similar: The upswing in the efficiency of the Machine would far outstrip the increase in the organizational capacity of the Resistance.

---

Concerning Steampunk in the Congo:
I'm pretty sure that book was called 'Heart of Darkness' the last time it was written, and it was pretty damned good, and even had a nice spin on the great white savior trap.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:28 AM on October 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


OTOH, the anarchists and socialists of the late 19th, early 20th century fucking meant business, and they would probably do a hell of a lot more with fast, ubiquitous communication than we've done today. I would totally read steampunk fiction based on an alternate history Emma Goldman or Eugene Debs duking it out with JP Morgan...

Finally, it's really pretty amazing the extent to which people have been isolated by the technologies of the 20th century. Cars are a moving bubble that take you from one place to another, bypassing most things in-between. Radio more or less destroyed recreational music, which I think is only starting to wake up again at places like music.metafilter.com. I recently attended a talk at which the speaker asserted that, after WWII, to keep the economy boiling, the nuclear family was invented in order to place people in greater dependence on the money economy, supplanting previous, long-held systems of community. We've come a long way on racism and sexism, certainly, but we've lost other things along the way. And one could argue that racism and sexism didn't really require a technological fix....
posted by kaibutsu at 2:46 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


It oughtta be all about what happens when the Romans take a look at Heron of Alexandria's little steam toy and, instead of dismissing it as a novelty, a smart Roman realizes the potential and by 150 CE Rome is a steam-powered, mechanized, truly world-girdling empire.

I think Ken MacLeod has an extended riff on this in his latest novel, The Restoration Game.
posted by ninebelow at 3:42 AM on October 28, 2010


I would totally read steampunk fiction based on an alternate history Emma Goldman or Eugene Debs duking it out with JP Morgan...

Well it's not steampunk but you might want to check out Back in the USSA
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:49 AM on October 28, 2010


Uh. NaNoWriMo is coming up. Get crackin'.
posted by wobh at 6:00 AM on October 28, 2010


Steampunk has the same smugness that cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, and zombie-apocalyptic has. Although all of these settings rely on a tiny minority triumphing or surviving where the mast multitudes have died or are barely surviving, it is assumed that the reader is going to be in that tiny minority because he is, after all, a nerd and therefore ever-so-smart. It's the exact same appeal as 'Left Behind' is for evangelical Christians. The world presented is brutal and horrible but of course I will rise above it because I'm so much better than everyone else.

Also, it's just plain played the fuck out by geeks who can never figure out when to give something a rest.
posted by Legomancer at 7:18 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


a few thoughts:

Some of the attraction of steampunk is the Victorians' own image of their industrial culture trajectory as the crown of creation. Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower" is an extended look at some of the aspects of the world ended by WWI. This notion of 18th century not ending in the fields of Flanders can be seen in the fiction-historical assumptions in "The Difference Engine."

Some of the problems with the genre are probably related to the market-driven demand for volume that leads to bad writing. One of the common elements of all badly written fiction is shallow and uncritical social theory. Let's face it, Ayn Rand isn't the only still-bestselling bad writer out there.

On the other hand, very few people are going to want to read social realism as escapist fiction.

From the craft standpoint, the nice thing about steampunk is the toys are all pretty much hand-crafted. And the technology of the time was pretty much within the grasp of generalist individuals, as opposed to the late industrial age (diesel punk) where it's all done by industrially mangaged teams of specialists.

Finally, Slim Pickens character in "Rancho Deluxe" pretty much wrapped it up with his little monologue of puzzled wonderment about dreaming of ancient Egypt: "And when I woke up, I couldn't remember: was I a commoner or was I a pharaoh?"
posted by warbaby at 7:25 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Perhaps no-one remembers being a vanillager because only heroes and villains get to reincarnate at all, and do so spread across many new souls, each with only vague memories of the experience and attitudes of their great priors.

Which is clearly why Lancelot has reincarnated as a cab driver in Peoria, who must be destined for great things. (Pet peeve: Lancelot is one of the fictional parts of Arthur's story; we know when he was added to the tale. Even if Arthur has a historical origin, Lancelot does not, and you cannot be Lancelot reincarnate. Sorry.) /derail

Steampunk has the same smugness that cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, and zombie-apocalyptic has. Although all of these settings rely on a tiny minority triumphing or surviving where the mast multitudes have died or are barely surviving, it is assumed that the reader is going to be in that tiny minority because he is, after all, a nerd and therefore ever-so-smart.

I hadn't particularly associated the "I'm in the favored sliver of the population that rises above like cream" with nerd revenge fantasies, as it were, but that statement resonates for me.
posted by immlass at 7:26 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


To be fair that kind of rampet Mary-Sueism is epidemic is pretty much all fiction.
posted by The Whelk at 7:29 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


it is assumed that the reader is going to be in that tiny minority because he is, after all, a nerd and therefore ever-so-smart.

It is? Actually, I don't know why I am giving you the charity of that rhetorical question, you are talking bollocks. I don't think I've ever a post-apocalypse novel where only the nerds survived. Let me think about some I've read this year:

Things We Didn't See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
Feed by Mira Grant *
The Unit by Terry DeHart
The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell
The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

Nope, doesn't apply to any of those.

* This does have a very high Mary Sue quotient but plenty of "mundanes" make it to.
posted by ninebelow at 7:31 AM on October 28, 2010


and now I get to share one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite friends : "I always thought of John Updike novels as fan fiction about his dick."
posted by The Whelk at 7:33 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Legomancer: To be fair, it's hard to write an apocalypse novel where the protagonist dies in act one, or a cyberpunk novel where the protagonist spends adult life in debt serfdom.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:41 AM on October 28, 2010


er, 19th century.... not awake yet...
posted by warbaby at 7:41 AM on October 28, 2010


There certainly is some truth to the fact that apocalypse fiction seems to involve quite a bit of class wish fulfillment. While I was willing to accept the alien space bat physics of Dies the Fire, the subplot of scadians, rodeo riders, hunting enthusiasts, fantasy readers, and witches taking over the northwest and the absence of a military that would have better armor, better logistics, and better plans for dealing with the loss of transportation and communication infrastructure was harder to swallow.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:00 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems like the problem with steampunk, besides being overexposed, is that it's often so obviously wish-fulfillment: Taking the trappings of a "more elegant world," stripping out the nasty bits, and projecting yourself into it.

This works when you're at a convention and want to be a swashbuckling aether-mechanic, but as fiction, it's deadly dull in part because your desire to make things awesome doesn't lead you into deep inquiry or worldbuilding that has the potential to wreck the coolness of your alt-history. It's like reading a novel where the author is obviously in love with his protagonist. And then the existence of steampunk as a potential setting means that we just get more and more iterations on "let's put gears on a bustle" rather than something interesting.

I don't think this was explicitly what Stross' article was about, but one of the problems with richwhitepeoplenarrative (as much New Yorker-style "suburban folk with problems" as steampunk and swords and sorcery), to me, is that it makes fiction less interesting by ignoring most of the possible narratives. Unfortunately, literary fiction seems to make that mistake too, but because we've got a certain vision of what literary fiction is supposed to be, we tend to go along with it much more than in genre stuff. It's not just that I'm bothered on a political level by the stuff, it's that its existence means I have to read about the same goddamned angsty white guys over and over again.

That said, my personal fantasy is that people will branch out from steampunk and start creating self-consciously chic alt-history versions of every conceivable historical period, until eventually somebody starts writing stories about an alternate 1990s where Desert Storm is fought by groups of waistcoat-wearing oil prospectors and Tipper Gore's PRMC-dirigible rains fire upon the members of 2 Live Crew.
posted by Tubalcain at 8:22 AM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm going to write an alt-history mashup set in 16th-century Europe wherein Pope Clark Kent battles wits with Martin Lex Luthor. It'll blow MINDS.
posted by COBRA! at 8:37 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


EVERYTHING EXISTS ON THE INTERNET
posted by The Whelk at 8:39 AM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


God dammit, internet.
posted by COBRA! at 8:47 AM on October 28, 2010


Tubularculosis!
posted by Eideteker at 9:10 AM on October 28, 2010


Also, when I wrote a steampunk story for my friend that featured the two of us in such a setting, I was acutely aware of the racial issues my character would face and plotted them into the story. So yay, I was ahead of the curve!
posted by Eideteker at 9:13 AM on October 28, 2010


KirkJobSluder: it's hard to write ... a cyberpunk novel where the protagonist spends adult life in debt serfdom.

Huh. Why? Doesn't seem like it would be that hard to me. I could easily imagine Paolo Bacigalupi writing such a novel. (And revealing that I haven't burrowed down to it in my bedside pile, isn't that The Windup Girl? Or do we have to call that climatepunk?) Ian MacDonald, ditto. (Or do we have to call that multicultural-punk?) I have a short story that's basically cyberpunks in debt serfdom that people keep telling me is just the start of a novel. (But I guess that would end up being multicultural-climatepunk.)

Whether you could sell such a novel is the real question, and I think that would have a lot to do with whether you had lit.cred.
posted by lodurr at 9:40 AM on October 28, 2010


It always strikes me that criticizing the accuracy or realism of fantastic fiction tends to be low-hanging fruit and missing the point. I suspect that Tolkien would dismiss Mieville's criticism that Tolkien romanticizes a nasty and brutish period in history with a handwave. Tolkien is the guy who revolutionized the study of Beowulf by hailing it as mythic and heroic literature rather than as an exercise in English history and linguistics. Criticize the politics and theology of Lord of the Rings as literature in the same genre as The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Wizard of Oz.

Fantastic fiction in general and alternative history in specific isn't supposed to be accurate or realistic. Hamlet and The Illiad plunder hundreds of years of history for their dramatic themes and characters. A neo-marxist steampunk focused colonial slavery or the sweatshop would necessarily be guilty of the same liberties as the aristrocrat worshipers. For that matter, I'm skeptical that you can't write non-fiction about the Victorian era without a bias of theory and focus.

Granted I've long been skeptical to claims to rigor in fantastic fiction, but this previously linked article points out that there's a fundamental conflict between the demands of narrative and good science. And I suspect that's true of good history that demands triangulating and reconciling across dozens of different types of evidence.

So just appropriate what you need in order to tell the story, and I'll criticize that story as fiction.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:44 AM on October 28, 2010


there's a fundamental conflict between the demands of narrative and good science. And I suspect that's true of good history that demands triangulating and reconciling across dozens of different types of evidence.

I would suggest some writers can reconcile narrative and the ability to construct a deep world with warts and all, but just because not every writer does it perfectly doesn't mean that no one should attempt it.

Your comment brought to mind Turtledove's Darkness series which is more high fantasy than steampunk. But he manages to take multiple points of view and do world building in a consistent and interesting way. Unfortunately depending on your tastes he sacrifices narrative to do so but even if you like Turtledove's narrative, the only way to have multiple, meaningfully different points of view alongside detailed worldbuilding (which is a pretty key element of steampunk) is to write six 2,000 page tomes. I mean, holy shit, the Darkness series rivals an encyclopedia in size.

So, given the average author's constraints that:

a) they're writing a "steampunk" book and thus spend at least several thousand words going over the backstory
b) it has to be a vaguely normal sized book when published
c) it needs a plot where more than one thing happens and where things happen at an engaging pace

then it's going to be damn hard to follow more than one character which leads to the inevitable criticism that the book suffers from a narrow point of view.

it seems than for most authors this conflict is irreconcilable.

Also, carpal tunnel syndrome. I mean, how the hell can Turtledove even TYPE that much text much less give it any meaning? The man must be a machine.
posted by GuyZero at 10:29 AM on October 28, 2010


lodurr: Well, I have The Windup Girl on my reading list, but from looking at the wikipedia synopsis it looks like it has big espionage and escape-from-serfdom subplots. The most common reality of Victorian debt slavery was that you worked 60-hour weeks year after year until you were injured, then you worked a different job until you were injured, then you depended on the impoverished charity of extended family until malnutrition and disease took your life.

The central problem I see here is that something usually happens in fiction that's the result of the agency of the main characters and debt slavery is ultimately created to eliminate that agency. Even in say, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Jurgis is a slightly exceptional character who's given a minor climax and resolution to his tragic conflict by becoming a Marxist and getting a job that supports his wife's family.

There seems to be a few ways of dealing with this commonly taken by fiction. There's the minor or major escape fantasy. There's using the lack of economic mobility as a pretext for family conflict. There's narratives that don't deal with economics at all. And there's the "settling" narrative. Science fiction IMO is biased towards the escape fantasy.

GuyZero: I would suggest some writers can reconcile narrative and the ability to construct a deep world with warts and all, but just because not every writer does it perfectly doesn't mean that no one should attempt it.

I don't say anything about the construction of so-called "deep worlds." The conflict is between narrative vs. science and history. (And I'll admit, I'm probably a bit overly skeptical on this.) Devil in the White City comes about as close as I'm willing to grant but I think Larson stretches a bit in his twin narratives of the World's Fair as the bellwether of the 20th century and Holmes as the prototypical serial killer.

The point I'm making is that deep worlds need to be judged as literature and not science and/or history. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings have brilliant deep worlds that don't make a lick of historical or scientific sense.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:02 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've had a number of discussions about Bacigalupi in particular over the past few years. 'Too grim' is probably a fair summary of the most common view, in particular w.r.t. stuff like "The Tamarisk Hunter," "Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man." The first and the last are particularly grim in their way, it's true; in the first, the protagonist ends up worse off with no view to improvement, in the last the protagonist wins (merely potential) betterment of his position through ruthless exploitation of another. "People aren't all bad or all good," I've been lectured w.r.t. these stories, "life isn't all grim and negative." (That in particular paraphrased from someone with enough awards to break a bookshelf and a fair number of them for work on the grim side.)

My point would be that this requirement that characters "change" or "progress" is a huge critical impediment. Stuff has been written and published and regarded highly without satisfying those criteria at all. (Being There -- for that matter, most Kosinski -- and its lighter twin Forrest Gump spring to mind.) And where's the uplift at the end of Grapes of Wrath?

As you can see this is a bit of a sore spot for me. I've seen what I view as constructive and instructive "negativity" decried as "too easy", "too simplistic," when in my view it's anything but. Often I find myself looking at a clash between verisimilitude and realism, and given those choices I think it's always important to at least be conscious of where realism would take you. Case in point: I was with a group of people critiquing a friend's novel the other day. She's working on a fantasy revolving around a young woman who's been brutally abused, but doesn't leave her abuser (well, not of her own choice). "Why doesn't she just leave?" most asked, "she would have just left right now." Or (this one was my favorite), "why isn't she secretly training to take revenge?" This is what people wanted to find in the story; but it's a happy-horseshit narrative that servers primarily to feed to absurd idea that people always get to choose whether to be oppressed.

I'm not accusing you of that; I'm simply trying to explain why I find the idea that there has to be some improvement to be so annoying.
posted by lodurr at 11:19 AM on October 28, 2010


re: Westerfeld. His adult stuff is really good?

I have no idea, apart from Evolution's Darling and the Risen Empire books. The latter are good for what they are and if you like that sort of thing they are the sort of thing you'll like. ED, though, is good and original and interesting.
posted by Justinian at 11:26 AM on October 28, 2010


Criticize the politics and theology of Lord of the Rings as literature in the same genre as The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Wizard of Oz.

See, I agree with this completely but I think we mean different things by it. Have you never come across a serious criticism of the Narnia books along the lines of Mieville's view on Tolkien? Have you ever read Phillip Pullam?
posted by Justinian at 11:29 AM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've always wonderes if you could do Middle Earth from Sauron's perspective, a technological revolutionary, looking to undo centuries of feudal tradition and enslavement, brought down by the representatives of the old guard.*

You might try Banewreaker.
posted by epersonae at 11:32 AM on October 28, 2010


Let's not forget Kate Beaton on Steampunk.
posted by happyroach at 11:37 AM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Check those chains, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is fucking gangsta.
posted by Artw at 11:45 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


You might try Banewreaker.

For the love of all that's holy, please don't.
posted by amber_dale at 12:24 PM on October 28, 2010


Banewreaker.

I am so angry that when I clicked on that link it did not take me to the website of a black metal joke band.
posted by The World Famous at 12:42 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


lodurr: My point would be that this requirement that characters "change" or "progress" is a huge critical impediment.

I think we're mostly in agreement. I do think that fiction usually mandates at least some form of change because a realistic novel about debt slavery would be:

Chapter 1: Worker goes to work, does the same thing as yesterday, goes home.
Chapter 2: Worker goes to work, does the same thing as yesterday, goes home.
Chapter 3: Worker goes to work, does the same thing as yesterday, goes home.
...
Chapter 20: Worker goes to work, does the same thing as yesterday, goes home.
Chapter 21: Worker dies, leaving family worse off than when he or she started the job.

That is a realistic treatment of debt slavery. And I think turning that into fiction would require brilliant writing.

Justinian: Have you never come across a serious criticism of the Narnia books along the lines of Mieville's view on Tolkien? Have you ever read Phillip Pullam?

I've not really read a critique of Narnia grounded on the premise that it's historically inaccurate wrt the middle ages. The talking lion tends to be a dead giveaway and Pullman's critique works from the premise that Narnia is religious polemic cloaked in the form of fable.

I'm all for criticism of Tolkien's conservative literary bias. Treating it as a historical interpretation bias (as Mieville does) when its only historical claim is that it's inspired by Beowulf doesn't make much sense to me.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:49 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


As someone who just finished a not-steampunk industrial fantasy about a girl working in a textile mill, I struggled between the depressing ending where nothing changes, the "hopeful" ending that makes the main character happy while ignoring all of her coworkers -- the realities that there's just not a lot of agency there, and there's just not a lot of room for a happy ending, were challenges that I'm not sure I ever found the right answer to.

I highly recommend Bacigalupi's "Ship Breaker" to anyone who finds his adult work too grim; it's YA, with vivid world building and a very strong voice, and while it's somewhat grim it's never hopeless. (It's dystopian and decidedly not steampunk, though).
posted by Jeanne at 12:52 PM on October 28, 2010


I had no idea that werewolves, vampires, zombies, et cetera were a big part of steampunk before reading these and the comments-linked stuff. Tobias Bucknell's response, about it being more aesthetics-related (particularly in regards to mechanicisms and science, also some fashion) is how I've always seen it. I guess I haven't been reading enough of the right(wrong) stuff!

The biggest problem I have with steampunk? Totally unrealistic zepplins/dirigibles/airships. Final Fantasy got me hooked on the concept, and then the steampunk thing goes and gets them everywhere, and all of them convieniently ignore that you basically need magic to get them airborne, since both helium and hydrogen require vastly larger envelopes than are used.
posted by curious nu at 1:12 PM on October 28, 2010


I don't think that stories need a happy ending. I do think that most tragedies involve some form of development as characters struggle to make the best of their bad conditions, or even make things worse. La Boheme ends with Mimi dead and Rodolfo just as poor and even more miserable. As I Lay Dying is a trainwreck of a novel as a stupid, ignorant, and half-insane family self-destructs on the way to the funeral.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:20 PM on October 28, 2010


Nothing wrong with an unhappy ending, but I suspect it would be really difficult to sell a YA that ends with the main character facing a life of working in a textile mill forever. Even Bacigalupi didn't go there.
posted by Jeanne at 1:30 PM on October 28, 2010


and all of them convieniently ignore that you basically need magic to get them airborne, since both helium and hydrogen require vastly larger envelopes than are used.

Boy, will you ever hate the level in Crimson Skies where you have to fly down the inside of the Zeppelin and instead of being full of necessary lifting gasbags, it's lined with rotating circular blades.

Thanks for the pointers, posters above, I will read these things! Also, yay^2 for a thread that shows love to Kate Beaton and the Foglios! :)
posted by zoogleplex at 2:25 PM on October 28, 2010


Did Steampunk Forget The Meaning Of The Word Dickensian?
posted by Artw at 2:56 PM on October 28, 2010


For those wondering how to reconcile working class reality with the novelistic zeitgeist of things actually happening, I strongly recommend reading some Zola, preferably Germinal. The idea that working class life is inherently boring and monotone is, itself, somewhat bourgeois.

People feel feelings - interesting feelings - no matter how nasty, brutish and short their lives are. And you can certainly have a fantastic, riveting narrative without having to write about the one stableboy that's secretly messiah. The others are good, too.
posted by smoke at 3:10 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even Bacigalupi didn't go there.

Well, he probably imagined his kid(s) reading it.

When you've spent your adult life as an activist (as he has), you probably don't want to condemn your own kids to cynicism.
posted by lodurr at 3:43 PM on October 28, 2010


Treating it as a historical interpretation bias (as Mieville does)...

The problem isn't that the interpretation is wrong or even that it's misleading; the problem is that it encourages a mystified view of class relations. Not that it's wrong so much as that it's pernicious.
posted by lodurr at 3:51 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


People feel feelings - interesting feelings - no matter how nasty, brutish and short their lives are. And you can certainly have a fantastic, riveting narrative without having to write about the one stableboy that's secretly messiah.

But this has nothing to do with heroic fantasy as a type or model, which is one of the points of describing steampunk as a fantasy genre despite the pseudo-scientific trapping. I suspect a more Zolaesque approach, apart from being harder to sell in SFF markets for genre marketing reasons, unless you already had a genre name as an author, would probably get your book classed as literary fiction and not steampunk in the bookstore and by reviewers.

There's nothing wrong with Zolaesque steampunk, or Zolaesque fiction in any genre, but there's not a prebuilt genre market for it. A lot of what we're circling around in this discussion is how the market is comfortable with particular genres and books that can easily be classed into those niches. If a successful book breaks a niche or isn't easy to classify because it strikes out in a different direction, it will probably effectively create a new sub-genre as authors follow its success with similar books. See, since someone brought up zombies and pirates upthread, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, which is now an entire genre of its own after only a few years.
posted by immlass at 5:19 PM on October 28, 2010


Immlass, that was most in response to Kirkjobsluder's contention that, "I do think that fiction usually mandates at least some form of change because a realistic novel about debt slavery would be... ...That is a realistic treatment of debt slavery. And I think turning that into fiction would require brilliant writing. "

I disagree (kind of), in that you can definitely do it, and well within the conventions of genre (Zola himself was writing genre, and though considered literary today was most definitely not at the time. Indeed you could argue that he is/was the epitome of popular "top 40" fiction. The extra irony is that many of his books are wildly historically inaccurate also!)

I suspect a more Zolaesque approach... would probably get your book classed as literary fiction and not steampunk in the bookstore and by reviewers.

Immlass, you're grossly underestimating the role of marketing departments in defining genres - it has practically nothing to do with readers, bookstores, or reviewers.

A sad case in point was Nick Harkaway's wonderful The Gone Away World, which was wildly overprinted/undersold as a result of marketing a squarely sci-fi novel as a literary enterprise because Harkaway happened to be Le Carre's son. I am so sad that book didn't receive the success it deserved because of that blunder.
posted by smoke at 6:45 PM on October 28, 2010


Doesn't Pynchon's Against the Day sort of do some of the work Stross is calling for, kinda sideways, in a way-way-too-ambitious-and-serious-to-give-a-fuck-about-something-as-fannish-and-lame-as-'steam-punk' kinda way? Turn-of-20th-century anarchists, light-splitting crystals, floating zeppelin-cities, Godzilla-as-pre-WWI-allegory-for-9/11...it's a SF novel, at least in part, and its (borrowed, lampooned, rapturously detailed) aesthetic matches the topic at hand...

Right?
posted by waxbanks at 7:28 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Immlass, you're grossly underestimating the role of marketing departments in defining genres - it has practically nothing to do with readers, bookstores, or reviewers.

We're in violent agreement on the genre issue. The point for me isn't who sets them, the point is that as a buyer/reader, I have certain expectations that come to me through bookstores and reviewers (a category I include a lot of web sites in--I'm thinking about the Tor site in particular) about what I'll find in each section in my local bookstore. That the ultimate source of those expectations is the marketing department doesn't surprise me in the slightest. I was trying to get at the same point in an ass-backward way with P&P&Z. The first book like that didn't necessarily fit a genre niche (is it SFF? horror? humor?) but once the success of the first one was established, there were suddenly about nine million of them. That absolutely reads like a marketing dictate of "this sells well, so buy more like it" to me.
posted by immlass at 7:44 PM on October 28, 2010


lodurr: The problem isn't that the interpretation is wrong or even that it's misleading; the problem is that it encourages a mystified view of class relations. Not that it's wrong so much as that it's pernicious.

I think you can criticize the class relations in Lord of the Rings, without giving it credit it doesn't deserve as commentary on historical class relations. For that matter you can say the same thing about Shakespeare, Arthurian fiction, and most treatments of Robin Hood. They are literary traditions that say much more about the wishes and desires of the author than anything in history.

And likewise, Steampunk is only tangentially connected to Victorian history via a worship of Verne and Wells.

My bias here comes from both Tolkien's arguments regarding Beowulf and from the fact that his internal history is such a pile of shit.

steam: I argued a bit beyond what I should. Thank you for correcting me. I still think that trying to do Zolaesque science fiction demands much more care and skill than most genre writers are willing to put into it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:04 PM on October 28, 2010


Chapter 3: Worker goes to work, does the same thing as yesterday, goes home....

(paraphrase National Lampoon 1980's): Steven Spielberg announces the title of his next movie project:

Turbine.

(Full title: Turbine; We the workers of the glorious revolutionary Xiiang Collective factory works will strive to exceed our production quotas in exultation of our nation's brave struggle against Hegemony!)

posted by ovvl at 8:07 PM on October 28, 2010


steam: I still think that trying to do Zolaesque science fiction demands much more care and skill than most genre writers are willing to put into it.

On that we're in perfect agreement. Also, I quite like being called Steam! Interesting...
posted by smoke at 8:17 PM on October 28, 2010


Whoops, sorry, getting tired.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 PM on October 28, 2010


A while back I remember listening to a podcast on Steampunk and one of the people said they had got into it via Wild Wild West which frankly explained a lot.

Huh. I'm not really into the aesthetic beyond some curiosity, but it reminds me of a Roald Dahl sort of fantasy.
posted by krinklyfig at 6:14 AM on October 29, 2010


I wrote the following before, and it irritated a lot of people at the time, so I figured I would share it again...
-------------------------

Steampunk is neither steam nor punk. It's about using old ideas and old technologies to do things that are either banal, unhelpful, inefficient, or all-of-the-above.

As a literary genre, it again is neither steam nor punk. Rather, it's the lazy writer's science fiction, because all the difficult speculation of the future flies right out the window. It's the literary equivalent of fanfic for gadget geeks and goth kids turned high-tech hipsters who get off on nihilistic escapism.

This isn't to say that you won't enjoy it... odd are good that it's very much up your alley. But it's worth remembering that your enjoyment is derived from the fact that you're a deviant tech-fetishist who, when the world around them was on the brink, thought that spinning your wheels and grinding your gears with a piston engine was a good thing.

Next time, try teledildonics or building your own f*cking machine. It has similar technical underpinnings, makes people happier, and once you finish with it, you'll likely take a shower and get on with your life.
-------------------------

Obviously, I was in a pretty snarky mood when I wrote this, but I agree with a lot of the basic criticism of Stross, that steampunk is a romanticism for a past that never was. What's more, it's a kind of rejection of a future many of us have given up on.

The simple fact is, there are no "do overs" in history. And while "do overs" seem enticing when you look forward and only see some kind of grim meathook future, the problem is, the public *needs* a big, brave, bold, forward-thinking, scientific and sociologically-based reason for optimism. We need new things to shoot for, technologically, and the hope of perhaps figuring out how to intelligently move forward as a society. We need new gadgetry... the tricorders and television watches of tomorrow. Not some kind of steam-powered "do over" that lacks the vision on how our society might move forward.

I think part of the reason we're failing in this regard is because of a combination of fear and boredom when we have to wrap our heads around complexity, combined with an intellectual laziness. We get all excited about the easily kludged together 70%, but the devil is literally in the details of that other 30%. Writing about our own future seems horribly tainted, because it already feels dark, limited, and compromised... but a simple fiction is more appealing, even though that's oftentimes the most reactionary position to hold.
posted by markkraft at 7:19 AM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


KirkJobSluder: I think you can criticize the class relations in Lord of the Rings, without giving it credit it doesn't deserve as commentary on historical class relations.

"Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." I'll paraphrase the old systems-theory principle and respond that it sometimes makes a great deal of sense to treat things as though their purpose can be identified in what they actually do. (POSIWID [the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does] -> POTIWID) That's how I read Miéville on Tolkien. What Tolkien intends or how he comes to it may be interesting (I would agree with you that they are), and in certain contexts they may well have a positive effect (I agree that they do). But in others, they encourage escapist mystification.

Furthermore, I still think the critique that he's creating a "consolatory" idealized rural England in the Shire is both sound and important.

I really like Tolkien; I enjoy reading him and the current vogue for tearing him down as turgid, boring or a poor prose stylist annoys the hell out of me (and in most cases leads me to believe that the critic hasn't given much thought to the terms of their critique). But I still think the class argument is sound and important. It's essentially similar to some of what Orwell had to say about Dickens.
posted by lodurr at 7:39 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


lodurr: My argument isn't based on authorial intent, it's based what Lord of the Rings (and the Silmarillion) does not do. Lord of the Rings does not offer a coherent treatment of its own history. Lord of the Rings does conflate its history and literature by positioning Frodo and Bilbo as its narrators and historians (which I think is a neat literary trick.) Therefore IMNSHO, Lord of the Rings does not offer much that can be fairly called historical commentary.

Furthermore, I still think the critique that he's creating a "consolatory" idealized rural England in the Shire is both sound and important.

Certainly, but it's an entirely utopian, idealized, and ahistorical vision of England, not one that can be identified with any particular historical era. As I've said multiple times in this thread, I agree with criticism of class in Lord of the Rings. I disagree that class relations in Lord of the Rings have much to do with England.

I do love Lord of the Rings in spite of its flaws.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:08 AM on October 29, 2010


I'm still not getting why you think class in LOTR has nothing to do with class in England. If LOTR is presenting a 'utopian, idealized and ahistorical vision of England,' I'm unclear on why that means the class divisions that are valorized in that portrayal would not be the utopian, idealized class divisions envisioned for England.

I do disagree that it's ahistorical -- I would say it's merely non-historical, which is different. To be ahistorical, it would be irrelevant to history; but it's clearly positioned in an agrarian technological milieu, post-agrarian technology ["gears and wheels"] is clearly cast as morally problematic -- these are things that evoke historical referents in a modern, western-centric/euro-centric audience. Perhaps in 50 more years or so, not, but even up through now, yes. If you're not buying this distinction, let me ask you this: What would it take for it to be a historical vision?
posted by lodurr at 10:30 AM on October 29, 2010


lodurr: I think we're largely talking past each other if you insert the word "never" where it doesn't belong and ask a question that's explained by the immediately preceding paragraph.

Sure, I'll go with non-historical, which is a central feature of most fantasy fiction and a common element of a lot of science fiction. It doesn't make sense to me to criticize non-historical fiction in terms of failing to offer a Marxist critique of historical events. Middle Earth is not Earth. The Shire is not England. Even something like The Scouring of the Shire is difficult to read as a metaphor or allegory, because it's so vague about the type of industrialization and treated with a saccharine magic resolution.

From a critical end, I don't think that such associations are at all necessary. If we can critique science fiction utopia and dystopia on the terms that they are presented in the text, we can do the same with fantasy.

What would it take for it to be a historical vision?

I don't think that LOTR should be historical at all. Fantasy abuses history the same way that science fiction abuses science, it takes superficial details for window dressing and the occasional conflict. As I've mentioned above, I'm not certain good history and good fiction are entirely compatible in any genre.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:27 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. Tor.com does an overview of steampunk RPGs miniatures games and manages to misss, well, pretty much EVERYTHING.
posted by Artw at 4:06 PM on October 29, 2010


Mmmmm.... Cthulhu by Gaslight. It will never be out of print... in my mind.
posted by GuyZero at 4:16 PM on October 29, 2010


Cthulhu by Gaslight, like a lot of Chaosium stuff, is in virtual print as a PDF.
posted by Zed at 5:26 PM on October 29, 2010


From a critical end, I don't think that such associations are at all necessary. If we can critique science fiction utopia and dystopia on the terms that they are presented in the text, we can do the same with fantasy.

We can always try to do those things, and often it's useful. That doesn't mean we always ought to. Or that we ever can really achieve that goal. It is, after all, impossible to interpret a text without interpreting it, which requires that we place it in a social context. If we take the approach of trying to do it 'on the terms of the text' without reference to the original context, we're merely swapping our context for the author's.

We can, for example, interpret The Brady Bunch purely on its text. But if we did that, it would be pretty damn boring, and we'd lose the opportunity to understand things about the larger social context, and BB relates to it.

As for my question about what it would take for it to be historical, I actually really don't understand your answer. You've said LOTR is ahistorical; I'm asking you what the conditions would be under which you would not regard it as ahistorical. You seem to me to be saying that fantasy ought to be ahistorical; I would argue that it never can be, not really -- nothing ever can be. Everything exists within a context, and for many things (E.g., the works of writers like Dickens, Mary Shelley, China Mieville, and J. R. R. Tolkien) you lose substantial amounts of interesting stuff when you strip out the context.

(Yes, BTW, I'm aware that Tolkien by and large wanted people to do that. He kind of doesn't get to make that call: We're the readers. We not only get to make the call, but can't avoid being the people who make the call.)

Also, I'm not sure what "never" you're referring to. Since I'm never sure about much, I just did a quick search and am pretty sure I haven't used the word on this page until now.
posted by lodurr at 12:31 PM on October 30, 2010


We can, for example, interpret The Brady Bunch purely on its text. But if we did that, it would be pretty damn boring, and we'd lose the opportunity to understand things about the larger social context, and BB relates to it.

I think if you try to interpret The Brady Bunch as a historical work you'll end up with a whole bunch of nonsense. The Brady Bunch won't help you much in understanding the kinds of social change that happened from 69-74 because it takes place within an escapist sandbox well-insulated by privilege. The best you can say is that looking at The Brady Bunch can tell you a bit about its producers.

It's the same problem I have with historical interpretations of Lord of the Rings. So you say that it idealizes historical feudalism? Which feudal systems? Even a casual student of medieval history will point out that those systems were not homogeneous across Europe. Which ecological disaster is he protesting in the Scouring of the Shire? Easter Island? Bronze-age Greeks who deforested entire islands? The 18th century English who had accomplished the same except for a few royal reserves? The coal age of the 19th and 20th century?

If we take the approach of trying to do it 'on the terms of the text' without reference to the original context, we're merely swapping our context for the author's.

There's no historical original context to LOTR beyond an Oxford Professor and a bunch of medieval literature. In 6,000-odd years of recorded history, there's no place you can go back to and say, "there are elves, there are dwarves, there are men of Gondor, there are men of Rohan." The political and economic systems created by Tolkien both did not exist, and could not exist. (Heck, even his linguistic history is oversimplified rubbish.) It's even difficult to identify the Shire with Tolkien's home town.

In my opinion, this is a feature and not a bug of fantastic fiction. The estrangement of fantasy and science fiction from real-world settings allow us to interpret the text as more than just a commentary on current or historical events from the author's point of view. Memoirs found in a Bathtub and Left Hand of Darkness are not just relevant to cold-war paranoia and gender. Pratchett, for example, is quite fond of dropping historical references such as The Battle of Cable Street only to go off onto his own observations of human nature. A Wizard of Earthsea and Lathe of Heaven are interesting beyond just as a record of le Guin's admiration of Taoism, which in turn was a product of post-war American orientalism.

Critically, we can take the ecological values of LOTR forward to examination of current ecological issues. I happen to think it promotes a NIMBY conservative view of protecting beautiful things, but that's just me.

Historical fantasy, as I've just revealed, really isn't my thing. Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven promiscuously blends fantasy character arcs, crusade legends, and historical fact to make a point about modern geopolitics. Moorcock's Gloriana is alternative history. I'm still trying to wrap my head around The Man in the High Castle, which I strongly suspect is not just about how beastly the axis powers would be had they won WWII. Historical fiction, in my experience, works from the conceit that the minutia of historical events can be translated into broader statements. And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:38 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Critically, we can take the ecological values of LOTR forward to examination of current ecological issues. I happen to think it promotes a NIMBY conservative view of protecting beautiful things, but that's just me.

Heh. LOTR is the Prince Charles of fantasy novels!
posted by Artw at 2:42 PM on November 1, 2010


There's no historical original context to LOTR beyond an Oxford Professor and a bunch of medieval literature.

There's awful lot of context embedded in that sentence. Add a date range and there's even more.
posted by lodurr at 7:26 PM on November 1, 2010


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