August 17, 2011

what is steampunk?

I’m going to go on a bit of a rant today. I’ve been participating in WriteOnCon this week, and I was happy to find that there were other steampunk titles that newbie authors were working on. However, when I clicked through to read the premises for these so-called steampunk tales, I was sorely disappointed, and somewhat enraged.

Gears and corsets do not a steampunk novel make.

Meghan B. over at Stellar Four adequately expressed my feelings on the matter. For those of you that have read the book or watched the film equivalent of The Princess Bride, you know that Vizzini (the little bald headed man with the annoying voice) always uses the term “inconceivable.”

Vizzini (the Sicilian), Fezzik, and Inigo (the Spaniard) are looking down the side of the cliff at the masked man climbing toward them.

     Six hundred feet now. The arms continued to pull, over and over. Six hundred and twenty feet. Six hundred and fifty. Now faster than ever. Seven hundred.
     “He’s left his boat behind,” the Spaniard said. “He’s jumped onto our rope. He’s starting up after us.”
     “I can feel him,” Fezzik said. “His body weight on the rope.”
     “He’ll never catch up!” the Sicilian cried. “Inconceivable!”
     “You keep using that word!” the Spaniard snapped. “I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

I have the same sentiments that Meghan has about the term “steampunk” when used by other writers.

Just because a story has gears and steam-engines and corsets and monocles, that doesn’t make it steampunk. You can argue with me all day about it, and I will adamantly defend my position.

It seems like some writers just throw steampunk elements into stories in order to appeal to the steampunk market, but when they don’t do their research, when they don’t adequately represent what steampunk really is, they’re only hurting themselves. They’ve inserted steampunk elements without properly portraying them and then have the nerve to call their work “steampunk”. I call it “pseudo-steampunk”. Fake steampunk.

Now, there are a lot of steampunk subgenres. In one way or another, these stories fit into steampunk, but only slightly. They walk a fine line. Clockwork Angel read more like a gaslight fantasy. Leviathan is more of a historical science fiction, though it doesn’t try to be steampunk; only other people slap that label on it. Leviathan is its own thing, even if it was inspired by the genre. Scott Westerfeld, the author of Leviathan has this to say on steampunk (from The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer):
It’s partly a set of nostalgias—for handmade and human-scale technologies, baroque design, and elegant dress and manners—combined with the puerile pleasure of mussing up a very stuffy stage in history, bringing a flamethrower to a tea party, so to speak. And this flamethrower extends to the political and social as well as technological, because Steampunk creates a new set of Victorian stories that expand the role of the colonized and otherwise subjugated in that era (girl geniuses, for example).
I have not read a so-called steampunk novel (other than Leviathan, which I will argue is not steampunk) that can stand on its own. Most of those that I’ve read rely on romance for the main plot and toss in steampunk elements, or they rely on werewolves, vampires, and zombies to carry the story rather than the science of steampunk. Or, they’re just awful books with pseudo-steampunk elements.

For examples of steampunk subgenres (taken from The Steampunk Bible):
Boilerpunk The blue-collar answer to aristocratic Steampunk, incorporating the experiences and hardships of the workers actually shoveling coal to bring steam to the upper classes. Vive la revolution!
Clockpunk  Clockwork technologies replace or supersede traditional steam power. (I think my novel fits here)
Dieselpunk A heresy in which diesel fuel and nuclear power replace steam power in alternate histories that often have a political component.
Gaslight Romance A mainly British term for alternative histories that romanticize the Victorian era. Some Brits would argue that all American Steampunk is actually gaslight romance.
Mannerspunk Fiction that may or may not be deemed Steampunk, in which elaborate social hierarchies provide the friction, conflict, and action of the narrative, usually in the context of endless formal dances. At parties. In mansions.
Raygun Gothic Although not strictly a subgenre, this type of retro-futurism based in part on art deco and streamlined modern styles has been used for a variety of science fiction settings, usually in movies. Coined by William Gibson, the term has become more useful in the context of Steampunk as the fiction has come to feature more and more tinkers and artists.
Stitchpunk Fiction influenced by the DIY and crafts element of Steampunk, with a prime example being the animated movie 9, in which cut Frankenstein doll-creatures stitched together from bits of burlap sack try to save the world. In a wider context, Stitchpunk emphasizes the role of weavers, tinkers, and darners in Steampunk.

Now, I have the nerve to call my novel steampunk because it is steampunk. It’s set in the Victorian era (which isn’t a prerequisite, but it has the proper feel). The main character is a clockwork engineer. I adequately describe the science behind certain clockwork and steam-powered machines. I actually use science that was present in that time period or that was in development. Rather than coming across as someone banking on a gimmick to get their book sold, I researched and studied the machines and mechanisms that I portray in the book. This is why I feared writing steampunk for so long. I was so afraid of doing it wrong, and I think that’s why the book that I wrote fits the steampunk genre. Because I was afraid, I made sure that my science was at least plausible. I’m not an engineer, so there is some fictional stretching here and there, but I go into detail about cam mechanisms, gear trains, crank linkages, mainsprings, pawls, and other linkages. I don’t just throw a handful of gears together with a hot-glue gun and call it a working machine. To me, it seems like the writers that toss pseudo-steampunk elements into their fiction are mimicking modern steampunk jewelry: it’s pretty, but not functional.

I wanted to write a book that took steampunk as it should be and tell a compelling story without relying on another genre to support it. Yes, my story has romance in it, but it’s the subplot. Not the other way around. Whether or not that’s what people want to read, I can’t be sure. I wrote the book that I couldn’t find, the book that I wanted to read but didn’t exist. I’m proud of that. There isn’t an ounce of magic in my novel. There aren’t any magical or paranormal creatures. It’s just science and a little bit of romance.

To me, steampunk is more than gears and steam-power. It’s more than Victorian age society, more than corsets and bustles, more than a skin, as some people would put it. More than a layer of science, airships, corsets, goggles, and gears, Steampunk is an atmosphere. It’s a feeling. Steampunk, true steampunk, penetrates the very layers of the world within a story. It makes up the building blocks of the story, the setting, the characters, the society, and the action. It is its own sort of magic that lives and breathes within a story, not something that’s thrown in for spits and wiggles.

What are your opinions of steampunk? Are there other genres that suffer from misuse?