Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Steam and Punk

I’m hanging out with Beth Daniels in her Corsets, Goggles, and Airships.  Oh, my! Workshop over at Savvy Authors , and realizing that I need to make some distinctions for myself about steampunk.  Now, mind you, these are for my own convenience. Since I’m the resident steampunk aficionado here (or at least the one charged with reporting),  I do need to know these things. 

What do I need to know? That there is a kind of borderline between Steam and Punk, and while I like both, I tend towards the punk side of things. 

OK, so what’s the difference? 

I consider the Steam aspect of steampunk to be more mainstream. Steam is brass and glass, airships and submarines, goggles and giggles and corsets, oh my!  Punk is politics, subversion, exploitation and what is still wrong in the world.  Steam is fantasy; punk is fury. 

This kind of division is far from new.  Science fiction is full of far-flung escapist adventures as well as serious examinations of How Things Really Are Because They Are Still Like That in the Future.   Even the godfathers of steampunk. H.G.Wells and Jules Verne, seemed to see their worlds along similar lines.  Wells saw the horrors and Verne the technical fantasy.  None of these is the right or wrong lens to view steampunk through.  Just different. 

In terms of critique or review, it’s important to know which end of the lens we are looking through. Are we looking through the narrow end where the world of steam is shown so close-up that we don’t have to see the world we live in?  Or are we looking through the wide end where the world of steam is seen in context with our own situation as only one aspect of our technological and social experience. 

Which direction we are writing in depends on which tropes we are using. At least that’s how I’m organizing it for now, as I sort things out for myself.  When the story stays within the social rules of Victorian middle and upper classes, I think of that as leaning toward the Steam side.  Parasol Protectorate, The Affinity Gate, and The Hunchback Assignments come to mind.  When the story focuses on the technology as wielded by those classes, I also think of that as leaning toward the steam side.  Boneshaker, Leviathan, and The Difference Engine fill that bill. 

On the other side are the stories of the CatastraphoneOrchestra, whose sole intent is to subvert the Victorian morality Seasonals to give voice to the underside of Victorian New York.  The Anachronist’sCookbook  and  ZeppelinCity also shift the POV from the privileged to the workers and hidden classes by favoring the views of labor, the homeless, and children.  

If there is a short way to define what I’m sorting for it’s in that last statement:  Which point of view is favored?  Sherlock Holmes’ or the Baker Street Irregulars’?  It doesn’t matter what the good guys’ intentions are.  It’s all about effect and effectiveness.  Does it work? And for whom?

Slowly, slowly, slowly, I expect to refine my ideas about the borderlines of steampunk.  For now, I’m pleased to have a place to start.  Thanks, Beth!


Andrew said...

Love this post. Very cool. I haven't gotten much into Steampunk, but I like the concepts. This really helps with my understanding.

Marsha A. Moore said...

I like the handy phrase "Steam is fantasy; punk is fury." It helps me consider the themes separately. Great post, Melanie!

rj.garside said...

Hi Melanie,
I'm just putting a toe in the water of Steampunk and it sounds interesting! Any "bibles" of Steampunk that I should check out to learn more?


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