What is steampunk, you may ask? Wikipedia’s definition is concise.
Steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain—that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them; in other words, based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc. This technology may include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne or real technologies like the computer but developed earlier in an alternate history.
Stross doesn’t have problems with the aesthetics of steampunk, or even with steampunk as a genre. Rather, his problems are with the background assumptions underlying much recent steampunk fiction, an ill-judged nostalgia for the past falsely imagined as more romantic, more interesting, better than the past.
Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon. (Take it from one whose first novel got the ‘S’-word pinned on it — singularity — back when that was hot: if you’re lucky, your career will last long enough that you live to regret it.) Harumph, young folks today, get off my lawn ….
But there’s a dark side as well. We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn’t want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It’s the world that bequeathed us the adjective “Dickensian”, that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It’s the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).
I chose to illustrate this post with Robert’s picture of a tombstone standing in a Toronto cemetey, commemorating a child who died before her eighth birthday, for a reason. Robert’s description of the photo says what needs to be said.
We forget, when we wax nostalgic for a ‘simpler time’, the human cost of that simplicity. A child’s death is rare now, and a terrible tragedy — yet our grandparents remembered a time when such tragedies were common.
Margaret McLevin, who died aged 7 years and 10 months, would not have died so young today.
We are very lucky. Sometimes we forget that.
Nostalgia sucks; a rounded appreciation of the past matters. In the case of steampunk, author Nisi Shawl blogged about his writing of a steampunk novel set in the Congo Free State, that most catastrophically genocidal of steampunk-era colonies. Stross goes into more detail at the end of his post.
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.
The 21st century has its problems, but it`s fundamentally better. I`m not saying that the mindless optimism satirized by Voltaire in his Candide is a better response, but I’m convinced that optimism and an appreciation for the extent to which human societies have progressed is far better than “remembering” falsities.