Years ago, William Gibson made a splash in the speculative fiction scene with the advent of cyberpunk with the publication of his novel Neuromancer. Fast forward to 2011, when Marcus Wohlsen published Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life (which I review here). Somewhere in-between, Steampunk was bred, born, and raised. Yes, the precursors have been around for a long, long time (HG Wells, for example), but it was only fairly recently that Steampunk began to bathe in the spotlight of the popular media. And this is my problem with the “punk” submoniker given to Steampunk.
When I was a young dandy, I was really into the punk scene. Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks were on my regular playlist. I was a Repo Man geek. The scene has shrunk, but there are still some signs of renaissance . I particularly loved the self-effacing humor and self-destructive subversiveness of punks everywhere.
Yes, there were and are those who take the ethos so seriously that it frankly gets in the way of Life. But, by and large, the punks I knew could laugh at themselves. They were intelligent, pretty well centered, and fun.
For example, a friend of mine is a part-time singer in some local bands. At one point one of his bands played a Dead Kennedys tribute show. Jello Biafra was in attendance. My friend, after repeatedly mocking Biafra onstage, went into the audience to give him a pat on the back. What Mr. Jello didn't know was that this conciliatory gesture was really an excuse to plant an American flag sticker on the singer's back.
Biafra was pissed.
Now that's punk.
There's no doubt that the punk ethos is represented in Steampunk literature. There are uppity DIY scientists who network in backrooms to subvert authority and change society with all kinds of steam-powered hijinks. I'm not calling the attitude into question.
What I do question is the delivery method. As a young 'un, I recall a lot of word of mouth, cheap zines produced in someone's house, and handmade posters stuck to telephone poles to announce shows. The record stores that specialized in punk music were invariably dives more reminiscent of a side-of-the-road fish-selling operation than a slick media outlet. Sometimes they even smelled like fish.
Now, we have $82 million budgets for movies like Sucker Punch (truth be told, I liked Sucker Punch for what it was) and a string of Steampunk titles put out by major publishers (and, to be fair, many small presses, as well).
That's not a bad thing! I'm a big fan of some books that fall in the subgenre, like James P. Blaylock's Homonculus.
But I ask again, is the big spotlight being placed on Steampunk going to take the punk right out of the movement? Has it already? Has Steampunk sold out? And, frankly, do we really care? Or is the opportunity to laugh at ourselves for allowing the subgenre to be pulled into the mainstream just another subversion of the subversion?
Kind of reminds me of a song: "We're so pretty, oh, so pretty . . . pretty vacant!"