Friday, August 10, 2012

What's so Punk about Steampunk?

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!"


  1. The more I look into Steampunk, the less sure I am that the name means anything (apart from sounding catchy). I've seen articles and blogposts where people talk about dropping the punk from the name and others talk about the myriad and varied social reforms, revolutions and movements encapsulated by the Victorian era. I think that both approaches tend to be a bit bogus.

    1) By dropping 'punk' from the name, you take away an inclination for commentary, criticism and drama that form the basis of most punk movements. It seems like a quick way to make all the stories more anodyne and less important.

    2) Let's face it, Steampunk does not often tap deeply into Victorian social issues because it is often appropriated as a means to channel the sense of optimism and adventure of the Victorian period; it may be about Empire and colonies and etc., but the key point is that the characters can be amazed and wide-eyed and daring, because so much of the world was on offer for the first time to the European traveller.

    I suppose that it is simply due to the position of the market: people want pacy, exciting fiction more than they want long, introspective treatises on important social issues.

    Maybe Steampunk is all about manners and gentility and the high-minded exploration of the firmament, but if punk has a home in the genre the ideas discussed and the outcomes reached should be brave, challenging and often worrying. They should be every bit as subversive and abrasive as the angriest punk in the moshpit. And maybe they should have just as much irony as the record contract that punk signs two weeks later.

    Anyway, my two pence on the issue there, but I enjoyed your post (even if my reply is a bit stream of consciousness).

    I know our positions aren't the same on some things, it's just that you've come the closest to saying something that chimes with me on this. And you said it in an amusing way too.

    1. James, thank you for your excellent response. Glad to strike a chord with you . . . sorry for the bad pun. As I said, I'm not questioning the veracity of the attitude, just questioning the evolution of the delivery mechanism and trying to point out the irony of it all.