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Author Topic: Serious Steampunk  (Read 8451 times)
JBDryden
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« on: September 29, 2009, 10:37:07 pm »

Lately I've been doing a lot of research and reading into the history of the movement, and I'm startled by how much the genre has changed since its inception in the late '70s and early '80s.  To me, those early works - the formative works - are what drive me to read because the statements being made were strong.  That is what draws me to the genre.

I'm wondering what others think.  So much of steampunk (or dieselpunk, biopunk, whatever - all of which fall short of the definition of  "punk") is driven by the trappings that make the genre cool without much of the ideology that made it lasting.  Perhaps it's the literature background that I have, but I feel as though I want to go back to that way of thinking by writing steampunk that has a message - a different message, granted, from that which was presented 20 years ago - but a message nonetheless.

A term was given on this forum, and I've seen it elsewhere, and I am fond of it for the second wave that has hit the genre: Gaslamp Fantasy.  I also like Victoriana and Gaslamp Romance.  These, to me, speak more to the way in which setting appeals to the reader, rather than theme. 

I'd love to talk more with others who are either interested or intrigued by this.  I'm not claiming one is better than the other, either; it's merely a preference and a trend I have come across.  One that Jeff & Anne VanderMeer speak to in their anthology "Steampunk" from last year.  (I recommend it for anyone who hasn't read it).  If you're interested in furthering the discussion, feel free to post or message me.

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« Reply #1 on: September 29, 2009, 11:19:06 pm »

It's an interesting point - but i'm not sure how much it applies to a lot of the members of the forum. I know a lot of people like the punk element, but for a lot of people it's the aesthetic that draws them to steampunk. I guess you can't really answer that without definate numbers.
On the other hand, I think almost all of the people here posess a steamy ideology to some degree or another - we're all polite to each other and we all try to be polite when talking to one another. Further, those of us that build things follow the ideology in that we recycle things (use scraps etc) and we aim for a standard of craftmanship higher than that usually seen today (although far from dead).
I hope that makes sense; i'm fairly well knackered right now.
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« Reply #2 on: September 29, 2009, 11:24:59 pm »

For me, the joy of our artform is that it can contain both the serious and the absurd at the same time.
The depths of the philosophical/ethical/behavioural aspects of steampunk that are discussed are very encouraging to someone who feels that the best bet for the future is communication and debate of what constitutes 'Value' in the world and what should be generally held to be a productive, sustainable way to proceed.
That being said, the nonsensical whimsey that takes up a lot of our time is also vital to the health of the whole.
Most of us seem to approach steam from the basis of a reasoned lifeview that places store in communal good, giving such aid as we can where possible and a desire for mutual tolerance.

I'd just say that it's possible to have both sides without belittling either.

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« Reply #3 on: October 01, 2009, 01:49:58 pm »

I agree wholeheartedly with the good doctor.  The idea that the absurd is somehow artistically less worthy than the 'serious' is comparatively recent.  That Elliot fellow has a lot to answer for.   The aforementioned anthology contains both,  (trying to remember the name of the story where Queen Victoria is replaced by a newt)

 
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« Reply #4 on: October 02, 2009, 02:42:47 am »

I like to think I'm a serious steampunk, but really, I'm just a serious person to start with, so....
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Vorpal Bandersnatch
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« Reply #5 on: October 02, 2009, 08:13:08 pm »

Steampunk needs a deep, serious and intellectual side in order to be anything more than a fashion trend. I think there's lots of potential there, too.
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« Reply #6 on: October 02, 2009, 11:09:33 pm »

It's an interesting point - but i'm not sure how much it applies to a lot of the members of the forum. I know a lot of people like the punk element, but for a lot of people it's the aesthetic that draws them to steampunk. I guess you can't really answer that without definate numbers.

Matt: I think I'm the opposite. The aesthetic is a trapping; it's what gives the genre flare. What draws me to the steampunk thread is the commentary on society - which is what really draws me to science fiction in general. I typically lean more toward the Wellsian philosophy of science fiction, more so than the Vernesian one. Social commentary gives a deeper meaning to a lot of stories, which is what I enjoy.

I'd just say that it's possible to have both sides without belittling either.

Dr: I agree with your entire post, but this statement was particularly spot on. I hope I don't come off as belittling the absurd. I was merely stating my preference for a more serious side to the genre and wondering if there were others who found equal enjoyment in that. There's not much of a home for serious steampunk (within any of the regular forums), so I thought I'd put the feelers out to see if there were others lurking here.

I agree wholeheartedly with the good doctor.  The idea that the absurd is somehow artistically less worthy than the 'serious' is comparatively recent.  That Elliot fellow has a lot to answer for.   The aforementioned anthology contains both,  (trying to remember the name of the story where Queen Victoria is replaced by a newt).

Smaggers: I did not think my post elitist and if it was, then my sincerest apologies go to those who have read it. The absurd certainly has it's place within steampunk, as well as within any vein of fiction or non-fiction. I was merely making a (somewhat hasty) general statement about the nature of most steampunk to be more about the ambiance and less about the ideology. The "punk" element that drove the genre for twenty years doesn't seem to be there anymore, and I'm curious to know what others think about that. I'm interested to see a return to that because that is what interests me most about the genre. I meant no offense, and I certainly had no intention of sounding elitist (nor did I think I came off that way).

Also, the story you're referring to is Paul di Fillipo's "Victoria."

Steampunk needs a deep, serious and intellectual side in order to be anything more than a fashion trend. I think there's lots of potential there, too.

Bandersnatch: I think *every* genre needs a balance like this. Introspective and thought-provoking fiction gives us great things to discuss, while the absurd and satirical fiction gives us things to chuckle at. But both are legitimate and both are beneficial.


So, with all that said, where does the genre go from here? I'm working on a series of pieces (not related) that use the trappings of steampunk with all its tropes to call into question a new set of social norms, not entirely different from those questions by the originators of the genre. I think that there is a great amount of potential for the genre to be seen as a a good opportunity for questioning things and interrogating society just as any other genre within speculative fiction does. If you look at works like "Lord Kelvin's Machine" or "The God-Clown is Near" (both in the Steampunk anthology), as well as works like "The Stress of Her Regard" by Tim Powers, you'll see that there was something to be said in those, and they created the style that has taken the place of the theme.

To me, writing has a purpose - and this is just my vision, not a judgment on others - and I write because I want to pursue that purpose: stories are meant to tell something, whether it's a humorous quip or an epic love story. They're meant to give meaning to us and entertain us. I write because I want to say something - to give the world something of my own perspective of the world - and hope that they walk away having learned something new about me, or the world, or (and this would be my greatest achievement) themselves. So to me, steampunk has that same requirement, and I believe there are others who would agree: I'm merely curious to find them and discuss it with them and perhaps learn from them.

JB Dryden
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Jha
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« Reply #7 on: October 02, 2009, 11:36:56 pm »

The "punk" element that drove the genre for twenty years doesn't seem to be there anymore, and I'm curious to know what others think about that. I'm interested to see a return to that because that is what interests me most about the genre. I meant no offense, and I certainly had no intention of sounding elitist (nor did I think I came off that way).

So, with all that said, where does the genre go from here? I'm working on a series of pieces (not related) that use the trappings of steampunk with all its tropes to call into question a new set of social norms, not entirely different from those questions by the originators of the genre. I think that there is a great amount of potential for the genre to be seen as a a good opportunity for questioning things and interrogating society just as any other genre within speculative fiction does. If you look at works like "Lord Kelvin's Machine" or "The God-Clown is Near" (both in the Steampunk anthology), as well as works like "The Stress of Her Regard" by Tim Powers, you'll see that there was something to be said in those, and they created the style that has taken the place of the theme.

To me, writing has a purpose - and this is just my vision, not a judgment on others - and I write because I want to pursue that purpose: stories are meant to tell something, whether it's a humorous quip or an epic love story. They're meant to give meaning to us and entertain us. I write because I want to say something - to give the world something of my own perspective of the world - and hope that they walk away having learned something new about me, or the world, or (and this would be my greatest achievement) themselves. So to me, steampunk has that same requirement, and I believe there are others who would agree: I'm merely curious to find them and discuss it with them and perhaps learn from them.

JB Dryden
It would have to depend on what you wish to address within steampunk. I personally find no other genre so ripe with promise as steampunk, and will be writing an article on this shortly.

However, to say there is 'serious' steampunk and it must deal with ideology is to dismiss the Neo-Vics who are also very 'serious' about their steampunking, too. In which case, I mean, there's aesthetic steampunk, and there is ideological steampunk. If I'm not reading you wrong, it is the latter you wish to address. Am I wrong?
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JBDryden
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« Reply #8 on: October 03, 2009, 12:24:34 am »

However, to say there is 'serious' steampunk and it must deal with ideology is to dismiss the Neo-Vics who are also very 'serious' about their steampunking, too. In which case, I mean, there's aesthetic steampunk, and there is ideological steampunk. If I'm not reading you wrong, it is the latter you wish to address. Am I wrong?

Jha: Yes, 'serious' is kind of a weighted word. I'm sure there are plenty of writers of the absurd who take themselves seriously, and their writing is serious in and of itself.  The distinction of serious meaning ideologically-driven might be a good one. So yes, I'm interested in discussing ideological steampunk.
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Jha
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« Reply #9 on: October 03, 2009, 01:40:05 am »


Jha: Yes, 'serious' is kind of a weighted word. I'm sure there are plenty of writers of the absurd who take themselves seriously, and their writing is serious in and of itself.  The distinction of serious meaning ideologically-driven might be a good one. So yes, I'm interested in discussing ideological steampunk.
Right.

Then yes. That is generally the only side of steampunk I explore. I'm not interested in the aesthetic or the trappings or the DIY. My focus tends to be on the potential promised by that "Reset" button we use when we play in steampunk.

In fact, I am hoping to link post-colonial theory to steampunk =)
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« Reply #10 on: October 03, 2009, 05:29:58 am »

The "punk" element that drove the genre for twenty years doesn't seem to be there anymore, and I'm curious to know what others think about that.


I disagree. To me, "punk" (at least in this context) implies "subversive social rebellion." It means rising up and fighting against the social morés one finds offensive, but doing so subtly, quitely, so that the enemy do not see us coming, and even after we have slashed our way through their ranks and moved on they are not entirely sure what has happened, only that something has led them to suspect that their perfect Utopia is, perhaps, not quite so idyllic as the propaganda would have them believe.

I do not costume, role-play or write, and I have yet to complete (or begin) my first Steampunk contraption. I have, however, chosen to make a stand, with raised fist, bared teeth, and burning stare, against the consumption-driven, disposable, no-time-for-courtesy society I see around me. I do this almost entirely by example of action, not by exhortation or imprecation; in this way do I hope to disturb the complacency of those around me. This, in my opinion, is what marks the difference between "punk" and "attention whore."

If you're looking for the more politicized, activist aspects of Steampunk, you might investigate Steampunk Magazine and The Gaslamp Bazaar. Brass Goggles is, as the blog says, dedicated to "The lighter side of Steampunk." You should, of course, continue to consider yourself welcome here as well; in my opinion it is a matter of absolute deadliest importance that we refrain from taking ourselves too seriously.
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« Reply #11 on: October 03, 2009, 02:23:15 pm »

Just a reminder that political discussion is out-of-bounds here. This thread seems to be tending in that direction, so be careful.
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« Reply #12 on: October 03, 2009, 02:58:07 pm »

This is a fascinating thread.
Just a reminder that political discussion is out-of-bounds here. This thread seems to be tending in that direction, so be careful.
Understood. I'll be careful.

I'm a strong advocate for the serious side of Steampunk. Sure I enjoy the lighter side (steampunk fiction, fashion, etc...) but I really like the radical aspects.

Well said, von Corax. Excellent and I strongly share your feelings.

JB, von Corax is right about Steampunk Magazine. In issue 3 the editors of Steampunk Magazine wrote the following:
Quote
The term “steampunk” was coined to refer to a branch of “cyberpunk” fiction that concerned itself with Victorian era technology. However, SteamPunk is more than that. SteamPunk is a burgeoning subculture that pays respect to the visceral nature of antiquated technology.

It’s about “steam”, as in steam-engines, and it’s about “punk”, as in counter-culture.
Each issue has numerous articles that apply to your question and I highly recommend it.

Finally, I wrote an article on my blog about Steampunk. Because it's explicitly political I'll PM you the link, JB. Anyone else interested please PM me and I'll send it.
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« Reply #13 on: October 03, 2009, 04:29:08 pm »

I've written about more sociological aspects of steampunk as well, in particular focusing on its Eurocentrism. I'll be covering some of these at Tor.com over the next month.

And of course, I third the the Gaslamp Bazaar suggestion.
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« Reply #14 on: October 04, 2009, 06:31:50 pm »

Is steampunk post-cyberpunk?

Some have called The Diamond Age post-cyberpunk, and in my mind it represents the very best of steampunk literature, particularly the serious variety.

The themes that I've been noticing that The Diamond Age hits on centrally, and which seem to be (or should be) present in steampunk as a whole:
1. Technology as art, beauty, and a class-equalizer. This is possibly THE theme of this book, and I think is consistent with a lot of things steam-punkish. The Victorians from which we draw so much inspiration were living in a time where industrialization was bringing things to the masses that had previously only been available to the upper class. This is responsible for the extremely ornate decor of the time: a middle class that could suddenly afford to decorate in whatever way they wanted, so everyone started imitating royalty. This is contrasted with the cyberpunk elements of technology as weapon, technology as God, technology as enemy.

2. Knowledge is power, intellectualism is good: The renaissance-man ideal seems to be coming back, with ingenuity, general curiosity, and all-around knowledge being the keys to victory. I think this is an assertion that the steampunk culture seeks to make as a rebuttal against the lowest-common-denominator trend in our media and culture in general. Intellectualism is feared or disdained by common culture, steampunk affirms it. Innovation, creativity, ingenuity, and education are all important elements.

3. Realistic idealism (Pragmatism perhaps?): Steampunk seems to look towards the future with the hope of progress, without the reckless belief that technology will solve all problems, or the hopeless dystopian predictions of cyberpunk. We don't think that humanity is inevitably good, but neither do we think that it is irredeemably bad. We don't see predictions of total anarchy or complete totalitarianism. Instead, we expect that there is a possibility of good, but that it will have to struggle to be realized.

4.Humans are limited, nobody is an action hero: The steampunk hero/heroine doesn't seem to rely on super-fast reflexes, crazy hacking skillz, or ruthless determination for success. I haven't seen a really invincible or bad-arse steampunk protagonist to date. Instead, there seems to be a broader assertion of value. The Diamond Age captures this perfectly in that the protagonist is a little girl. I think there's a rejection here of the "one-man army" ideal of our action movies, cyberpunk in particular. Instead of over-the-top yet totally unrealistic action scenes where one dude in sunglasses mows down a hundred others, we have a more realistic picture where teams or communities of people make the difference.


Anyways, these are some of the main thoughts I've got about this. I've thought a lot about sci-fi, cyberpunk, and steampunk as they relate to cultural trends from modernism to postmodernism and beyond, and in a lot of ways I think steampunk is kind of like post-postmodernism. Where Modernity was all about progress and success and mankind using science to subjugate his environment and destroy all evils, Post-modernity was all about tearing down the naive beliefs of modernity, but it didn't offer any hope or a way to move forward. Steampunk seems to tie in with a third and more productive direction, which acknowledges the difficulties we face without becoming nihilistic.

I think this is one direction that I could imagine steampunk heading in to gain a lot of credibility in art, literature, and other media. It's a rejection of what precedes it, but brings in new elements as well.

Any thoughts? Any other major, central ideals I missed? Am I way off in my assessment?
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Jha
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« Reply #15 on: October 05, 2009, 07:51:38 pm »

Vorpal: I think you're only scratching the surface with those. I agree that steampunk offers a post-modern method of moving forward productively, but that's only if its participants are interested in moving forward in self-improvement too. There are a lot of socio-political conversations to be had within steampunk. I talk about my pet issues at my blog, and it seems to drive people batty when I bring them up constantly in regular conversation =)

Anyway, readings that may be of interest:

Two articles by Dr. Dru Pagliasotti: Does Steampunk Have Politics? and Does Steampunk Have an Ideology?

Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon on Defining Steampunk
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« Reply #16 on: October 06, 2009, 03:31:55 am »

Anyway, readings that may be of interest:

Two articles by Dr. Dru Pagliasotti: Does Steampunk Have Politics? and Does Steampunk Have an Ideology?
Those articles were fantastic. Both articles express my views better than I ever could. I especially love this statement from the article on Steampunk ideology:
Quote
I conceive of steampunk as a quintessentially postmodern cultural movement.
Excellent!
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« Reply #17 on: October 06, 2009, 03:09:58 pm »

I agree, the Pagliassotti stuff in particular was excellent - some of the best steampunk theory stuff I've come across.

It really is interesting to see how steampunk can represent what I see as a new and positive side of postmodernism. Of course, I think the whole issue is difficult, because it seems to me that we're transitioning out of both Modernism and Modernity, and I see steampunk being a movement that could be indicative of both trends.

I think steampunk does need a manifesto to really become something more than another fantasy setting. I think any hopes that exist for a steampunk commune as so many people have talked about depend on having shared ideals deeper than aesthetics.
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« Reply #18 on: October 06, 2009, 04:22:42 pm »

I think the post-modernity of steampunk is what makes it both so confusing (hard to grasp) and yet liberating. I don't think it needs a manifesto, but it really ought to be expanded in scope of discussion.
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JBDryden
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« Reply #19 on: October 06, 2009, 04:57:05 pm »

Two articles by Dr. Dru Pagliasotti: Does Steampunk Have Politics? and Does Steampunk Have an Ideology?


These two articles are what really got me thinking about the way I write and read steampunk.  I read them back in February when he first posted them because I had just happened upon a short story of his.  That spawned what has become a fairly large-scale undertaking of compiling a list of books, articles, and short stories to read, as well as my own essays on steampunk and its future.

To address a few other things:

1) I believe that steampunk as a genre exists outside of what is typically described as Post-Modernism.  I don't believe that there's any room for a genre movement to be placed within the bounds of a more theoretical literary movement.  It has proven itself already as being something beyond genre definitions (just as cyberpunk was in its prime).  Steampunk does indeed give us a more positive view of "the future" in opposition to the one presented to us in most contemporary Post-Modern pieces, but I don't believe that steampunk as a movement adheres to many of the more traditional literary tropes. 

2) Steampunk, from my perspective, has a great opportunity to return to its origins and begin to recreate the social commentary tradition that has now fallen by the wayside.  Politics aside, there are plenty of social constructs that steampunk once questioned, and can still be questioned now.  It is my hope to revisit some of those topics and discuss them in a more modern context.


So that being said, my project this year with NaNo is to craft something outside of the normal aesthetic trope and hope to create a world reminiscent of those created in the 70s and 80s.
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« Reply #20 on: October 07, 2009, 12:55:28 am »


1) I believe that steampunk as a genre exists outside of what is typically described as Post-Modernism.  I don't believe that there's any room for a genre movement to be placed within the bounds of a more theoretical literary movement.  It has proven itself already as being something beyond genre definitions (just as cyberpunk was in its prime).  Steampunk does indeed give us a more positive view of "the future" in opposition to the one presented to us in most contemporary Post-Modern pieces, but I don't believe that steampunk as a movement adheres to many of the more traditional literary tropes.  

Well, there's the rub, right? It's post-modern prescisely because it doesn't adhere to the traditional literary tropes. You can apply post-modern theory to steampunk and it works. The other way around also works. There's a give-and-take between the two. One doesn't have to fit into the box of the other.

Quote
2) Steampunk, from my perspective, has a great opportunity to return to its origins and begin to recreate the social commentary tradition that has now fallen by the wayside.  Politics aside, there are plenty of social constructs that steampunk once questioned, and can still be questioned now.  It is my hope to revisit some of those topics and discuss them in a more modern context.
To be fair, any genre can do this. I often weave social commentary into fantasy stories. Steampunk is a vehicle, like any other literary genre. It happens to be more fun and interesting because it's the closest we get to our "real world", and takes our own recorded history up for subversion.

Do you post any of your writings on steampunk online?

(Also, Dr. Dru is a woman.)
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« Reply #21 on: October 07, 2009, 01:42:24 am »

I think steampunk does need a manifesto to really become something more than another fantasy setting. I think any hopes that exist for a steampunk commune as so many people have talked about depend on having shared ideals deeper than aesthetics.
Steampunk Magazine #1 printed what many consider a steampunk manifesto. You can read it online here.
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« Reply #22 on: October 07, 2009, 04:57:12 am »

Hmm - the quoted magazine article is decent, but I'm imagining something more along the lines of a book. We've got steampunk fiction, and we have steampunk guides, but we don't yet have a book that really delineates and explores the socio-political side of steampunk.
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« Reply #23 on: October 07, 2009, 03:17:00 pm »

Hmm - the quoted magazine article is decent, but I'm imagining something more along the lines of a book. We've got steampunk fiction, and we have steampunk guides, but we don't yet have a book that really delineates and explores the socio-political side of steampunk.
Because we're all too antsy tip-toeing around the socio-political side of anything to start with in order to really have a conversation about it.

And that's what we need: a conversation. From what I can tell, most people only see certain issues as being a part of steampunk. For me, all 'real-world' issues can be part of steampunk.
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« Reply #24 on: October 07, 2009, 04:15:22 pm »

the thing that interests me about this genre is the merging of the new tech with the old look.  it creates a unique feel that you don't get any ware else.
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