Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Charles Stross on Steampunk:

Yuki Onna’s retort:

Amberite's take:


My take: It strikes me that this is precisely where SF has been heading all along. SF, especially Hard SF, the stringent kind afraid to stray too far from the periodic table of science elementalism, craves control out of fear. “No rules?” its adherents thunder, outraged. To them, if it ain’t scientific, it’s just senseless meandering.

Talk about fearful old grannies: It has always been a truism that no one is more conservative than SF writers, especially the hard sf writers. Fred Pohl reminisced how they wrote centuries ahead of contemporary times but dressed, talked, and voted decades behind.

Well, what do such conservatives always want? Safety. They demand deballed kid-lit safeness in their storytelling; plain, by-the-Strunk & White writing; controlled imaginary worlds where their spavined notion of science prevails and where irrationality is a sin.

Many liked this kind of cringe fiction. It masqueraded as forward-thinking. It strutted out its futurists. It bragged about its prophecies and awarded its seers, its prognosticators, and its imagineers. It had all the earmarks of geeks and nerds huddling with hurt feelings in their world-haters clubhouse, agreeing fervently that they were the elite, and the rest mere mundanes.

Trouble was, not all the clubhouse members were engineers and scientists. Could non-elite drones write SF too?

The debate has raged behind the walls of the world for decades now, incorporating such concepts as the Golden Age, the New Wave, and Cyberpunk. Utopia, dystopia, and other topos imprinted themselves on SF’s collective memoryhole event horizon. FTL, ETI, and TNSTAAFL joined GAFIA, FAFIA, and the Moscow Mafia as terms of the trade.

And lo, along came Tor's conception of Steampunk as a genre.

You KNOW a movement's dead when some corporate schmuck company makes a market category out of it.


Tor publishing is currently working hard to make Steampunk not description but market category. To this end, Tor is pushing second-rate crap as the genuine article. This is true to form for corporate thinking but makes some upset. (Think Pat Boone singing Chuck Berry or other examples of Gresham’s Law where bad latecomers push out good innovators.) Of those upset by Tor’s strong-arm move to force good fiction out with bad, some factions object that romanticizing the Victorian Age is to glorify imperialism, monarchism, and oppression of underclasses.

This is all part of Doyle’s Holmes appeal, too, incidentally. Some of us are nostalgic for a version of the bad old days that never existed. It’s like the movie version of the Old West, fun if you know it's malarkey, dangerous if you're all hat and try to make it real like that goofy cowboy President we had awhile ago.

Any time a new flavor of fiction is made by corporate interests into a market category -- as opposed to genre, which arises naturally and unplanned -- it is likely moribund.

There is usually a prime example, quintessential and pivotal, seminal and famous. It sets the tone and parameters. What follows is response.

That is what we’re seeing now from Tor, response.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was probably the progenitor of Steampunk as a market category, having been a best-seller and a lightning rod for much discussion of literary theory at the time, circa 1990. Yes, there are older examples, dating back in fact to Wells and Verne and running through K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, James P. Blaylock’s Homonculus, and Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates, but The Difference Engine coalesced all the features of a market category’s prime exemplar.

This does not affect me, by the way. I write what ever it is I write, which I’ve chosen to call Ficta Mystica, having looked back over my life's work and spotting certain themes. I am instructed, though, and entertained, by the debate over Steampunk because the whole process smacks of typical corporate bubble-and-bust promotional capitalism paralleled by deadly serious literary chit-chat aimed ultimately at making writing better. Tant mieux.

In short, Tor’s ploy is a scam for selling more books, sure. Of course it is, why else does a publishing company exist? No shame there.

However, the debate surrounding this is asking a deeper question: Is this good for writing or even for -- gasp -- literature? Once again, it is argued, writing genre fiction is shown to be absurd if one’s goal is anything beyond serving corporate commercialism. Sad but true; art is subsumed by commerce. It may delight and fulfill one to to write genre fiction but all publishing the stuff serves is Big Publishing.

Quietly, a few writers produce solid, quirky, individual work in the unnoticed, and unexploited, shadows. That is where true advances arise.

And sometimes such advancements inadvertently achieve big sales and much attention. When that happens, market categories may be spawned. The last big one stemmed from the del Rey invention of the “trilogy” when an old professor’s outdated book, so big it had to be published in three fat volumes to be easily manageable, hit it big. That was called The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, and spawned what we now call the Epic Fantasy market category.

Will Steampunk be as big a boon to the corporate publishing coffers?

As one of those quiet writers in the shadows, it doesn’t much matter to me. Steampunk’s fun. It cannot be genuinely serious, for reasons covered very well elsewhere, though that needn’t matter to any reader or writer. If Steampunk floats your dirigible, go for it.

The rest is Steambunk.

Or Zombies. Or Sparkly Vampires. Or...

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

War Talk on Election Night MMX

Nowhere to go, no place to be.

On the seventh episode of the superb BOARDWALK EMPIRE on HBO, a soldier turned gangster, whose Princeton education was interrupted by WW I service, goes to a VA hospital for his wounded leg. He meets a guy with half his face shot off, who had served as a sharpshooter. Leg is reading so face offers him a book his family sent. It is a Tom Swift novel.

“Don’t you want it?” leg asks.

Face says, “Can’t read fiction anymore.”

“How come?”

“It occurred to me, the basis of fiction is that people have a connection. They don’t.”

It is a strikingly cold existentialist statement. It puts one in mind of Hemingway. Not that Hemingway ever showed such naked cynicism, but it was there, just under his ironic tone.

Turns out face lost his eye and half his face just after shooting and killing a German soldier, whose own bullet got lucky and hit the sharpshooter’s rifle. Further, face can still shoot, as a later “return of favor” scene shows.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE is based on a chapter from a history of Atlantic City, New Jersey. It focuses on the Prohibition days when the Volstead Act allowed gangs to flourish. Hard, cynical, and greedy men made war for as much as each could grab from the others. As usual, the people suffered while being told how blessed, patriotic, and exceptional they are. They swallow it every time.

A generation later, the deep cynicism of returning WW II vets would move post WW I’s hard-boiled fiction into noir cinema, where lost men in a totally corrupt world tried to stick to a personal code of honor for no good reason they could articulate. It was a kind of formula for producing tough prose: Go to war, be shattered, see through the bullshit, and come back to write as bluntly as possible. No more decadent excess to keep minds off reality. Those guys wrote to kill or be killed.

This is why the fiction of the Lost Generation and that of the Forties Film Flatfoots resonate today. We are like them. In both cases the veil of lies was torn and we got a glimpse of how bad things are when scum prevail, as they do so very often, being prone to cheating and theft, thuggery and murder. They operate in a landscape where politics is gangsterism and the rest is up for grabs. See that clearly and the toys get put away so the tools of economic and cultural war can be handled more effectively.

Plain writing for clear communication stems from writers who have seen where pretty distractions and cringing escapism allow the scum to go -- straight into power -- and take us -- straight to hell. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Sleep with one eye open. We know the watchwords. Why lull ourselves with nonsense when reality is so hostile?

It has always been this way. Go back further and you’ll find Twain and Bierce favoring direct writing over flowery crap. Twain was a deserter from and Bierce a veteran of the Civil War, which created cynics as fast as it created widows and orphans. Go back further still and you’ll find more wars. There is always a war of one kind or another, thanks to the sociopaths always harrying us. We each have a war that shapes us.

My war was cultural and economic, in the 1970s, in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania. Back then it was called coal country. Mountain hick gnomes with immigrant names and often accents, too, who dug the deep seams for steel in Pittsburgh, were scraping out a living in the most depressed region of the country. Then big steel moved overseas and the railroads were no longer needed. Everything dried up. Bruce Springsteen’s album THE RIVER summed it up so the nation could move on in good conscience, having shed a crocodile tear for us.

We who were stuck there were left strangely uncomforted.

An economic war against the people, waged by corporations with no national or human allegiance, devastated our lives. It destroyed my father and so many others. We learned then economics was a war, with weapons, killings, and deaths. Consequences of greed, short-term profit frenzy, and zero-sum cutthroat business-as-usual haunted our every moment. Poverty dogged us.

My scars run deep.

My writing tends to be terse.

Now that I and my family have once again voted the connection between war and how one writes makes sense to me. I write this as I watch the latest economic and cultural war again devastate the people for the benefit and amusement of the corporate rich and I only hope to stick to my code of honor, craft, and art. The connection now makes clear for me where my abiding anger comes from, as it builds toward fury at what the scum have done to us, and how I must use that tempered steel. I will write.

Write to kill or be killed.

Nothing less counts.

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