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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