Saturday, April 11, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: Steampunk

So last week, we talked about bizarro fiction, the new kid on the block, kind of weird. You're pretty sure he worships some kind of god he made up, but you don't ever want to call him on it just in case he snaps.

This week, we're going mainstream… or as mainstream as it really ever gets with SF/F: steampunk. Steampunk isn't just literature anymore. It's a whole movement, and it makes for some very polarized opinions. I know people who hate it and say that it's all full of fun vampires who obsess over the historical accuracy of buttons on a jacket. And I know people who do, in fact, obsess over the historical accuracy of the buttons on a jacket… they most certainly are fun vampires.

On the flipside of the steampunk coin, you have people who think that like gears and so they throw them on their outfit and think: Boom. Steampunk. In a way, they're not wrong. It might take a little more care, but if you're using brass and gears and goggles and corsets and top hats, you're probably going to hit close enough to the visual aesthetic that people will say, "Hey look, steampunk."

Steampunk literature sure didn't suffer from the popularity of the movement, either. The word steampunk, like all of the other punk genres, came about from the big bad granddaddy that, unfortunately, most people aren't as familiar with: cyberpunk (more on that another week). They do have some similarities, the most obvious being the technology. Steampunk is, of course, tech from the steam-powered Victorian era, and the works are often set in an alternate history version of the Victorian world, though by no means is that always the case. My favorite steampunk books, the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, focuses on the first world war. Still not exactly modern, of course, but certainly not Victorian.

One of the other defining factors is the subversion. It's where the 'punk' comes into all of the many X-punk subgenres. It's not ubiquitous—beyond the tech, nothing is ubiquitous in steampunk literature—but it's extremely common to see something or someone railing against social convention for one reason or another. Hence why the steampunk skies are full of female mechanics and air captains, in a world where it simply wouldn't have happened, and Ada Lovelace is raised onto her (deservedly) high pedestal. It's why a chimney sweep who also repairs complex machines on the side would work just fine. But moving outside of the Victorian era, subversion is still very much present. Rebels exist throughout steampunk, people working outside the rest of society (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comes to mind, there, although that's still Victorian.). Even in my very limited steampunk offerings, subversion is everywhere. Two mad scientists bonding over conquering the world, or an automaton going against government rule to provide water for the boilers of the poor.
I've mentioned a couple of my favorite works already: Leviathan, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comics and the movie). But there are many more, and many of them are considered some of the greatest in (and about) the genre. The Difference Engine, Boneshaker, and a fair number of the offerings of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, most notably the Steampunk Bible.

There's also a fantasy side to steampunk called gaslamp fantasy, but that's also for another week. But while we're talking about things that aren't quite steampunk, I'd like to touch on the Victorian sci-fi out there. This is personal opinion, so feel free to ign
ore it, but I think it needs saying:

Jules Verne did not write steampunk. Neither did H.G. Wells. Steampunk is retrofuturistc, meaning that it deals with the past, but with advanced science and technology. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were writing contemporary sci-fi. I will wholeheartedly agree that their work should go among the big influences for steampunk, but they were not writing steampunk. Sorry… but not really.

Now, if I haven't horribly offended you with that last little tirade and you want more Subgenre Saturdays, make sure to subscribe to the blog, an if you have any speculative fiction subgenres you'd like to see on future Subgenre Saturdays, leave a comment below. Always happy to hear from you.


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