Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Thoughts on the Genre of Steam

This started as a more serious response to Kelly's post, but grew. I'm composing on a bit of a fever and lack of sleep, so my apologies if I run on at points.

I think steampunk has a lot of potential, as a setting, as a backdrop, as a sub-genre. It just plain looks fun. Admittedly, I haven't been overly impressed by some of the work being held up as "the standard" for SP at this point, but that is partly taste, partly evolution of the form, and partly, I suspect in a couple cases, writing being rushed to market. (I also admit I am not as widely read in the form as I might be, and so may have just been having horrible luck in picking titles to date.)

I'm not as disturbed by the glossing over of the evils of the Victorian era as some because, well, most of us do that for the other periods we use as settings. I'm a historian--there are vast swaths of evil and bad and rottenness in every era, most of which is not addressed or acknowledged in second-world fiction. Leaving it out is a tried and true tradition, and I don't think we should be conveniently dumping on one genre when there are so many others that do the same thing. Of course, that doesn't mean the darker side of society can't be can't be addressed in SP (or fantasy, or SF, or...), and shouldn't, and I suspect it will (and already is, from what I have gleaned via teh webz). We just haven't seen the full counter-swing of the pendulum, yet.

What annoys me, personally, are the ray guns, zombies, plot-holes, and extremes some people are taking the "science" to. Mad science /= implausible/impossible/hand-waving science, at least in the most egregious forms. If you want to hand wave, use magic, or at least try to give me a bit of a plausibility base. But this is only *my* opinion and, like I said, I trained as a historian--stuff like that bugs me. Clearly, others don't have this issue, and, for them, that's okay. Like the song says: You can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself. That holds doubly true for writers.

I think this latest iteration of SP is still building itself and sorting itself out. With the up-surge in the SP fashion/life style, along with over-the-top vehicles like Girl Genius (which I thinks works as an over-the-top offering, whereas many other literary efforts take this as an inspiration but don't adopt the tongue-in-cheek tone that makes GG work), there is more of an homage to the esthetic and less to the nuts and bolts of what make good world building. For those who want a brass and leather romp, this isn't an issue; for those looking for a bit more meat on the bone of their literature, much of the current fare is leaving the reader hungry.

That, and the sales and the shelf space, are likely what is rubbing some people raw. I can understand that. But I also agree with Kelly when he says that's no reason to start lobbing grenades (or, clock-work, self-igniting, inner fused explosive spheres, depending on the lobber) just because you aren't happy about the latest trend.

Do I think SP could be better? Sure. I also think fantasy, as a whole, could have been better in the late 70s and early 80s too, but that didn't mean the entire genre was crap and dragging us all into the abyss. And I don't even pretend to get all the vampire and zombie stuff. But so what? Steampunk is what it is, and if you don't like it, either write something better or let the people read their books. Bitching about it isn't going to make it go away.


Kelly McCullough said...

The funny thing about the whole kerfuffle for me is that I'm not actually all that interested in steampunk. It doesn't really hit my literary kinks for many of the same reasons you're talking about here. What really interests me is the meta argument (which is a form I see time and again in the history of art) and why people feel the need to try to map their literary kinks into some sort of objective scale of good and bad art.

Sean M. Murphy said...

Kelly, I think the question is one tied up in the meaning and interpretation of that final word you used there: art. It's a slippery concept, with pseudo-rules and guidelines, and very little agreement about an actual definition when it comes to its application. Every reader, inside, has a sense of what they consider good story, and while much of that maps to a broader audience, there are always these intersection points where what I love is ghastly to you, or vice versa. The rest is ego, as far as I can tell, or lack thereof.

Kelly McCullough said...

Which is closely related to why I don't much like the word "truth." I'm good with "fact," but truth is very slippery as it seems to mean very different things to different people and sometimes very different things to the same person in two different contexts. I suspect that an awful lot of disagreement happens because we don't really have consensus meaning for a lot of words that many of believe we have consensus meaning for. Which is why I don't like to use good and bad in terms of talking about the art of writing.

Eleanor said...

The conversation at Wyrdsmiths last night was interesting. What the others were saying was, steampunk is really a visual art and graphic novel phenomena, and it works better as visual art: the amazing pseudo Victorian computers we find on the Internet, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and so on.

It's really hard to get the effect of a visual art in a novel. How much description do people want to read, anyway? Fiction is usually more about character and action than it is about surface. Science fiction is usually about character, action, ideas and history, rather than surface...

Jon said...

Charles Stross called Steampunk: "...what happens when Goths discover brown..."

Douglas Hulick said...

Wish I'd made the conversation last night.

I think writing it off as mainly a visual phenom that doesn't translate to the page is a cop-out. Yes, a lot of the people who are into the making/playing aspect of it are more into the visual, but that's the medium they're working in. Making cool stuff and dressing up, by definition, results in eye-candy. But that doesn't have to be where it stops.

I think there is a deeper esthetic that can be touched within steampunk. There is a sense of both wonder and entitled ability (in the sense of "People can solve anything they put their minds to), along with a sense of discovery & adventure among the frontiers of civilization, that can easily run through steampunk. It simply hasn't been tapped yet. It's a combination of the SF space opera ethos combined with an old west sensibility, all topped off witha dab of mystery and the (vaguely) fantastic. Think Verne plus Doyle plus Indiana Jones, or the like. *That* kind of thing can work very well in literature--people just need to get past the gears and goggles and leather and put it on paper. I know that if I did any steampunk, it's what I would aim for.