[GUEST POST] Lavie Tidhar Asks ‘What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk?’

[Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman, released this week in the UK, and the forthcoming sequel Camera Obscura. Other books include the linked-story collection HebrewPunk, the novel The Tel Aviv Dossier (with Nir Yaniv), the novella An Occupation of Angels and several forthcoming novels and novellas including Cloud Permutations, Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God and Martian Sands. He also edited The Apex Book of World SF and runs the World SF News Blog.]

Several years ago, my friend (and now my agent) John, and I, tried to pitch around the idea of a steampunk anthology. We’re both big fans – we actually met due to being somewhat-obsessive Tim Powers collectors – but every time we mentioned the idea to a publisher the response was the same: “Steampunk doesn’t sell.”

Cue several years later: Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s Steampunk anthology came out (with a second volume in the works), as did Nick Gevers’ Extraordinary Engines, and suddenly steampunk appears to be everywhere – even in the pages of The New York Times. There’s steampunk fashion, and steampunk interior design, steampunk gaming and steampunk music and steampunk conventions and steampunk blogs and steampunk art – and it’s truly international, with a recent anthology of Brazilian steampunk and a recent German convention…

And I have to ask: what happened?


My own steampunk novel, The Bookman, is officially released tomorrow in the UK (the American edition comes out in August). And to my immense surprise I’m contracted to follow it up with at least two more books. When I compiled a bibliography of steampunk novels for the Internet Review of Science Fiction in 2005, the list could pretty much be counted on your fingers. Now there seems a whole explosion of steampunk, or steampunk-influenced books coming out.

Again – what happened?

My first answer, I’m embarrassed to say, is that I’m f&^%d if I know. When I wrote The Bookman I did it for fun, without too much thinking about how to sell it – and with no idea steampunk was going to become a recognisable genre – not to mention a sub-culture – in its own right.

Which is not to say I wouldn’t venture a couple of guesses as to the why. though I could be wrong.

First, my guess is that the term “steampunk” – originating, tongue-in-cheek, in a letter K.W. Jeter sent to Locus Magazine in 1987 and referring to the sort of fiction he, Tim Powers and James Blaylock were writing at the time – has now become an umbrella term for a much wider set of only sometimes-converging activities. Perhaps some of it could be called Neo-Victorianism, though ‘steampunk’ does have a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

But then, this still doesn’t answer the question, of just why we’re seeing such a resurgence – or an emergence – of the genre. Which in turn again begs the question of what do we talk about when we talk about steampunk?

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In many ways, our own era, today, reflects to a large extent the same concerns of the Victorian world. The enormous colonial power that was Victorian England is replaced in our time by another vastly-powerful entity, the United States. Similar sentiments of anti-colonization are replicated – sometimes uncannily – in our time. In the nineteenth century, it was the British who became mired in Afghanistan, fighting – and losing – conflicts between 1839-1842 and again between 1878-1880 (with a third in 1919). More than that, British colonial forces are incredibly important to the way our world looks today – from the division of Africa (some notoriously made with a ruler on a map) to the shape of the Middle East.

Victorian politics influences our world today. And the Victorian Mission is alive and well in US policy and in much of the development industry, whether in establishing schools that must follow a Western curriculum, establishing church-based aid outposts or providing military intervention at the same time as negotiating trade agreements. Our world is very much still a Victorian world, and I suspect the growing popularity of steampunk can be attributed, at least partially, to that fact. By “playing” with Victoriana we are able to comment, directly and obliquely, on our own lives, and to an extent take ownership of the Victorian narrative, and use it to our own purposes.

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Around the same time I did the IROSF feature I also wrote a more in-depth examination, eventually published in Apex Digest, Some Notes Towards a Working Definition of Steampunk. In it, I made the argument that the underlying theme of steampunk is “that moment where technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical.” And I followed it up by saying that “Victorian London represents the moment in history where that transformation happens.”

Looking back, were these arguments accurate? Can they too help understand the popularity of the genre today?

I think they are, and they can.

Technology has always been a kind of magic. And our lives today are suffused with a magic we can rarely fully comprehend. The Internet, mobile phones, reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), jet planes and stealth bombers, GPS and smart bombs, Google and Twitter and Facebook, PCs, satellites and a forty-year old flag on the moon… technological advances expand exponentially, and Victorian London represents the moment when technology exploded beyond a single person’s ability to understand the mechanisms underlying it. The lone scientist of Victorian romance has been replaced with a multinational corporation’s research centre. Dr. Frankenstein has given way to Xerox PARC.

Steampunk allows us to revisit the magic of technology and again to take ownership of it. When we view our world through the lens of the Victorian era we can better understand it – and our place in it. The politics, the technology, the turbulent forces of colonialism and nationalism of the Victorian era are still present in our own – as are the fiction and the magic and excitement of the period.

And that’s why I think steampunk is popular.

Though I could still be wrong.

7 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Lavie Tidhar Asks ‘What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk?’”

  1. Your “Clarkean” argument of steampunk is quite elegant, Lavie – I couldn´t agree more! At least in Brazil, the appeal of the steam and of all things Victoriana seems more magic than scientific in its essence.

  2.      I’d wondered what steampunk was. Not a bad concept, yes, probably fertile gound for good sf.

  3. I believe you’re overthinking things a bit here. Steampunk is popular simply because brass ray-guns, airships, Analytical Engines, and bitchin’ stovepipe toppers with built-in daguerrotype cameras are just flat-out cool. :) Don’t even tell me you wrote The Bookman for any other reason than that blimp-fights and frock coats concealing steam-cannons are completely awesome.

    Seriously, though…I often wonder about this: almost all of the steampunks I know are also thorough transhumanists–and many of them discovered steampunk via Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, two texts by writers whose visions of the future have greatly defined transhumanist aesthetics and ideals. I believe that steampunk is transhumanist Singularitarianism transposed to the key of Victorian adventure-writing.

  4. In late 2006, Steampunk became a lifestyle choice. Before that, it was a fairly isolated sub-genre of Science Fiction. Once it became about wearing a certain style of clothing, the media was able to glom onto it (fashion is sexier and more comprehensible) and it accumulated an industry of sincere but schlocky writers to itself. After people who want to appear alternative start wearing different clothes, you won’t see the genre except in occassional cinematic revivals every 15 or 20 years.

  5. The interest in steampunk is, in fantasy, part of the larger expansion that had writers and readers becoming more interested in writing contemporary “urban” fantasy, satiric fantasy, dark fantasy and horror, and finally historical fantasy. Of particular interest for historical fantasy was the Victorian era,  which leant itself well to steampunk ideas that combined fantasy with industrialization. On the SF side, the long-term interest in alternate history SF and post-apocalyptic SF, combined with a sizzle of interest in the New Weird movement — which enjoyed Gothic and steampunk attributes — led to a renewed interest in steampunk SF. Steampunk has also slipped into alternate world fantasy on a larger scale than in the past, due to China Mieville and interesting things other writers are doing. Essentially, it’s a bit cyclical, and your interest was part of the gathering interest of the time. You were just a little bit ahead of the curve with an anthology. Also of interest in historical fantasy are the World War II era, the Englightenment, the Regency and the Renaissance, all of which lend themselves to steampunk concepts as well.

  6. Historical context of victorian literature was at the time of colonial adventure, national identities and industrialization in Europe. All that were implemented by modifying the role of work, education, religion, army and trade. New worlds were yet out-there to be discovered for a whole population by using a recent technological advance : full sci-fi contents in books and newspapers for every citizen. This literature nourished fantasy of new investors or simple farmers (disinherited and servants in Europe) about a chance of traveling so far to find sacred and magical treasures to exploit (with new industrial technologies) and to find finally freedom. It is in this context that also zionism was conceived (their promoters looked for political support in Europe to reach the promised land in the middle-east, not in Africa neither elsewhere.)

    Christianism and Zionism (and all sort of sects and spiritualist groups) were not the only ones to propose new worlds. Science gave hope about other fantastic worlds. Sci-fic writers were not people out of reality with a prolific and abnormal imagination but persons that believed in potential fantastic worlds in according to their time. That’s why readers followed their stories. Writers orented their sight also on an indispensable ingredient, mythology. An example (analyzed by the egyptologist Dominic Montserrat, Open University) was the creation of “Tutankamon’s curse” legend from the science-fiction novel “The Mummy” written by Jane Loudon Webb (1827). Or that of the “Hope Diamond’s curse” fabricated at the beginning of 20th century to add mysticism to the stone (this achievement was useful to increase its price in auctions).

    For sure, it was an odyssey for them to travel to new worlds full of adventures, monsters and alien communities (to save or exterminate, and subdue them). But all this expectation of traveling right there to reach progress, wealthiness and happiness didn’t work for everyone as waited. Technology didn’t render us more happiness but subtle slaves of new gadgets sold by corporations through vicious marketing. As you said, “the lone scientist of Victorian romance has been replaced with a multinational corporation’s research centre. Dr. Frankenstein has given way to Xerox PARC“.

    A principal question is : steampunk is an effective anti-colonial replication? Steampunk is interesting because it recreate currently technology by designing new fashion styles. Not only in high-tech but also in jewelry, clothes, etc. Its followers are not only fans. But could it propose another principles of life (social codes, way of life, spirituality, etc) in a whole world quasi conquered by victorian principles? How could it be possible, if including world wide communications are doing in victorian’s language, english (nor french, egyptian, zulu or inca)? Is it enough to take ownership of technology by re-looking it as a sort of counter-culture but still belonging to? (high-tech only works under networks buildup and controlled by corporations).

  7. All of your comments are very interesting.

    One thing I would add is that another thing that appeals about steampunk is the melding of modern technology with a more ‘organic’ feeling technology of the Victorian age.  Our electronic gadgets are much colder than the technology of the past.

    Personally, my biggest draw to the whole thing is a love of Victorian furniture, architecture, etc. and a love of Edgar Allan Poe’s work.

    Best Regards,

    Michelle Gates

     

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