[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?
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.
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.
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