Steampunk has TWO syllables

This observation, lifted from a conversation about something else entirely, is quite worth pondering when I get back to working on Humorless:

Steampunk, to me, often seems to have a whole lot of ‘steam’, and very little ‘punk’.

Which is to say, the emphasis often ends up on the trappings of the fictional steampunk age (flying machines, engine magick, people wearing goggles for no real reason, etc), and not the social issues behind the fiction – class struggle, the social effects of technological revolution, and protagonists who are at odds with authority but lacking in social power or influence.

Couldn’t have said it better myself (largely because it hadn’t consciously occurred to me).

Now, to be fair, there isn’t a LOT of steampunk to be had in the first place, so in ways this is an understandable omission — the author might feel pressure to turn up the ‘steam’ volume on their story to get it recognized as such, and ignore the other half the equation.

I’m thinking over Humorless in light of this observation, and I see a similar kind of overbalancing – zeppelins, brass fittings, strange weapons… sure, but where’s the social imbalance and conflict? It could (and should) certainly BE there, to earn the ‘punk’ syllable… but it isn’t.

(Part of me whines that it’s comedy, not a social commentary, but that’s a cop out.)

Actually, if you accept this whole idea, Girl Genius isn’t steampunk — it’s much more some kind of Steam Fantasy for which there is no official genre designation.

Hrm. More later.

4 Replies to “Steampunk has TWO syllables”

  1. Girl Genius is steampunk told from the perspective of the overclass. The sparks are crazy, incredibly destructive, and care very little for the vast amounts of carnage they cause. We don’t see the rebellion of non-sparks, so I suppose that’s where the punk is lacking.

  2. I agree with your assessment of Girl Genius for what it is, and yes: I’m not sure if it’s ‘steampunk’ by that (admittedly off the cuff) definition.

    As I read it, the idea is that the technology in a whatever-punk game is the unbalancing factor within the culture — the thing that the underclass now has that destabilizes or brings into question the now-outmodded social structure that’s in place.

    In Girl Genius, the technology *is* the status quo, held (mostly) by those in power (or at least wielded most effectively by them). Certainly steam-powered fiction, but not ‘punk’ in the sense of there being a class-struggle or a revolution going on — just a power struggle between equals.

    Doesn’t mean I don’t LOVE it, by the way: I certainly do. It just occurs to me that the story tropes at work make it more of a classic fantasy quest-story with steam tech trappings.

  3. As a fan of the steampunk, I really agree with you.

    However it seems to be hard to balance both. Unlike cyberpunk, much of the allure to steam is the “overclass”, the nobles and such….people like that.

    When you throw in rebellion people get distracted by the steam (if they have walls with mechanical hands why do they walk anywhere, is a current gripe from my current wip).

  4. Foglio uses “Gaslamp Fantasy” to describe GG.

    Steampunk is, in fact, largely a misnomer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — most fiction doesn’t talk about the disenfranchisement of the underclass (which is probably just as well, too).

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