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.

Bruce Sterling on Steampunk

2190665242_608efe473d_o.jpgFull essay is here.

Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times. A host of objects and services that we see each day all around us are not sustainable. They will surely vanish. Once they’re gone, they’ll seem every bit as weird and archaic as top hats, crinolines, magic lanterns, clockwork automatons, absinthe, walking-sticks and paper-scrolled player pianos.
We are a technological society. When we trifle, in our sly, Gothic, grave-robbing fashion, with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech. Steampunk is popular now because people are unconsciously realizing that the way that we live has already died. We are sleepwalking. We are ruled by rapacious, dogmatic, heavily-armed fossil-moguls who rob us and force us to live like corpses. Steampunk is a pretty way of coping with this truth.

It’s a really interesting insight into the movement and, thinking about it, I probably agree… though at the same time I still just plain like stuff like zeppelins because they’re cool.
But when I think about the story I’m writing in Humorless, and the steampunk/clockpunk tech that shows up, a lot of it (with the exception of the story’s namesake) has corollaries in today’s technology, and each example has something wrong with it — flaws that also have a modern corollary.
Is that what I’m writing about? No. 1 However, I think it’s fascinating that, in introducing steampunk elements into the story, my mind naturally bestowed these relics of a technological path-not-taken with the same points of failure as the technology we have today.
Doing that sort of thing is, according to this essay, a kind of definitive part of the steampunk ‘thing’, and one assumes that that commentary is a conscious effort on the part of the participants. The fact that the same sort of deconstruction happened in my own story without my being aware of this alleged underpinning of the genre implies something even more important: that this knowledge of the oncoming failure of our current technological culture and the way we can/could reflect it in the Brass Mirror of pseudo-Victorian tech-that-never-was is something deeply ingrained in the subconscious.

1 – Truth be told, I probably won’t know exactly or even generally what I’m writing about until I’m done, or probably well after that — I know that brothers and sisters seem to be figuring fairly prominently, and that’s about it.