TT: Steampunk the Next Generation

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  I hope you’ll go back and see my polymer clay figures!  Then come back and join Alan and me as we take a look at the roads down which steampunk fiction has traveled.

Brilliant Gears

Brilliant Gears

JANE: Last time we talked about steampunk both before it was called steampunk and as it evolved in the 1980’s.  However, my feeling is that steampunk has evolved once again.

In the introduction to her 2010 anthology Steampunk’d, editor Jean Rabe says: “Steampunk: It’s what the future would look like, I heard someone say, if it had come along earlier… say during the Victorian Era.  Me?  I say steampunk is just good science fiction.  Or fantasy, alternate history, Western, etc.  Just so it’s got some steam power and airships and goggles and the like.”

ALAN: I’d not heard this definition before, but I love it! It perfectly encapsulates the nature of steampunk and explains why there is often such a large emphasis on gadgets in the genre – after all, if flying machines had been invented in the nineteenth century, they would have had to be steam powered for exactly the same reason that the (real) boats and trains were steam powered. That was the only power source the nineteenth century had. And when the future comes early, it has to fit in with the present, to an extent at least. And it is this last aspect that is exactly what I like about steampunk because you can have so much fun with it.

JANE: I must admit that while I’ve liked some of the newer steampunk – Kenneth Oppel’s novels Skybreaker and Airborne immediately come to mind, as does Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three – I feel that too many times the stories are relatively weak in plot and character.  Instead, they rely heavily on the setting and, even more, on trappings: gears, goggles, balloons and airships, and, of course, steam power.  Basically, I’ve been more often disappointed than not.

ALAN: Oh yes – that’s certainly a real phenomenon. I don’t think the over-emphasis on surface detail is necessarily a bad thing. There are times when it’s good to just lie back and relax and indulge in some good old-fashioned entertainment. Cherie Priest is particularly brilliant at this. She’s written some novels under the generic series title of The Clockwork Century and they are stuffed full of pirates and zombies and airships and poison gas and black-hearted villains and white-hearted heroes.

The series is a raree show full of razzmatazz and I think that steampunk is probably one of the few genres that can do this – just provide a story that has no other purpose except to entertain. It’s hard to have a message or a sub-text or any deeper concerns at all inside a story that is so deliberately shallow. So the way is open for a bit of pure fun and I love it!

JANE: Hmm…  I think I need to understand more.  “Shallow” and “fun” don’t usually come under the same heading for me.  However, I’m willing to admit that many of my friends think I’m a bit too tough.

ALAN: With steampunk I’m reminded in many ways of the English pantomime tradition which is also just a raree show with similar rigidly enforced traditions sitting on the top. Nobody in the audience really cares about the “play” taking place on the stage. It will be some hoary old tale such as Cinderella or Puss In Boots, or Aladdin (all three are firm favourites). Everybody knows the story and nobody pays it much attention.

The panto will always have a Pantomime Dame in the cast – and the dame is always played by a fat and ugly man made up to look even fatter and uglier than nature intended. The Dame will probably be called Widow Twanky. There will also be the Principal Boy who is always played by a stunningly beautiful woman who not even a blind man in a dark cellar could ever mistake for a boy. But everyone pretends…

There will be lots of childish jokes and sometimes some adult jokes as well. Maybe there will be a song – “She Sits Among The Cabbages And Leeks” is always good for a smutty giggle.  (We always seem to come back to toilet humour, don’t we?)

JANE: Ah…  I’m seeing shades of Terry Pratchett’s character Nanny Ogg here…  Do go on!

ALAN: The fun comes from the interaction between the audience and the cast. When the black-hearted villain repossesses Widow Twanky’s house and sneaks up behind her to deliver the coup-de-grace the audience will shout:

“He’s behind you!”

Widow Twanky turns round but the villain dodges out of the way.

“Oh, no he isn’t!” she yells.

“Oh yes he is!” responds the audience.

Rinse, lather, repeat until everyone gets sick of it.

In other words it’s mindless, but that doesn’t stop it being fun and you might perhaps be a bit surprised at the big name stars who indulge themselves on stage in pantomime when the season rolls around.

JANE: And here is where I am just a grump.  I actually like and admire the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in and for itself.  However, I have no desire to go see the versions that involve a similar sort of  audience participation.

ALAN: In any case, I find that same kind of fun can be had from the window dressing of steampunk and I enjoy it hugely. I think that’s healthy and needs to be encouraged. We all need to lighten up on occasions.

JANE: Oh, I do “lighten up.”

However, maybe because Story is my art and craft and something I love, no amount of shoddy storytelling or lazy writing amuses me, even if the trimmings are boffo.   Far from lightening me up, they make me grumpy.

For example, in the above- mentioned Steampunk’d anthology, I finished very few stories because most of them ended up boring me.  An exception was Paul Genesee’s “The Nubian Queen.”  He had all the steampunk trims, but the heart of the story went beyond finding excuses  to include them, so I stayed interested.  In fact, I wanted an already long story to be longer.

Basically,  if  I want the boffo trimmings, I’ll go to a costume contest and enjoy the people in Victorian garb wearing gears for jewelry.

ALAN: Speaking of that,  did you know that New Zealand is a vital cog in the steampunk engine?

JANE: Yes, I did.  Walter Jon Williams showed Jim and me his slides from New Zealand, many of which featured a town called Oamaru.

ALAN: Gosh – I didn’t realise he’d got that far south. He really did do a lot of exploring, didn’t he?

JANE: That’s our Walter!  He also dove the Great Barrier reef.

ALAN:  Oh, I’m so jealous! Anyway, Oamaru is a small town deep in the South Island where The League Of Victorian Imagineers is based. They hold regular steampunk events such as fashion shows and the like. This summer they plan to hold a Victorian Steam Powered Picnic with a cricket match and skittles. The Picnic will culminate in a treasure hunt for the rare South Pacific Tree Octopus (which is perhaps a relative of the famous Australian Drop Bear).

And in June the League will be hosting a steampunk weekend to celebrate the 150th anniversary of steampunk in New Zealand. This will include airship racing and a gala ball.

JANE: This sounds like fun…  If I were closer, I’d definitely attend.

ALAN: But back to literary steampunk. Another entertaining aspect consists of novels that feature real people from our own Victorian era having exciting adventures in the steampunk universe. So, for example, Mark Hodder has written a trilogy (the first volume is called The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack) detailing the adventures of Algernon Swinburne and Richard Burton. Unlikely companions I agree, but again that’s part of the attraction.

JANE: Unlikely, but neat…  After all, why just re-tell history as it happened?  Your mention of Richard Burton reminds me of Phillip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” books.  If they were published today, they’d certainly be considered “steampunk.”

ALAN: Oh, yes – I enjoyed those a lot.

There’s also a novel by the British writer Christopher Priest which is called The Space Machine. It’s another proto-steampunk novel (it was published in 1976) and it’s a kind of a sequel to H. G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds. Wells himself has a very large part to play in the action of the novel and I think that Priest’s book might have had a more direct effect on  the artistic development of steampunk than Farmer’s books did. Farmer resurrected Burton in the future – he didn’t use him as a character in his own era as both Priest and the steampunkers tend to do.

JANE: Burton is a fascinating character…  Jim’s a particular fan of his writings.

Another area where steampunk has been well used is anime and manga.  Hayao Miyazaki’s film Laputa: Castle in the Sky is one of the most obvious.  However, I’d stretch the argument to include his films Naussica: Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, as well.  In each case, Miyazaki explores not only how cool alternate technologies might be, but also some of the implications.

Darker and set in 1914, rather than strictly in Victoria’s reign, is the compelling world of Fullmetal Alchemist.  No airships, but lots of trains and clock towers and the innovative “automail” prosthetics used to replace limbs in this war-torn world.

As with the town of Oamaru, these tales are visually glorious – but thoughtful stories as well.

ALAN: Normally, you and I agree on most of the literary things that we talk about. So I think it’s interesting that, while we do have some common ground here, we also end up having quite different views about the nature of steampunk. I think that has made this a rather interesting discussion. What are we going to talk about next?

JANE: A review you wrote a while back has raised a question for me…  But I need to go work, so I’ll save it for next time.

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7 Responses to “TT: Steampunk the Next Generation”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Oh dear, no love for Girl Genius? The steampunk introduction I remember is the old roleplaying game Space 1889 that a friend bought. We never played, but again it was a fun setting to peruse. Actually, thinking back even further, the old TV series The Wild, Wild West certainly had steampunk elements.

    I think one reason the surface trappings are so important now is that there’s a steampunk fashion subculture out there, a spinoff of the goths. It seems that many books are designed to appeal to the artistic fashion, and rather less to the mechanics of actually making it, you know, work. While I happen to be fond of well made, old-fashioned items, my curmudgeonly take on most steampunk-iana is that it’s a) expensive and b) minimally functional. But it looks good. It’s about having the artful brass gear on one’s hatband, in place of the old-fashioned feather. Or the common mechanical wash in a globe as a necklace pendant. The watch may be cheap enough to have the time right only twice a day, but again, it’s the appearance that matters.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Forgot to add to the previous post, but what are those gears in the picture?

    • Sally Says:

      Looks like really fancy drawing templates to me.

      There’s a whole genre of steampunk stuff on Instructables.com– how to make steampunk flash drives, computer keyboards, lamps, goggles, kaleidoscopes, watches, radios… All for those with lots of time and a yen for that look.

      Would some of China Mieville’s books qualify? (Not that I personally found readable the one that I tried).

  3. janelindskold Says:

    I think some of China Mieville would definitely qualify.

    The gears are indeed gears — for the Klutz version of the spirograph — so they are also fancy drawing templates!

    Oh… I’d forgotten Space 1889! Definitely steampunkish!

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