The Premature Death Announcement of Steampunk

Steampunk is apparently dying once again, after having already died sometime before 2017, at least according to this article by Eric Renderking Fisk at The Fedora Chronicles. Back then, the culprits were the so-called “fair-weather Steampunks”, i.e. the folks who occasionally go to a Steampunk festival and dress up in Steampunk gear, but who don’t live and breathe Steampunk. Here is a quote:

It’s those fair-weather steampunkers who are the ones who are actually killing steampunk. You’re either in a punk movement all the way, or you’re not. There are no half measures in punk.

Furthermore, those fair-weather Steampunks completely forgot about the “punk” in Steampunk. Here is another quote:

All the other “punk” movements should be that, too – renunciation of the current norms – not an effort to be approved and accepted and eventually assimilated by the system that’s trying to subjugate us.

In Steampunk, there is none of that angst anymore. There’s no sign of protesting against the establishment, there’s no sign of any resistance against the status quo beyond the mere visual aesthetics, and there is nothing that resembles social anarchy beyond the outward appearance. Let’s all conform to the modern norms of society and allow the ruling class to crush us while we put on our Sci-Fi Victorian and Edwardian costumes to distract us from the inevitable.

That post is very reminiscent of the terminally hip lamenting that now that the rest of the world discovered their favourite band/author/underground movie/other trend, it’s no longer cool. There’s also a hint of “Steampunk – you’re doing it wrong”, even though Eric Renderking Fisk complains about gatekeepers and the Steampunk police, which is antithetical to the “punk” ethos. He’s actually right about that last bit, ironically while he rails about all those other folks who are doing Steampunk wrong.

Alas, Steampunk got better or maybe it’s simply been the walking undead for the past two years. And now Steampunk is dying again, at least according to an article entitled “Who Killed Steampunk?” by Nick Ottens in Never Was Magazine. And who did kill Steampunk this time around? Well, it’s the people who wanted to make Steampunk too political and thus drove the folks who just wanted to dress up in brass goggles and corsets away.

Let’s have a quote:

Steampunk had to be more than Neo-Victorianism and an “escape to gentleman’s clubs”. It had to be aggressive, do-it-yourself and sympathize with the “traitors of the past” in order to rebel against the present.

Other examples of this mentality included Phenderson Djèlí Clark, Jaymee Goh and Diana M. Pho. All insisted that steampunk not only ought to be but was political, whether we liked it or not — and anybody who disagreed was naive.

If anything, it was this activism that drove people away. They were drawn to steampunk because of the stories and the style — and told they weren’t doing it right if they didn’t share the radical, anti-capitalist ideology of a loud minority that tried to mix steampunk and politics.

This post-mortem of Steampunk is eerily reminiscent of complaints from certain quarters of the SFF community that science fiction, the Hugos, WorldCon, Star Wars, comics are dying, because everything is way too political now and no longer fun. Inevitably, those death pronouncements are as premature as those of Steampunk. And indeed, one of the noisier complainers actually does write Steampunk, which he advertises as unpolitical fun. I guess he actually believes it, too.

And indeed, Nick Ottens has written a follow-up post, in which he addresses some of the criticisms of the original post and tries to distance himself from the “women, people of colour, LGBT people and other marginalised folks entered my hobby and suddenly it’s not fun anymore” crowd.

As usual, when someone posts something controversial, there were a bunch of responses. Also at Never Was Magazine, Eric Renderking Fisk, to whose 2017 Requiem for Steampunk I linked above, responds to Nick Ottens and repeats his basic point from 2017 in somewhat shorter form.

Steampunk author Gail B. Williams, who also writes crime fiction as G.B. Williams (her Locked trilogy is excellent) also responds to Nick Ottens at Never Was Magazine and points out that even though her Aether series of Steampunk novels has a diverse cast of characters, she wasn’t trying to push any specific political agenda, it just happened that way, because the world we live in is diverse and already was diverse in the Victorian era. And in the comments, someone promptly complains that Gail B. Williams talks way too much about her characters and not enough about what makes her work Steampunk. I guess clicking through to the reviews the Aether books that are linked at the bottom of the post is too much for that person.

Professor von Explaino (real name Colin Morris) points out that Steampunk is looking pretty healthy to him and that the fact that it’s getting more diverse and inclusive is a good thing as far as he is concerned. He also links to a Twitter thread by Suna Dasi who shares her experiences as a woman of colour in the Steampunk community.

Finally, here is Charlie Jane Anders on Twitter, who is actually what pointed me to Nick Otten’s post in the first place. And no, I have no idea why a post originally made on April 19 only popped up in my feed today, but then the Twitter app can be weird at times.

Charlie Jane Anders is absolutely correct, but then her podcast with Annalee Newitz is called “Our Opinions Are Correct”. Because all fiction is political and fiction written by folks who keep decrying how totally unpolitical and fun their fiction is is usually filled to the brim with politics. The authors and their fans just cannot see it, because it’s politics they happen to agree with, which is probably also what makes the fiction so fun for them. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with fiction being political in the wider sense of the word, as long as the author is aware of the political implications of what they are writing.

And Steampunk is definitely political, because it tends to engage with highly politicized subjects. Colonialism, Imperialism and racism are obviously the big ones (and they also affect Steampunk’s sister genre Weird Western), but gender relationships and gender roles, the persecution of LGBT people, militarism, widespread poverty and other social issues of the Victorian era are also very definitely present in Steampunk. Finally, Steampunk is also very much about the industrial revolution, which of course means that touches on topics like labour conditions and the labour movement, exploitation, predatory Capitalism, paternalistic Capitalism, the birth of Communism, etc… In fact, I’m surprised that there isn’t more Steampunk which directly engages with the industrial revolution and its consequences, but I guess airship adventures are more fun.

I also agree that Steampunk fiction has become more interesting and varied, once it ventured beyond airships, brass goggles, totally apolitical adventures in “the colonies” and drinking tea in Victorian England. Because works like Everfair by Nisi Shawl, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, the anthology The SEA Is Ours, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, the Arabella Ashby books by David D. Levine, the Alice Payne series by Kate Heartfield, the Iron Seas series by Meljean Brook (which sadly hasn’t had a new book out since 2014), etc… expanded the boundaries of what Steampunk could be, just as the (re)-introduction of supernatural and horror elements into Steampunk by authors like Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger did a few years before. But then, Steampunk is always changing and expanding and has moved on quite a bit from the days of Morlock Night and Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter, Humunculus by James Blaylock, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers or The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, let alone The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, which even predates the existence of Steampunk as a term. And indeed the very fact that Steampunk is changing and expanding is a sign that the genre is not dying, because the static genres are the ones that are close to death.

That said, the Big Five publishers do seem to publish fewer Steampunk novels than they did a few years ago. Tor still publishes Steampunk and indeed most of the newer Steampunk novels mentioned above are published by Tor, though it’s notable that their most recent Steampunk offerings such as the Alice Payne series, The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 or Stone Mad, the sequel to Karen Memory, are novellas rather than novels. Meanwhile, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series hasn’t had a new book out since 2013, while Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series hasn’t had a new book out since 2014 and Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series ended in 2015, though she is self-publishing a follow-up series.  However, Meljean Brook’s and Bec McMaster’s series were both marketed as romance rather than SFF (which is probably why many SFF folks have never heard of them) and probably suffered when the popularity of paranormal romance and historical romance (and Steampunk romances were usually marketed as a crossover between those subgenres) declined and contemporary romance suddenly became the hot subgenre again.

Meanwhile, indie and small press Steampunk is merrily chugging along. I usually have at least one Steampunk book every month in the new release round-up and at the Speculative Fiction Showcase, the “Steampunk” tag has 66 entries (the most recent is Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures by Alex Acks), which is fewer than e.g. space opera with 187 entries, urban fantasy with 168 or military science fiction with 104 entries, but also more than Cyberpunk with 57 entries, Weird Western with 36 entries, Biopunk with 5 or Dieselpunk with 2 entries. So in short, Steampunk fiction is very much what it was before the brief boom around 2010-2012, a niche genre but far from dead.

And Steampunk cons and festivals are actually expanding. Only a few years ago, I had to explain to people here in Germany what Steampunk was. Nowadays, there are several Steampunk events in Germany and even more in the Netherlands and Belgium. Last year, Papenburg, an East Friesian town of 35000 people which is probably best known for the fact that many of the giant cruise ships carrying tourists across the world’s oceans are built here, held its first Steamfest and promptly got twice as many visitors as expected. There will be a repeat this year in September and since Papenburg is only approx. 115 kilometres away, I’ll probably be going.

Finally, to return to Charlie Jane Anders’ tweet, you can write your Steampunk fiction exactly as political or apolitical, as monocultural or diverse as you want to. Sure, you will probably get criticised, if you regurgitate colonialist tropes with zero reflection, but if you want to be a writer, criticism is something you’ll have to get used to.

And indeed, Tea and Treachery (come on, you know I had to mention my own books eventually), my one published foray into the subgenre (though I am planning a Steampunk/Weird West collection, which is one of my many books to be published eventually) is not particularly political, unless women with agency offend you. I will probably revisit Violetta Chesterfield and Nicholas Blackstone one day, because I like them quite a bit, though for now their future adventures are somewhere in the long queue of stories I’m going to write one day.

Meanwhile, the Silencer series, which is Dieselpunk of sorts, even though I usually market them as a pulp adventures, are a bit more political, simply because politics aren’t all that easy to avoid in a 1930s setting, and yes, the characters are diverse, because New York City in the 1930s was a diverse place. And ironically, the most political of the Silencer stories is the Christmas story.

So do Steampunk (or Dieselpunk or Atompunk or whichever Retropunk is your thing) however you want to do it. Because there is no Steampunk police. And if someone tries to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, politely tell them where to shove it.

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3 Responses to The Premature Death Announcement of Steampunk

  1. Kip Williams says:

    I still think there should be a lo-tech nihilist fairy genre called Woodpunk.

    Is it my fault I’m lazy?

    • Cora says:

      I just checked my multi-page list of punk compounds and amazingly, there is no Woodpunk yet, so you can officially claim to have coined it. 😉

  2. Pingback: First Monday Free Fiction: Tea and Treachery | Cora Buhlert

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