Jun 15, 2009

Steampunk as Pastiche

Gail Carriger, author of The Parasol Protectorate series, told me recently that the first book of her series isn’t so much steampunk as the second and third books in her series will be. According to Carriger, there’s going to be more technology and science later in the series. I replied that I wasn’t sure science and technology had as much to do with steampunk as many would seem to think. Technology is certainly one of the media the steampunk aesthetic has been applied to, but as I read through the original “canon” of steampunk literature, I’m more and more convinced that steampunk straddles a crosshatch point between SF and Fantasy. If steampunk must be about science, then Tim Powers can no longer be invoked as one of the original trinity of ‘80s writers who “created” steampunk. And while I’m not arguing for some essentialism surrounding Powers’ attachment to steampunk, The Anubis Gates has been instrumental in the formation of the current understanding of steampunk. To throw it out retroactively because it is not a novel about technology per se is to ignore the supernatural element of steampunk, which has erroneously been thought, along with other fantasy elements, to be a recent adhesion to the subgenre. Steampunk is not a pure delivery device for either SF or Fantasy. As always, steampunk is most decidedly, pastiche.

Dictionary.com defines “pastiche” as:
1.a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs
or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.
2.an incongruous combination
of materials, forms, motifs, etc., taken from different sources; hodgepodge.
As I’ve already identified here at the blog, there is contention over use of the word steampunk. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has observed “a growing habit whereby almost every fantasy which deals with the Gaslight Period is labeled steampunk” (Clute & Kaveny 1997:390), clearly implying that not all fantasies or speculative fictions within the Gaslight Period should be labeled steampunk. I’m uncomfortable with this approach to the nomenclature of my topic of inquiry, as it seems based upon assumptions about the term which I don’t think necessarily hold true.

First, it has been readily admitted that K.W. Jeter was very likely making an offhand comment when he described the Victorian-era fiction he, Blaylock and Powers were producing in the 1980s as “steampunk,” clearly a play on the term cyberpunk. Despite this somewhat ignominious beginning, the term steampunk proved incredibly resilient. I won’t speculate on my theories for why the term survived at this time. That will have to wait for another day, and another post. This one is likely to be epic enough as it is. The bottom line for me is that while it may seem to lack a pragmatic utility, the term steampunk has clearly proven useful in describing a certain type of narrative or aesthetic approach, or it would not have survived 20 years. Our current culture is alarmingly fickle—if steampunk had not evoked the objects it was intended to indicate, we’d have gotten rid of it. Somehow, it does what Clute and Kaveny seem to be implying it doesn’t. Namely, steampunk is the catch-all term for neo-Victorian speculative fiction.

I think one of the reasons steampunk has been a more successful term than Gaslamp Fantasy is that the term steampunk itself is a pastiche, describing a pastiche. Gaslamp Fantasy makes immediate denotative sense, which steampunk does not. Again, steampunk is a pastiche of words denoting (and yet also simultaneously connoting) a pastiche of narrative and/or visual elements. And steampunk is a better term to do this, since pastiche is never easy to define. It is as ephemeral as the vapeur of steampunk.

Let’s also deal with the “punk” of steampunk. It’s been said often that there isn’t enough “punk” in steampunk, but what the hell did the punk in cyberpunk actually mean? Was it really a reference to the ‘70s DIY culture of the UK? Was it about the Sex Pistols or the Dead Kennedys? There is definitely an aspect of cyberpunk concerned with cultures which could be construed as punk, so long as the term punk was being used in an expansive way. A narrow definition of punk wouldn’t allow cyberpunk to be punk, anymore than steampunk is punk. What does Greg Bear’s “Petra” in the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades have to do with punk?

Besides, punk was a word before Johnny Rotten was a gleam in his father’s eye. Prior to punk as a music form, the word referred to fungus or wood which was useful as tinder. It could also mean a young person, generally a male, who was a “a member of a rebellious counterculture group.” It is this last sense we are likely concerned with when speaking about steampunk or cyberpunk.
Consider as well, this quotation from J.E. Remy’s investigations of the various subgenre writing styles given the suffix “punk” in the 1980s:
The suffix “-punk” started to appear in the names of a variety of subgenres of
speculative fiction by authors who wanted to break from traditional modes of writing and denote a concurrence between subgenres that makes use of “punk” tools. These tools include the free thought of postmodern literary techniques such as confessional poetry, stream of consciousness, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, and literary appreciation beyond the academic. Themes are typically countercultural, focused on underground movements, marginalized groups, and anti-establishment tendencies. However, they can go so far as to become nihilistic in their lack of adherence to clichéd conventions. Settings are gritty, downbeat, and shocking and urban locations where lives are enhanced by technology and information. And the fantastic elements prevalent in speculative fiction are made more realistic, ambiguous, or prosaic and protagonist may take on an individualistic and anti-heroic tone. As author Bruce Sterling stated, “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it’s the truth. It won’t go away because we cover our eyes. That is
cyberpunk.” This harsh view of reality is prevalent across the whole of the “punk” movement: cyberpunk, splatterpunk, timepunk, and mythpunk.
Some “punk” subgenres have been criticized as being overly categorized and unnecessary. In fact, the movement itself has achieved little more than a cult following, but the nontraditional style has provided new expressive techniques for contemporary literature.
While Remy is right about these four subgenres having “little more than a cult following,” the same can no longer be said about steampunk (which Remy includes under the more expansive--and therefore even more obscurant, in my opinion—term of timepunk, coined by William H. Stoddard for GURPs’ Steampunk RPG). Steampunk as a subgenre and subculture seems poised to become more main stream. If this occurs, the term will find itself as “sticky” as the archaic usage of punk suggests.

Regardless, the “punk” tools Remy is speaking about are tools of counterculture. The question in some people’s mind is whether or not steampunk as a fan culture is really, genuinely countercultural or not.

From a literary perspective, steampunk might lack a genuinely countercultural element. As Wikipedia’s entry on pastiche (as imitation of another style, not a hodge-podge of disparate elements, something steampunk can arguably be said to do as well) states:
Well-known academic Fredric Jameson has a somewhat more critical view of pastiche, describing it as “blank parody” (Jameson, 1991), especially with reference to the postmodern parodic practices of self-reflexivity and intertextuality. By this is meant that rather than being a jocular but still respectful imitation of another style, pastiche in the postmodern era has become a “dead language”, without any political or historical content, and so has also become unable to satirize in any effective way. Whereas pastiche used to be a humorous literary style, it has, in postmodernism, become “devoid of laughter.”
The question remains—does steampunk say anything genuinely countercultural? This is a topic better explored in another entry, as my interest today is in finding a way to define steampunk, not ascertain whether or not it “says” anything of importance. Besides, Dru Pagliosotti has already explored this issue at some length in her blog articles on steampunk politics and ideology.

Perhaps all I really want to get across today is that steampunk is speculative neo-Victorian pastiche. Now, as with all pastiches, one must explain further, but this seems to me a rather satisfying definition for both narrative and cultural steampunk. It describes the range of steampunk products without limiting the scope to one type of media. It could be applied to the fashion, the art, the books, and the films. And while I have a great deal more to say about this, I believe this post is long enough to save the rest for a second entry: a list of the most common elements used in the pastiches we call steampunk.

Works Cited (other than links):

Clute, John, and John Grant, eds. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New Jersey: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Clute, John and Roz Kaveny. ‘Gaslight Romance.’ Clute and Grant. 390-91.

Further Reading:
The User's Guide to Steampunk by Bruce Sterling
Steampunk by Lavie Tidhar - a wonderful little article which includes a great reading list at the end, divided into the movements of steampunk

4 comments:

  1. Your question of "does steampunk 'say' anything counter-cultural" might help in defining the genre/aesthetic/subculture. I, too, am having difficulty expressing "what steampunk is", and often, the line of thought transforms into "what steampunk can become". (Of course, I approach steampunk from a more socio-political/philosophical angle, as opposed to steampunk as aesthetic.)

    I look forward to the next post in this vein. It feels to me, though, that there is a sentiment of "If steampunk is X, then it cannot be Y" when the intertextuality involved in pastiche could allow for the embrace of both. This may be an entirely different discussion, though...

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  2. That's why I recommend Dru's site for the discussion of the socio-political angle, although I do have some thoughts in that arena. And I agree that I am pursuing a bit too much X vs. Y, but that's the trouble with making a definition - saying what something is usually involves some level of what it isn't. Thanks for your participation here Jha'Meia!

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  3. I must point out that despite several statements to that effect, I certainly did not coin the term "timepunk," and indeed this comment is the first time I have ever used it. GURPS Steampunk mentioned, in passing, the idea of "clockpunk" (p. 13, sidebar text) and suggested that other variant paths might be possible—even a biotech-first world where technology grew out of selective breeding and the like. But I never felt the need for a general -punk label for all of them! And I don't really link "timepunk" as a coinage. Whoever did come up with it really ought to step forward and take the credit.

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  4. Thanks for the clarification, William!

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