Apr 14, 2010

Leaving London, Arriving in Albion: The Future of Steampunk

It's the end of term, which means grading, grading, grading, so my ability to write regular posts at the level I've become accustomed to writing for this blog has been severely compromised. In a combination move of miscommunication and serendipity, the original draft of "Leaving London, Arriving in Albion: The Future of Steampunk" ran in the new edition of Journey Planet. I was hoping to take another crack at editing it, but that was mostly to clarify points, which would only have added to it's already somewhat ponderous bulk.

This was the article I'd originally written for the Steampunk Reloaded anthology, but as it ultimately wasn't what Jeff and Ann were looking for, I sent it over to Christopher J. Garcia to see it he was interested in it. In another moment of serendipity, Issue 6 of Journey Planet was focused on London. Longtime readers of this blog might recognize some of the content as revised portions from my posts about Pynchon, Mieville, and Pacigalupi. My goal with the article was to postulate where steampunk is heading (mainly at a literary/narrative level) based upon the past ten years of steampunk writing. The future writers of steampunk aren't likely to be writing against Powers, Blaylock, or Jeter, or anyone else pre-'99: they'll be writing against the steampunk writers of from 2000-2006 or so. One only needs to compare the "classic" steampunk of George Mann's The Affinity Bridge with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker to see how steampunk is pulling away from it's London-only roots. In short, I state that I see future steampunk leaving London, and engaging the Americas (a broad term including Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and while I don't include South America here, my omission is due to my own linguistic and literary limitations rather than exclusion), Asia (another broad term, but I'm working with a large brush here, trying hard not step on toes), and Middle-Earth (which is to say, secondary worlds), which effectively brings us full circle to London again - but not the London of alternate history - London of historical fantasy, which is a very different London.

At any rate, I'm glad the article found a home. As you read, please keep in mind, this is not an attempt at  prognostication, and is really only scratching the surface. I had a very short deadline to write the original in, and while I like what I've written, it's only a starting point for discussion: clearly, writing about the future prohibits being "the final word." That said, it's of interest to me that I wondered at a steampunk novel of ideas, and am already reading one: Dexter Palmer's Dream of Perpetual Motion; I offer Asia as one of the places to be watching for, and we've already had the controversy of Victorientalism explode. Before I go on too much and neglect my grading, here are the opening lines to pique your interest:
A month before my first steampunk convention in 2008, Adam Frucci at Gizmodo declared steampunk dead. I interviewed Jeff and Ann VanderMeer about their first steampunk anthology at that convention; and here we are, two years later, seeing the release of a second anthology. I suppose in some people’s minds, so long as one person attends the San Francisco Dickensfaire with brass goggles, steampunk will still be alive.

Clearly, steampunk isn’t dead. But being alive doesn’t necessitate robust health. The emergence of dieselpunk has caused critics to quip that the ultimate end of steampunk culture is a perpetual progression along the historical timeline of the twentieth century, eventually moving onto atompunk before finally catching up to cyberpunk (which will be retrofuturism by that time, I suppose). The assumption is that for steampunk to do anything new, it will have to move temporally. What isn’t considered is that steampunk might just move spatially, beyond the geographies of London and the Thames. While the steampunk of the original trinity of Powers, Jeter, and Blaylock focused on London and the United Kingdom, recent steampunk has abandoned Albion, striking out for America, Asia, and beyond. To chart a course for the future of steampunk, we will fix our sights on the horizon, keeping in mind where steampunk has gone in the past decade. I will leave the fashion to the lovely Ms. Carriger, and the making to the esteemed Mr. Von Slatt. My eyes are on the page, the screen, and on the future.

In leaving London, the most logical first step in our journey of far more than a thousand miles is not the homeland of Confucius, but an Atlantic crossing to the Americas. The idea that the future of steampunk lies there may seem strange, given that the writer responsible for coining the term was American. But readers of steampunk have hungered to see what British North America, the Republic of Texas, and French Mexico looked like since seeing the map inside The Difference Engine.

Noteworthy examples from before the turn-of-the-century include Rudy Rucker’s The Hollow Earth, James Blaylock’s The Digging Leviathan, and Lea Hernandez’s Texas steampunk manga Cathedral Child and Clockwork Angels. Sadly, these books are not commonly mentioned on steampunk reading lists. I’m guessing the limiting view of steampunk as neo-Victorian excluded these books from the early ‘canon’. Rucker says he wasn’t interested in writing steampunk as it was understood in the ‘80s because it was too polite, too Victorian (recall Basil Fawlty’s adventures with the American tourist and the Waldorf salad to see what Rucker was getting at). It might be the ‘punk’ edge many claim steampunk is missing. In leaving London, we leave a stack of Debrett’s works on etiquette at the airship station.

One of the best examples of how irreverently impolite and impolitic American steampunk could be is Joe Lansdale’s fantastically bizarre Zeppelins West, which not only eschews polite convention, but drags it kicking and screaming across several lines of good taste before leaving it to be devoured by satirical versions of Dr Moreau’s beast men. Zeppelins West is an American historical fantasy, employing real-world heroes Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill Cody, alongside fictional characters ranging from Frank Reade (the hero of Harry Enton’s Steam Man dime novels) to parodies of Captain Nemo, the Tin Woodsman from Oz, and Frankenstein’s monster.

Before reaching the end of Zeppelins West, readers have been witness to some of the strangest sexual couplings since John Varley’s Gaea trilogy. Lansdale goes beyond breaking social conventions to shattering taboos, all with a wink and a smile. If Lansdale is pointing the way for American steampunk, it’s headed toward a horizon filled with raunchy sex, graphic violence, and a tongue firmly in cheek, reminding the reader not to take these things too seriously.

This interest in dark comedy is echoed in Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-on Head, which could easily take place in the whimsical universe Lansdale created for Zeppelins West: no one hires David Hyde Pierce to do voice work for a power-mad zombie villain unless they’re looking to make us laugh. Like Lansdale, Mignola plays with historical figures, Abraham Lincoln himself sending the show’s eponymous hero on his mission. And while he avoids established literary figures in his cast, being Mike Mignola means he can’t help but invoke shades of one of America’s greatest horror writers, H P Lovecraft.

Lovecraft has been creeping in the side door of steampunk for quite a few years now, beginning with Paul DiFilippo’s wonderful ‘Hottentots’ from The Steampunk Trilogy. Steampunk often draws inspiration from period writers, and while Lovecraft is post-Edwardian his sensibilities are decidedly nineteenth century. In drawing from the fantastic writers of its past, American steampunk should look to writers like Lovecraft and Poe for a horizon filled with macabre darkness.
Read the entire article in Issue 6 of Journey Planet!

13 comments:

  1. It's a great article, and it fit in so nicely. I'm really wondering if a 19th Century (or 18th Century, for that matter) Tokyo could truly replace London as the site for non-Japanese Steampunk. It certainly has enough cultural exchange with the US/UK to make for interesting stories.
    Chris

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  2. As I said Chris, I'm glad you were able to give it a home. And upon reading a month later, I'm pleased (aside from some poor constructions and grammar errors) with it overall. And I love the idea of Tokyo as replacement for London - now I want to steampunk Godzilla as well!

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  3. "My eyes are ...on the screen..."

    And yet you completely ignore the movie and it's predecessor the television series "Wild Wild West". Clearly quintessential steampunk with mechanical spiders and mad scientists. Or the television series "Legend", which is also quite clearly steampunk in the American west. Part of the reason that I made "weird west" the theme of Steamcon II is that I firmly believe that steampunk is a time period not a place. London is a wonderful setting but it's hardly the only one. i don't think that steampunk is moving, I think that some folks missed it's potential for globe hopping.

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  4. The screen was mostly a reference to the Anime I refer to, since that was one of the elements Jeff had wanted me to explore. Otherwise it would have been limited to the page. My screen explorations of steampunk have been cursory at best.

    I agree entirely about Wild, Wild, West: the TV series constitutes what I would call a precedent for steampunk, and the film is definitely steampunk. Knowing how much this is bandied about online, I didn't see much point in reiterating it, though I'm glad you brought it up here. And you did note that I included Steamcon II as being part of the 'future' with the theme for 2010 I hope!

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  5. I should also add that I don't so much see steampunk as a time as an aesthetic based in a time (but not necessarily geography). And I consider that time to range to span the nineteenth century into the early 20th, with some blurring at those margins. While Alchemy of Stone's setting feels Rennaisance somehow, there are definitely 19th century elements.

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  6. Weird West Tales were always my fave (and I'm totally hoping to have a presentation on the Real Weird West: Funky Journalism in the Western States between 1865 and 1900) and I think there's a lot to play with there that even Lonsdale isn't touching.

    If only the story of Wild Wild West the film had matched up with the inventiveness of the art, set and costuming for it. I will say that the scene of Kline and Smith fighting the flying sawblade was pretty sweet!
    Chris

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  7. Lovely Article. If you haven't already read it I would suggest you read "The Apparition Trail" by Lisa Smedman (from Vancouver). It's a Canadian Steampunk novel with a supernatural twist set it 1884 staring Corporal Marmaduke Grayburn of the North West Mounted Police and Mountie Sam Steele (real historical figures from the Canadian west).

    While it may not be "pure" steampunk, I still find it be a fabulous read.

    Good luck with the grading :)

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  8. Tina, you win for best referral yet! As I related in the article, I want to read some genuinely Canadian steampunk that takes place IN Canada, so that's a real find! Thanks so very much!

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  9. OMG! Thank you Tina! I saw that book God knows how long ago, neglected to pick it up, forgot the title and have been looking for it ever since.

    My own ambition for Steampunk? Move beyond Steampunk. It's visually and thematically cliche. There's lots to run with in a fantastic version of the 19th century. Go for it.

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  10. You are very welcome. I hope you enjoy the book.

    And while I'm in the Canadian history mood, I found these clips on youtube.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jahrrul49-c&NR=1
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAwA5uZGhbQ

    It's from "Murdoch's Mystery's" a TV show set in real-world Toronto in 1895-ish that airs on CityTv (adapted from the Detective Murdoch series of novels by Maureen Jennings - historical crime). I'd say 99.9% of the show is straight historical crime fiction (CSI circa 1895) but it's still great show to watch for steampunk ideas. :)

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  11. Hello,

    I know my comment is abit offtopic, but I have a question to ask...

    I'm doing a seminar on Steampunk subculture for antropology class, but I'm not sure on what should I focus. I was thinking about reaserching if steampunk has an ideology behind it, but I think that's not focused enough. Even my professor said if I could narrow even more.

    I'm wondering if you could give me some advice. I would be very greatful :)

    Thank you in advance & I hope it won't be any trouble for you :)
    Smaug

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  12. Smaugikun, in all my reading, my conclusion is that steampunk does not so much have an ideology as it is representative of a few ideologies, but mostly is a style that people apply to ideologies. Stay away from that topic if you can. It is far too broad.

    Given that it's an anthro class, why not simply discuss the idea of steampunk art/fashion/decor as artifacts of a modern sub-culture, and then ask the question (or answer it - not sure what you need to do here exactly) what we can surmise about this sub-culture from their artifacts? There are tons of pics online of steampunk artifacts.

    That would be my approach.

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