May 17, 2010

Defining Steampunk as an Aesthetic

This post could have been called, "My thesis." Unless I come across something to radically dissuade me, this is going to be the thrust of my dissertation. This is going to be fast and furious, but I want to get this out there so I can refer back to it in the next month. While reflecting on those posts today while doing yard work, I just kept thinking about how I'm going to end up saying stuff about this idea, so it seems best to just get it out there, even if it's just a fast and dirty form.

I've had the idea that steampunk should be viewed as an aesthetic since I went to Steam Powered in Sunnyvale in fall of '08. It just seemed self-evident to me. Jeff Vandermeer confirmed the idea. It seemed like I had something. Initially though, I was still buying into a number of ideas about steampunk which I have concluded are misconceptions: steampunk is science fiction, steampunk is alternate history, steampunk isn't fantasy. After reading the novels and short stories I have (somewhere between 30 and 40), I'm not convinced of any of these things. Steampunk definitely has an SF bent. Steampunk certainly deals with alternate history. But steampunk also utilizes fantasy elements. Steampunk is sold in the regular fiction section. Steampunk movies range from B films to serious dramas. Between Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, we have very serious, literary steampunk works. And this is only the literature.

If we look outside the page and off the screen, we see steampunk being utilized in decor, fashion, music, and even as a lifestyle and political position. How can "Victorian Science Fiction" cover all of this?

I was under the impression that once I'd read Jeter, Blaylock, and Powers, I'd respond by saying, "The aesthetic has changed. It was Victorian science fiction at the outset, and now it's something else." But after I read Powers' Anubis Gates, I wondered where the science was. I figured Jeter would have it. But Morlock Nights utilized magic as much as Powers did: Merlin's in the book for heaven's sake! How much more magical could you get? Maybe Blaylock, I thought. But James Blaylock's pieces, while lacking in overt magic, would only constitute science fiction if he'd been born 160 years ago. And while I'm sure someone will argue that "steampunk IS the science fiction of 160 years ago," I'll simply reply, "Yes, but then that's fantasy from our vantage point now, isn't it?" We don't believe in aether as a fuel source. We do not think Phlogiston will power a raygun. We know there are no such things as sky krakens.

Yet time, after time, after time, steampunk repeatedly resorts to the use of technofantasy, which in short, is when you say something is scientific and technological, but never really substantiate it, or worse yet, explain it using rules that contradict the laws of our physical sciences. Plain and simple, if your story occurs in a world where aether exists and can do the impossible, you're not writing science fiction, you're writing fantasy. Because ostensibly, if I go back to the 16th century, the alchemists looking for the means of transmuting lead into gold, are the precusors to modern chemists. Ritual magic it the precursor to science. We're not going to go labeling every narrative that uses ritual magic as science fiction, just because it's science from the perspective of the people in the narrative. We do that, and we're letting in everything from Tolkien to Jordan into the SF fold. And while I don't have a personal stake in the matter, you can see how ludicrous the argument would become.

But I'm not arguing for steampunk as fantasy, nor am I arguing people stop saying it's science fiction. It's neither, and both. This is precisely why I argue that steampunk is not a genre, except to publishers who need easy taxonomies to stick on the back cover to sell books. Steampunk is an aesthetic: it is a look, or a style. It is not a genre, because within the literature, there is no recurrent narrative element that one can point to which appears in all, or even most of the books.

Yes, there are airships. But not in all of them. Moorcock had them, but Powers, Jeter, and Blaylock don't.
Sure, there are the goggles. But mostly on costumes and art. They are rare in the literature. No one in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wears goggles. Pynchon's Chums of Chance do, and Cherie Priest gave a decent reason for having them in Boneshaker. But they aren't as ubiquitous as one might assume.
All steampunk is alternate history you say. No, I reply, alternate history is a genre that supposes one break in the past that changes the course of history. Most of the time (The Difference Engine being an exception), steampunk texts offer worlds that are vastly different from ours. Read Jay Lake's Mainspring to see what I mean. That's not an alternate history, it's an alternate world. And the difference is important to understanding what the hell we're talking about when we say "steampunk." Sorcery works in The Anubis Gates, and not in an Isaac Bonewits sort of way. A guy floats to the moon. No Wiccan I've ever met would say they can do that. It's clearly not our world. It's fantasy.
There are always "punk" characters - people opposing the established order. In Moorcock, yes. In Powers, no. In Jeter? He's got his main character fighting against the destruction of Christendom! That's hardly the underdog fighting the system. I've read quite a few comments lately, some of them by respected critics of steampunk or SF who have said that the first writers were more politically aware, or counter-culture than the new wave of steampunk. I cry bullshit. If Powers or Blaylock had a political agenda, they hid it so well it'll take Dan Brown to decode the text. 

I could go on, but the point of all this is, I don't think appeals to etymology (the "steam" or "punk" in steampunk) work. Further, I don't think you can create a list of elements that show up over and over again in the art, the literature, or the subculture based on items like airships, anachronistic tech, etc. Something always seems to slip under the radar.

Now before anyone goes saying, "you elitist arrogant son of a bitch," for saying that I've got the best definition of steampunk ever, let me reiterate that I still like Cherie Priest's definition a whole lot. I'll also say I'm not the first to say it's an aesthetic. Others have done that as well. And, I'll add that I'm an academic. I'm going to writing a PhD. We have to be arrogant, and elitist as well. It goes with the territory. You can't say things like, "I think steampunk is this, but I'm also okay with everyone else's opinions too." You have to put your foot forward, based upon collected data or convincing argument. I know I can do both if I put the following definition forward. I'm doing it now, so that I can start measuring it against the books I post about here at the blog. I'll see whether or not this theory holds water.

So here it is:

Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes elements of technofantasy, and neo-Victorian retrofuturism.

Technofantasy we've covered. It's tech that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as impulsion.
I use neo-Victorian broadly. I'd have preferred something less ethnocentric, but neo-Victorian evokes an era, rather than necessarily saying it takes place in the time. It was a lot less clunky than "nineteenth century fantastic mise-en-scene." I'm not saying it has to be British. I'm saying steampunk's aesthetic is grounded in the Victorian period with fuzzy boundaries. It's not a geographic or temporal limitation, save as inspiration. I'm aware steampunk occurs outside England and in other time periods. But even though Fitzpatrick's War takes place in the 26th century, it's still evoking the nineteenth century. I've heard Makers tell me they don't care about neo-Victorian, but when you're using brass and gears and clockwork, I'm telling you your art reminds me of the nineteenth century: ergo, neo-Victorian. It's the best term I could find for that aspect.
Retrofuturism: The way the past viewed the future, or more important in steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future. I don't like the anachronistic idea, because in texts where it's a secondary world, there's nothing anachronistic about your technology. It belongs in that fabricated world. There are steampunk texts that use anachronisms (again, The Difference Engine), but it's really retrofuturism that runs across the board.

These three elements, in combination, seem to be what constitutes the steampunk aesthetic--since Moorcock and the original three, right up until now. As I said in the paper I just submitted for an anthology, steampunk texts and artworks do not belong to the same genre, but rather draw from the same aesthetic. Maybe that's just semantics to some, but so long as we keep viewing steampunk as the stuff in the container, we're going to miss that it was the container we should have been talking about. Steampunk is the glass - and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass - art, film, lifestyle - and steampunk it.

Let the comment spamming begin.

33 comments:

  1. Good, clear thinking here. If nothing else, you have a testable thesis.

    One aspect you might consider in Powers especially (and decidedly not in other works, such as Moorcock) is the concept of so-called hard fantasy, analogous to hard SF. The Anubis Gates has rules, and some of the fantastic science in other works establishes and sticks to such rules.

    One interesting source for this idea can be found in the writers' bible for the forthcoming Aether Age anthology, set in a shared world that has no Victoria -- no Britain, even --- yet draws on the aesthetic of steampunk. I think it's still up off http://aether-age.com, off the blog link. The guidelines specify an alternate history breakpoint and that the Earth's solar system passes through a region of space with strange properties (aether), the essentially suggests writing hard SF essentially, but within the scope of those two changes.

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  2. Sorry 'bout the weird copy-and-paste typo in my last sentence; should have read "the writers' bible suggests...."

    I confirmed it's up, viewable online or downloadable, off the blog at http://aetherage.blogspot.com, under "writer's guidelines."

    Might make a good boundary case for what constitutes steampunk in literature.

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  3. Not bad for the first approximation. But...

    I'm not sure whether it's intentional or not, but original 19th century Scientific Romance fit your definition of Steampunk aesthetic. The "technofantasy" and "retrofuturism" criteria are fulfilled automatically. The "neo-Victorian" one may seem problematic, but only because your use of "neo" prefix was unjustified in this case. Considering your description of "neo-Victorian", you could have used "Victorian" or "Victorian-inspired" with the same effect. As I understand, you needed the "neo" prefix to include futuristic works like "The Peshawar Lancers" and "The Diamond Age".

    What lacks in your description is a stress on contemporary, late 20th/early 21st century perspective of Steampunk authors and artists (as opposed to the 19th century perspective). That's what Steampunk is about, I believe.

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  4. You make a very good case for your point of view here, Mike. The more I think about steampunk and participate in the Great Steampunk Debate, the more and more I'm starting to think in this vein. Steampunk works really are a very disparate group of fiction, and once you include other forms of media such as movies and video games, it simply becomes so broad that it is difficult to pigeonhole it in any one overarching genre. Thanks for this excellent post!

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  5. Mike, how about "pseudo-rational"? That's exactly how technofantasy in steampunk functions. So maybe "Victorian-inspired pseudo-rational retrofantasy"? I'm sure we could find more neat three-piece slogans for steampunk :)

    Have you realized how close your definition is to K.W. Jeter's "wacko victorian fantasies"? Don't matter how hard we try, we just can't liberate from his original tongue-in-cheek approach. It was 1987 and the guy nailed it on the head, probably because it was his invention.

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  6. Fascinating read! I definitely think I see your point.

    I also like the term "technofantasy". I wrote a steampunk-inspired alt-universe novel for NaNoWriMo last year and because I'm a dreamer, I'm now working on editing and possibly attempting to publish it-- and "technofantasy" is a great way to describe what I wrote. (I used to just tell people it was either "speculative fiction" or "steampunk", but the former seems very broad and the latter... I dunno, I always felt odd pegging down a book as being steampunk, it just seems like such an elusive target to hit, because it seems like it means something different to each person...)

    As an aside: I've always enjoyed the thoughtful posts on your blog, and I like seeing you on the BG forums now, too :)

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  7. Piechur, I don't see how 19th century texts necessarily fulfill the idea of a retrofuture though - how is Verne writing about how the past saw the future? I'd argue he's just speculating what might happen. Thanks for the thought on the 20th/21st century perspective. I think that gets handled in the perspectives of neo-Victorianism and Retrofuture, which are both inherently connected to our current perspective. But it's definitely something I'll have to address.

    And no, I don't think I'm really outdoing Jeter at all. I think all I'm doing is rigorously defending that. It's just hard to submit "Wacko Victorian fantasies" for a dissertaion, lol. I think what's especially fascinating about Jeter is just how wacko his stuff is, compared to more recent steampunk that tries to give a quasi-realistic tone to the world. I'm thinking of the Affinity Bridge here - it would have been a lot more fun if it hadn't been trying so hard to be Victorian.

    Obadiah - you're definitely getting my point. I'll be expanding on the idea of Hard Fantasy with magic with rules in later posts, but even that isn't commonly adhered to in steampunk. Magical technology is sometimes firmly grounded in a consistently "technical" way in the secondary world, but not always. But the idea is important, since it seems that steampunk goes in this direction more often than not. Thanks very much for the Aether Age link! Makes me wish I wasn't so busy working on this dissertation. I need time for writing fiction again, dammit!

    Pike and Amanda, thanks for the kudos. It's a refreshing response. I usually get "you can't define steampunk because it's elitist to define something and we don't want to leave anyone out."

    I don't either. I have no problem with people dressed in authentic Star Trek uniforms showing up at a steampunk con. Just don't go telling me that's steampunk.

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  8. 1) "Retrofuturism: the way the past viewed the future" - isn't it a description of Verne's and Well's fiction?

    2) According to Wikipedia "Neo-Victorian is an aesthetic movement which amalgamates Victorian and Edwardian aesthetic sensibilities with modern principles and technologies." If that's what you meant, you'll have to slightly adjust this part of your justification.

    3) Jeff VanderMeer's "dark pseudo-Victorian fun" is another variation on Jeter's "wacko victorian fantasies". Great minds think alike :)

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  9. 1. No - Wells and Verne were the way the present viewed the future in the nineteenth century. They were writing speculatively forward. We're looking back at them as the past. They would have been futurists, not retro futurists.

    2. Not sure what part of my justification I have to adjust given that definition. I do make some concessions for fuzzy temporal borders (circa 1800-1914), and also state that it's not a geographic boundary. So you'll need to clarify further which part you find friction in.

    3. Pseudo-Vic, yes. Not always dark, and not always fun. Sometimes both, sometimes neither.

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  10. 1) THE SAME BOOKS (Verne, Wells) which were futurist for the Victorians, are retro-futurist for us. Chosing this or that name is only a word play.

    2) Fuzzy temporal borders are not "neo". Neo means new, fresh, recent - an opposite to peleo. So neo-Victorian means "new Victorian", not "extended Victorian".

    3) Of course. That was Jeff's approximation, not mine.

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  11. I think you are right. I would put it another way: Steampunk is a design movement, akin to the Arts and Crafts movement, which inspires works in many different forms.

    Two questions that come to my mind:
    1. Are there other parallels with the Arts and Crafts movement? William Morris was an author as well as a designer--is there more to be said about that?

    2. The Arts and Crafts movement failed because of its economics. In its failure, it gave rise to the Craftsman style, which lasted for a while, and the Modernist design philosophy, which ruled the 20th century. Is a similar future in store for Steampunk?

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  12. Piechur
    1) Not semantics, but perspective, which matters a great deal, because this is about what we THINK they were thinking, not necessarily what they actually were. Neither Wells nor Verne have the 20th/21st century which is a part of looking back from our vantage point. And remember, you're the one who brought that vantage point up! ;)

    2) I'm aware of that. But as I said, I'm challenged to find a better term that works as shorthand. I do clarify my point in the extended paper, but I can't really here without copying the paper into the comment. I basically say neo-Victorian, and then qualify that statement. You still haven't said what bothered you about the Facebook definition so I can address that aspect.

    3. Absolutely! But I had to comment. I'm having too much fun with all this feedback!

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  13. I don't really know enough about the Arts and Crafts movement to comment randolph, but from what I know, it seems a decent comparison. I think the difference is that the Arts and Crafts movement was more prevalent. Steampunk's still a bit underground in most respects.

    My response to your second question is that steampunk is more likely to 'fail' due to the capricious nature of North Americans than any economic reason. Something else will come along and people will move over to that. I don't actually think the aesthetic that steampunk represents will die. It will just get unpopular for a while. What we call steampunk was very popular in film in the '50s and '60s. I don't know if we can rightly term that steampunk given Piechur's recommendations about 20/21st century perspective, but some do. The difference between that interest and current interest is that we now have cosplay and subculture added to the narrative expressions of books and film.

    Bottom line though, I'm no expert on Arts and Crafts. I'm more inclined to think of steampunk as akin to the Italian Futurists or, as Piechur has suggested, Dadaism.

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  14. Thank you for posting this, it's nice to see an academic taking this question on in what seems to be a pretty level-headed way on a public forum. You will, of course, get vehement disagreements, but it wouldn't be the community it is if that weren't the case. :-)

    One thing your definition leads me personally to want to poke at a little harder is this idea of "technofantasy" versus "science." I don't want to say it's not a valid distinction, because of course I think it is. To me, the ether is disproved, and therefore a tech based on it, although it may be "scientific" in the sense of having defined mechanics and laws, is not "scientific" in the sense of being a technology *possible in our world.*

    On the other hand, as an author, one of the things that fascinates is how human perception of the "possible" does shift from century to century, and is never totally agreed on even by contemporaries. In the early stages of a new science, often there's a bleedover between that new science and what WE define retrospectively as the "occultism" or "pseudoscience" of the time -- WE draw a clear distinction, but the era's denizens didn't.

    I am thinking especially of Barbara Goldsmith's excellent book *Other Powers* and its discussion of the connections between the Victorian fascination with electricity and magnetism (which after all deals with unseen but undeniable forces) and spiritualism (which according to its adherents, did as well). In that social context -- with electricity and magnetism so new, mysterious and unexplored -- quite rational people could and did conclude that all these phenomena were equally real, and might in fact be related to each other in some way that Science might yet illumine.

    Yes, from a modern perspective, or at least for some of us moderns, there is a hard boundary between the scientific and the suspect/occult. That boundary is NOT defined, however, by the mysteriousness or lack thereof of the operations -- after all, can we really even now explain what magnetism "is"? -- but by the fact that one body of phenomena can be and has been subjected to the rigor of the scientific method, and the other has not.......yet.

    I remember writing in a game book section on medieval worldview, the world "supernatural" is a word more meaningful to modern ears than ancient, because previous eras had a far less narrow idea of the "natural."

    Anyway. Grist for thought perhaps?

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  15. PS -- I guess what I'm trying to say in a nutshell is that a boundary you're making some considerable effort to define for purposes of *your* discussion -- the boundary between "technofantasy" and "science fiction", which is derived from the boundary between "impossible" and "possible" -- is a boundary whose very *fuzziness* in eras of new scientific expansion (such as the 19c, particularly the first half) is what most appeals to at least this steampunk author. The fuzziness is where the fun is. A bit ironic, it seems to me. :-)

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  16. Doctor Caligari - it's fascinating to see all these posts coming in, to see the points I made in the actual submitted essay being made here, in different words! Yes, yes, and yes, to everything you say. Yesterday's science becomes tomorrow's magic or quackery. But the perspective was that it worked. I read a few fascinating books researching this on the progression of chemistry specifically, from alchemy into what we think of as science.

    On that note, Piechur, upon further reflection, I realized I misunderstood your question and its ostensible point. Yes, Verne and Wells wrote how the past (their present) viewed the future. Absolutely. Sorry for missing the point there. To further expand on this, while they are writers many go to in beginning to form an idea of what the past thought about the future, they are not "neo-Victorian", since that is also a way of looking back. Verne certainly isn't technofantasy, but Wells often is.

    Which, aside from the idea that they are precedents to steampunk, is why I argue strongly to consider their works NOT steampunk.

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  17. Hmm...most of the steampunk I've read contains elements of the Victorian era––society, clothing, government, general aura––but couldn't it, conceivably, be totally not? And still have the machines, the magic, the mystery and, as doctorcaligari puts it, the fuzziness? Or without the Victorian, would it cease to be steampunk?

    Ahh, just speculating..

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  18. Depends on what you mean by Victorian era. If you mean, "could it evoke another time period and still be steampunk?" I'd have to personally say, no. "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is certainly retrofuturistic, but not steampunk. I'll clarify again that my use of neo-Victorian is quite broad in application - I'm trying to convey a sense of the nineteenth century without being totally bound to the story taking place IN that time period, or IN the geography of the UK. I think steampunk can occur in any time or place, so long as it's evoking a nineteenth century look or feel. One of the examples I cite in the paper is Moorcock's "Warlord of the Air," which occurs in the 1970s.

    I know there are a lot of folks who think the nineteenth century/neo-Vic aspect can be dropped. At the point it's dropped, my question is, how do you differentiate steampunk from Blade Runner or David Lynch's Dune, which are both retrofutures with technofantasy elements. And if we were to say either of those is steampunk, then I think we've lost the center entirely, and no longer have a definition, but an INdefinition. Gary Wolfe gives the reason for drawing these demarcating lines when he writes ": “if the field is ever to establish a coherent critical vocabulary, scholars, fans, and writers each need to know what the others are talking about” - "Coming to Terms" - in Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction.

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  19. I'd also like to say I think this definition is a lot more encompassing than just saying "Victorian Science Fiction." While I have yet to formulate how this applies to Maker products or fashion, it works really, really well with steampunk narratives.

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  21. Mike, the problem I see in your article and this discussion is that you're trying to specify one underdefined term (Steampunk) using three even less defined terms (technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, retrofuturism). The slogan is catchy, however if you want to use it as a starting point for your PhD project, you'll have to describe each of these terms extremely carefully and justify your choice of terms, otherwise the advisers will eat you alive. Quoting prof Henry Jenkins' thoughts on retrofuturism would be helpfull.

    Dr Caligari, did you post on GSB as Tajhan (in "Magic in Steampunk" thread)?

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  23. So steampunk is inspired by the nineteenth century without necessarily being chained to it. Which is why we can have Wild West steampunk, Oriental steampunk, Regency steampunk, and the like. I could go on forever!

    Thank you very much for that clarification––without the 19th century, it's not steampunk.

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  24. Good advice Piechur, and it's something I already began the process of with the article this post is based on. Keep in mind this is an introduction to the idea, not a comprehensive investigation of it. As I post in the coming months, I'll expand on the terms I've used here to explore how I'm using each term. I don't see any of them solely being of greater importance than the others, but rather needing to work in harmony to produce the steampunk aesthetic.

    Marena - yes, that's what I'm saying. It's an aesthetic, a style based upon/inspired by the nineteenth century, but more specifically the way we imagine the nineteenth century saw the future, which often involves these objects or elements of technofantasy.

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  25. Mike, steampunk is not always based on "the way we imagine the nineteenth century saw the future". Sometimes it's based on the way our ancestors fantasised about their past or present. It'd be more precise to say that Steampunk is based on the 19th century Speculative Fiction (weird fiction), not necessarily futuristic.

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  26. On second thought - old futuristic fiction determines steampunk aesthetic (especially in visual arts), old speculative fiction determines steampunk literary genre.

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  27. I simply say "the way we imagine" to underscore how little those works of speculative fiction are really adhered to. Some authors are more rigorous in this respect, but in my reading they're the minority.

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  28. Sounds like an excellent dissertation proposal, to a non-participant like me.

    May I ask - which "fascinating books" did you read on the 'transmutation' of alchemy into chemistry?

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  29. I'd like to live in a world with less labeling. The more you define these things, the more it allows social engineers to come in and deconstruct the scene.

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  30. Not me Nun. Language creates reality. Understanding language better enhances our perception of reality. And deconstruction isn't always a bad thing. Sacred cows sometimes make great hamburgers.

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  31. Nice work so far. I'd be very interested in reading more of it as you develop the argument. One point that might be worth adding when discussing the SF v. Fantasy element is the creators of the Girl Genius comic, unaware of the term steampunk when they started, coined the phrase "Gaslamp Fantasy". There's a lot of material that is called SF that uses fantasy elements: McCaffrey's in Pern series, Burroughs' Mars books, Adams' Hitch-hikers series and Doc Smith's Lensman series just to name a few. There's a lot of overlap.

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  32. Better here than Twitter...

    I misunderstood you on Twitter! I'm quite behind Steampunk-as-aesthetic. I like the 'movement' because it seems to be very craftsmanship-focused, steampunk 'artifacts' eschew modern materials, (brass not plastic, rivets not glue) and the inventor-adventurer type makes her own tools, that sort of thing.

    I don't want to point a completely uneducated finger at a CAUSE, but I think the idea that great scientific/engineering minds, Newton, Tesla and the like, took elements of the supernatural/paranormal to be as factual as elements of today's physics/chemistry, is a very compelling one. That they applied the same critical thinking to both types of idea. Steampunk stories are alternate histories, but they're a really accessible type of "magic" to bring to one's own life, when (especially in the inundated-with-stuff, drowning-in-ennui-and-spare-time parts of the world) there are a lot of objects but not a lot of beautiful objects, and a lot of technology that's taken very much for granted, that the average person CAN'T understand produce on her own.

    ...I'm gonna quit yammering now. :)

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  33. Thanks Noelle. You're right about scientific minds taking what we now consider magic to be science. The people you cited aren't good examples of that, but there are several. But I don't think steampunk stories are necessarily alternate histories per se - I'll explain further in my upcoming post on Mark Mellon's excellent alternate history (but not steampunk) book, Napoleon Concerto.

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