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28 October 2010 @ 02:11 pm
The Hoard Potato steams up some punks.  
Charles Stross explains why he's burned out on "Steampunk".

It boils down to "90% of Steampunk is crud", of course, and over at Futurismic, Paul Raven's commentary applies the inevitable and immortal coda to that clause.

I enjoyed both articles, and my superficial summary should not be construed as a dismissal; both Stross and Raven do provide some analysis of why Sturgeon's Ratio arises.*

Personally, I think that Stross's issues arise because, as a writer, he sees "Steampunk" primarily as a literary movement. In contrast, Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing tends to approach it more as a design aesthetic, applying the craftsmanship, materials and visual motifs of a bygone era to both wardrobe and cutting-edge technology.

I lean toward Doctorow's view: the current "Steampunk Movement" is connected to the Maker Movement. Steampunk's central defining elements are artifacts that imply a backstory. The literature that actually provides a backstory is a secondary effect. Science fiction writers and fans do love to follow such implications reductio ad asburdum, sometimes to good effect—but they often stretch a simple premise to its breaking point.

However, none of that is the main thrust of this post.

You see, inevitably, when discussions of this currently-trendy subgenre arise, there's always someone who fixates on the word used to describe it, insisting that it's neither "steam" (being more often wood, brass, and high-voltage Teslary) nor "punk".**

After reading this tedious protest one too many times, I hereby affix thumb to nose.

Steampunk is Punk because, as a design aesthetic, it's rebelling against mass production and homogenization by reintroducing the idea of hand-crafted artistry to technological artifacts.

Steampunk is STEAM because of a literary device known as synecdoche, in which part of something is used to refer to the whole thing. "Steam" is a concise shorthand for "Victorian Era Technology", because it was, in fact, the dominant and most distinctive technology of the era. Tesla and Edison, fine; Nemo's electric batteries, fine; Cavorite, if you must -- but it was the steam locomotive and the steam engine that reshaped the human landscape. Moreover, it's a technology that has by and large fallen out of use in the present day; by contrast, things like electricity are far more prevalent now than they were then.

Of course, once you discover that the original meaning of "punk" is neither "mohawked rocker" nor "small-time hood", but "prostitute" ... well, then, the whole "transformation of the subgenre into the current trendy cash cow for skeevy publishers looking to milk a quick buck" just makes it all the more appropriate. As Mr. Raven points out, the same thing happened to both the "rock" and the "cyber" variations on the theme.



*A quick look around suggests that the "second artist effect" that Unca Charlie cites may in fact be a new and elegant coinage for a principle that has been stammered about in genre analysis circles for decades. Has anyone else heard that turn of phrase ere now?
**No, it's not just you. Or you. Or any of the many of you who think this is personally aimed in your direction.
Cross-posted to KDDR.

 
 
 
Pakapaka on October 28th, 2010 09:42 pm (UTC)
See, I had been thinking of the "punk" as "rebellion against oppressive authority" - which the late 1800s had but good, and clearly Stross seems to agree with this as a contention, because his hypothetical "and this is what would really happen in a steam-tech world, and it would suck!" is a good setup for "and it's a punk action to fight against this, or even to portray it as something which sucks." Heck, I've read about the labor movement, and technically Charley's War is very much a steampunk comic by that view. But with you redefining the punk part as a rebellion against some modern things, it finally makes sense to me why there's a punk in steampunk.

And yeah, what you said about definitions and prostitution. Part of what seems to define punk is the inevitable moment when some suit realizes it's a money-maker, and the genre continues on as an underground thing. Really, when you look at it, there's not much difference between geeks obsessing about goggles and top hats because they look cool, and people taking a caricature of being poor and making it into fashion, all the while the corporate world is off trying to decide how to make a quick buck.
Brad E.kolchis on October 29th, 2010 02:05 am (UTC)
Of course, there's a whole 'nother SCREED buried in the same sort of analysis when applied to my beloved White Wolf's Old World of Darkness' "Gothic-Punk"...