In Defense of Steampunk

A while back, Charles Stross published a spirited critique of steampunk, saying "there's too much of it" and it's suffering from "second artist effect." Now Aurorarama author Jean-Christophe Valtat explains why steampunk and "Teslapop" are more relevant than ever.

Talk about bad timing for my time machine. Just when I set up shop as a "steampunk" writer, I hear that not only there's too much of it around, but also that "steampunk is in danger of vanishing up its own arse"... like a vulgar hadron collider. What a birching. It would have made Swinburne weep with joy.

My first line of defense, gentlemen of the jury, would be that Aurorarama is not steampunk. For one thing, steam power isn't used much, because the novel takes place well above the Arctic circle where the reserves of coal are somewhat difficult to exploit. So the founders of New Venice naturally turned their sights towards electricity, and were especially interested in the work of Nikola Tesla - maverick scientist and pop culture icon. Which brings me to the second point: Aurorarama is not very punk either. I must admit that, unless "punk" is a polite and paradoxical synonymous for "geek," I never really understood what was punk in steampunk. For me it's more like a collage of references from popular literature and popular science - a "pop" form. So, what I write is definitely Teslapop.

There's a bit a cowardice in that defense, isn't it ? Maybe I should come forth and speak loud in favour of steampunk. Stross's argument is twofold: the first one is that steampunk is revisionist through its undue romanticizing of the past, and the second one is that the "Science in steampunk is questionable at best."

The first argument is the most interesting, because there's obviously some escapism and nostalgia involved in steampunk.

For one thing, I think that escapism is good and healthy and that there's more to man than reality, just as there is more to language than present tense and affirmative sentences. Regarding nostalgia, though, I just feel the argument is wrong. While Stross tries to jerk the tears from our eyes with "the fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine-year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms," he sounds very much like the average steampunk novel which is bound to overplay rather than downplay the melodramatic aspects of Victorian life: forced labour, high crime rate, violence towards women and minorities, social inequities, disease, pollution, irresponsible use of new technologies, political cynicism etc... which are all ingredients of the genre.

What I find more curious is that Stross seems to think that those days are over in the "developed world." In many respects - the ongoing onslaught of welfare policies through the western world, the renewed drive towards the cheapening of the labour force in favour of shareholders, the subsequent widening gap between social classes - the 19th century might be our future as well as our past. This is partly, I would suggest, what steampunk is about.

Zombies, here as anywhere else, are just another metaphor for the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disease-ridden poor out to seek a revenge, and airships are most likely the symbol of a technological hubris that is both empowering and bound to come a cropper. Likewise, recurring figures or names such as Darwin Babbage or Galton simply reflect our current concern with genetics (and eugenics) or artificial intelligence, and where they could lead us.

It is very naive to think that we are through with the 19th century: it is, in many respects, a nightmare we haven't quite woken up from. Most of what we experience today - in urban life that is - has its origins in the 19th century. I always find it fascinating to think of a time where the things we are used to, and pretend to be adapted to, were felt for the first time: huge capitalist production and commodification, enormous cities and crowds, speed, networking, mass media, the rise of a visual culture, unprecedented destruction in warfare etc... And what makes it more interesting is that it all fell on dazzled, unprepared brains. The impact of this mode of life on the nervous system and the way that people tried to shield themselves from it (self-mechanization, neuroses, alcool, drugs etc...) were analyzed and debated instead of simply regarded as normal. It could be one of the ambitions to steampunk to go back to the source of the life we live and, by exploring those "first times," try to make our times a bit clearer for ourselves.

In Defense of Steampunk

Of course, I do not deny the seduction of the era. Contrary to us (citizens of the developed 21st-century who are simply happy to wallow in our hard-earned shallow vulgarity) the 19th-century insisted, if only to save face, that there also were such things as manners, honour and beauty - at least for those who could afford it. That the century suffered from a massive case of false consciousness, if not downright hypocrisy, is beyond doubt, and maybe we are all the more clever because we can chuckle about these things. Perhaps what steampunk writers see in the 19th century is the poetical interest of that spectacular gap between appearances and reality. As the great steampunk thinker Walter Benjamin explained, the 19th century was a fantasy about itself, a daydream about a utopia that never was. In this sense the 19h century was as steampunk as "steampunk" is: always imagining itself different from its grim reality, and always trying to give a sense of purpose to the sufferings it bred. Alternate history, which is a huge part of steampunk, is quite at home in that context of struggling technologies, compulsive explorations, delirious social reforms, and failed revolutions. There was a pervading sense of possibility that we, in our "finished world", may have forgotten. The 19th century was sure to have a future while the only thing we are sure of is that we have a past: no wonder it is this past that so interests science-fiction writers.

Another good side of that civilized false consciousness is that, for me, the 19th century is a time where extravagant beauty could be enjoyed without guilt or second thought. It is moreover my theory that all writers belong, more or less consciously, to the 19th century, that time when literature was taken (too?) seriously and regarded as able to educate, elevate, delight and even change life. Perhaps that is what we are missing, too. After all steampunk writers may not be more nostalgic about the 19th century than people who like to read a novel by Balzac or Dickens, or a poem by Hopkins or Rimbaud. Perhaps it's a certain idea of literature as a power that we are nostalgic about. If we live up to it, of course, is another question.

Now it is true that steampunk is riddled with every kind of self-duplicating clichés - zombies, airships, clockwork humans, anarchists etc... - but that is a bit like saying that mathematics are riddled with clichés because they are using the same axioms over and over. Clichés (or myths, if you prefer) are technically inherent to alternate-world building, because it would be too complicated and boring to present the reader with a world where everything would have to be explained down to the least detail: you can only present something new if it is delineated by familiar objects, if only for the reader to complete by himself what the book cannot explain or describe. The novelty - in all senses of the term - comes from the collage, the montage, the criss-crossing and hybridation of historical and fantastic references, the spark that comes from banging the clichés together. A steampunk novel is laborious and volatile dosing of the pleasures of recognition and the pleasures of discovery. Then again, the dosing can fail miserably, but it is not necessarily the genre that is to blame.

As to Stross's second argument, the science, bad as it can be, is just another aspect of that collage of clichés. Steampunk science is less interested in the facts of hard science than in the vulgarization and social discourse of 19th-century science, with its relentless inventivity, its striking advances but also its ridiculous duds, its delusions of grandeur and control, its inability to set its own limits (like its misdirected forays in psychic science and supernatural events), its almost total lack of restraint or ethics. It is no wonder that science-fiction (and the mad scientist) were invented in the 19th century, ripe as it was with all the fictions that science held about itself. It is the actual science of the 19th century that is, to use Stross's language, "questionable at best" - which is also what makes it so fascinating. Instead of bemoaning the lack of seriousness by fiction writers in their approach of science, it could be said that steampunk is a study in the lack of seriousness by scientists in their approach of science. But, of course, that too is a thing of the past, I suppose.

So it seems there is more to Steampunk than meets the goggled eye, and if there is so much around, well, it could well be simply because it is symptomatic and relevant to our times. And don't even get me started on Teslapop.

Top image: Nathan Fillion from Castle's steampunk episode.

Jean-Christophe Valtat is the author of Aurorarama, a novel set in New Venice, the "Pearl of the Arctic" in 1908, published by Melville House Publishing. He has written a book of short stories, Album, and two novels, Exes, and 03 (published in English by FSG), as well as award-winning radio-plays and a movie "Augustine" (2003), which he also co-directed. This post originally appeared over at Melville's Moby Lives Blog.