by wjw on March 15, 2013

So I’ve just read a steampunk novel, and now I’m going to get all grumpy on its ass.

The book had nearly everything you might expect to find in a steampunk novel.  Zeppelins.  Goggles.  Weird pseudo-Vernian inventions.  Intrepid explorers.

It ha practically everything on the steampunk checklist except the one thing steampunk actually needs: a steampunk aesthetic.

Steampunk isn’t just a collection of tropes.  It’s an aesthetic movement, and if the writer is not some kind of aesthete, the writer is simply going to miss all that.

Steampunk is a form that has transcended its literary origins, and involves the contrast between a realistically-depicted past with bright, gorgeously evoked imaginative weirdness.  A key visualization of this aethetioc might be found in Powers’ Anubis Gates, in which the poet Coleridge, zonked on opium, wanders through a London underworld inhabited by “experiments” disfigured and altered by vivisection, and perceives it as a kind revelation of the workings of his own poetrical imagination.

I don’t write steampunk, but I know the real thing when I see it, and  compare to that scene, what I read was just a faded xerox of a xerox of a xerox.

I want to kick the author in the butt, and tell him to go read some damn Walter Pater or something.

If you’re not an aesthete, don’t write steampunk.  Just don’t.  Because you’re wasting everybody’s time.

TJIC March 15, 2013 at 10:59 am

> If you’re not an aesthete, don’t write steampunk.

I can shorten that a bit: “don’t write steampunk.”


Seriously, I loved steampunk before it was even a genre (yeah, yeah – insert “I was wearing black before it was cool” jokes).

I think that it becoming a genre is what killed it for me. It became a formula.

I’ve been getting more and more discontent with genre fiction recently, and most of the stuff that I still love is the stuff that breaks the genre conventions (…and, no, not in a formulaic “look at me, I’m breaking conventions!” way. In an honest “I NEED to write story X, and if story X doesn’t conform to your small minded genre expectations, then all the worse for your expectations” way.).

Lev Grossman’s Magicians series is a great example. “Slightly cynical, but still whole-hearted and honest investigation of what Hogwarts and Narnia would be like if real people went to them” is not a genre…but it is awesome.

Now, if that turned INTO a genre, and if every fourth book on the shelves was applying the formula “so I went to Magic College and when I was there I shot heroin / participated in a three-way / went to a climate change march / almost failed out / joined a band”, it would be terrible. Terrible, because it would be people applying the superficial attributes of “genre breaking weirdness” without actually having the inspiration that propels the first guy so strongly that he has to break the genre to get his story out.


Rant over.

TRX March 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Funny you should mention Tim Powers’ “The Anubis Gates.” That’s one of my top five favorite novels, along with “Voice of the Whirlwind” and “Hard Wired” by some other guy.

Lektu March 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm

I had that same reaction after reading Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker”. Neither the steampunk nor the zombies seemed real enough, just a nanometer-thick paint job. Not to mention being utterly predecible.

TJIC March 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm

> along with “Voice of the Whirlwind” and “Hard Wired” by some other guy.

Heh. 😉

Foxessa March 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Things functioning as markers of rather than the thing itself. Flatness and other infelicities ensue.

Patricia Mathews March 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm

“IF you’re anxious for to shine, in the steampunk genre line,
as an author rich and rare,
You must dig up all the germs of the High Aesthetic terms,
And plant them everywhere!

wjw March 17, 2013 at 10:30 pm

And hast thou slain the Genre-mock?
Come to my arms, my steamish boy!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.