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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Where's the Punk in Steampunk?

Early in my attempts to catch up on a lifetime of not reading science fiction, in preparation for writing science fiction, I came across The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, two authors whose cyberpunk works I’d been enjoying. What I read at the time called this novel foundational for the steampunk genre.

Cyberpunk made sense to me: high tech and low culture; a gritty noir aesthetic, where the only light was neon, reminiscent of downtown Tokyo; computer hackers, body modifications, and combinations of the two—wireheads and brain-implanted computer chips; the last days of capitalism with humanity nearly ground into the detritus of previous generation’s waste and much oppressed. Either rebellion against society and convention was venerated—thus the punk part of cyberpunk—or at least the seamy underbellies were highlighted. Good reader, do take note! As Pat Cadigan put it in a talk at WorldCon, the cyberpunks didn’t promise us flying cars; instead, homeless people with cell phones. And now we’ve got them. Perhaps our generation should have listened rather than assume the “future was so bright [we] had to wear shades.” I hated that song so much it pains me to quote it.

Biopunk also made sense to me. Genetic engineering, cybernetics, synthetic biology—generally all ran amok. And I not only got postcyberpunk—an updating to face realities of the 90s and beyond—but at one point, when asked, I labeled some of my writing as such. Generally I leave the labeling of my writing with subgenre to others, especially those who want to buy it, as it’s usually a compliment, but postcyberpunk seemed more accurate than most labels I’d been given.

Solarpunk would have made sense to me had most of its practitioners not insisted on a cheery, science-saves-the-day, attitude reminiscent of 1950s science fiction. However, the more inclusive term climate fiction does allow honest accounting of our current dystopia, nearly unassailable prediction that things will get worse, and rebellion against it of various sorts. So there definitely is a “punk” version of SF with a focus on the environment and climate change; it’s just not the one with punk in it’s name.

With early steampunk, the punk element was indeed present. In The Difference Engine, Babbage succeeds in getting his mechanical computer to work, and British/Japanese imperialism uses it to continue alive and well into the era in which in the real world it was in decline. The result is Dickensian, and if anyone was a 19th century punk writer, it was Dickens. Early in my quest to assimilate science fiction, I also read another early steampunk novel: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. 19th century science is prominent, as is a Victorian aesthetic, but fantastical monsters also roam the streets. Punk became suffused with fantasy elements, one of which Miéville employed in his ever-present but ever-subtle Communist propaganda. (He has run for office in England on the Socialist Workers Party ticket.) So, steampunk can mix in a bit of fantasy—fine, I get it, no problem.

Parenthetically, I learned this weekend that these were not the original works of steampunk, although they are recognized as the ones that brought it wide attention. I was a guest (and panelist) at the Southwest Florida Writers Showcase and Steampunk/Fantasy Showcase. In addition to authors, they had craftspeople, gamers, LARPers, and many, many cosplayers. It was fun. Oddly though, in the evening when the Steampunk Stompers treated us to a concert, the vocalist felt he had to begin by reminding the crowd that steampunk started with books. When he asked how many in the crowd realized this, few hands raised. He then felt he needed to give the crowd a minilecture before the music: KW Jeter invented the term to describe his novel, Infernal Devices, while at a 1980s lunch with two others who then realized they were steampunk authors: James Blaylock (Homonculus) and Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).

This opinion was shared by the author who gave a workshop on dieselpunk and other related punks. Googling “earliest steampunk novels” also gives Ronald Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb (1967) and five Michael Moorcock novels published between 1971 and 1982 (Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, Morlock Night, The Steel Tsar, and A Nomad of the Time Streams). If we believe Google, every steampunk author was male until 2007, when Ginn Hale published Wicked Gentlemen. A few years ago, I discussed steampunk in a conversation over lunch with several romance writers. Some told me they loved steampunk written by women but hated steampunk written by men. I asked what the difference was, and none could articulate it. When I mentioned The Difference Engine and Perdido Street Station, none had heard of it.

So what’s going on here? I’d make the argument that steampunk has become divorced from its roots, and for many who profess a love for steampunk, it now has nothing to do with literature. For others, it still is literature, but it’s no longer punk.

A term introduced by the aforementioned dieselpunk author, Chris Cornell, seems useful: retrofuturism. He defined retrofuturism as either projecting the future from a past time period as people living in that time period would have envisioned it; or expressing a world that even to us is the future, but using a vision from a bygone era. He further defined a spectrum of the fantastic in these punks: from pure alternative history on one side of the spectrum to surrealist visions with numerous fantasy elements on the other side. I like this term. It would incorporate classic steampunk novels, romance novels with steampunk elements, and the mindset of today’s cosplaying teens and twenty-somethings, who think of steampunk as an aesthetic.

Retrofuturism as a perspective also allows explanation of many other terms current in the field by fixing a time range on the “punk-that-is-often-not-punk.” According to Cornell, steampunk novels will be set between 1830 and 1910. They draw inspiration from Jules Verne and HG Wells, who didn’t know it but were steampunks. Novels can include early aviation, dirigibles, and submarines; fashion with tooled leather, stiff collars, waistcoats, corsets, and frills; extreme inequality in society; and the science of this era.

The 1920s to 1950s are the age of dieselpunk. The term was coined in 2001 by Lewis Pollack, but it drew from the 1981 movie Indiana Jones and the 1991 movie Rocketeer (as well as the later, 2011, version of Captain America) for its aesthetic. Agent Carter and The Man in High Castle would both be dieselpunk. The 20s and 30s-focused retrofuturism might include the dehumanizing cities with the giant skyscrapers; bigger and stronger machines; tech as art; chrome and steel, Bakelite and concrete; the beginnings of consumerism. Metropolis is the movie that typified the dieselpunk aesthetic. Under the broader dieselpunk rubric, stories set in the 1920s Jazz Age could be considered decopunk. Grand Budapest Hotel, a 2015 movie, typified decopunk, according to Cornell. In the 20s you’d have speakeasies and gangsters. In the 30s, you’d start to see fedoras and trench coats: private eyes like Sam Spade. As one moves into the late 30s and 40s for novel settings, you begin to see an emphasis on communism and fascism, mass rallies, propaganda, blitzkrieg warfare, jackboots and armbands. In the US, everything is bigger, better and faster: airplanes and autos, cathode ray tubes, rockets, radar, the early jet engines. Think Casablanca.

Talking to the speaker after his talk, I learned I had actually written a dieselpunk story. In the first short story I sold, “The Traitor’s Last Words” (available here), I envision contemporary genomics developing in Nazi Germany by inventing a bacteria that with its scientifically plausible enzymatic activity toward DNA could have made it possible (assuming use all the other techniques I knew to exist in this time period, things I knew largely because I had taken a course on DNA Replication with the Nobel Laureate, Arthur Kornberg, while I was in graduate school—I also interacted with him when my research unexpectedly drew on his expertise). The Lebensborn program, breeding of an Aryan race, then becomes scientifically plausible. If you want to know why it still fails, what consequences it has for the world, and what happened to the Nazi scientist in charge, read the story. But this is exactly dieselpunk, apparently. Whodathunk—I had called it a fusion of alternative history and hard SF.

Anyway, the 50s through the early 70s bring us atompunk—the age of the atom. Apparently there are anime I haven’t heard of in this vein. A pre-digital world or its projection: raygun Gothic is a term I especially liked.

But virtually none of this contemporary stuff is punk. No underclass struggles against the oppressors of the day to eke out a humanity in opposition to an antagonistic universe. Instead, teenage girls don aviator goggles and frilly dresses that are sometimes skimpy. (Well, my story was punk, and it didn’t have any female characters, but I’m not including spoilers here.)

Retrofuturism is fun escapist stuff, with lots of cool costumes. They had original songs with lyrics dwelling on cyberpunk themes, but without explaining it, they also did a few Irish folk songs and a cover of Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz. They were quite good: the violinist had played with the London Symphony Orchestra. The guitarist/cellist was proficient at both, and the percussionist and keyboard player were also excellent. I have to admit I’d never seen a sousaphone in what was essentially a rock band (amplified and altered in sound at that), but the attachment that blasted pure steam into the air whenever he bent over was cool. The costume contest was visually impressive. I missed the splendid teapot race in favor of hanging out by my table and pushing my short fiction and social media links, but I was told that’s actually a thing (albeit not a thing of great interest to me).

But don’t expect social criticism in most retrofuturism. Okay, more likely there than in a Regency romance, but still. For those who hold by Ray Bradbury's dictum of science fiction preventing rather than predicting the future, steampunk isn’t for you.

Or maybe this is a challenge to write some that is.

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