Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fiction as Steampunk

I would like to start this post on one of my favorite topics with a short article by a known e-zine contributor about the main genres loosely referred to as "Steampunk".  There is constant controversy about how much fantasy versus science fiction is appropriate, but the real answer is to simply use slightly different labels for these different flavors of fiction as is suggested by this article.


Gaslamp or Steampunk?

Steam EngineAs I began reading through “steampunkish” books to review on this site, I realized that it was going to become necessary to differentiate between two very similar genres, steampunk and gaslamp.  In everyday discussions of books or movies, it’s quite likely that we’ll use the two terms interchangeably; however, when precision is needed (as in a book review), there’s merit in drawing the two apart with more exactitude.
Both steampunk and gaslamp works share a Victorian(esque) technological level and overall social sensibility, although they may be set in the historical past, on an alternate Earth, or in a fantasy world. To count as steampunk or gaslamp, I’d argue that the works must not have been actually produced in the Victorian period — the genres are retrospective — and they should contain some sort of speculative element to differentiate them from, for example, straightforward romances or mysteries set in the Victorian period.
I argued in my earlier essays (politics and ideology) that when considering steampunk, it’s useful to keep in mind its two parts: “steam,” which refers to its Victorian aesthetic, with an emphasis on Victorian technology and industry, and  “punk,” which refers to its oppositional or critical message, usually with dystopian overtones. These two terms establish the boundaries between steampunk and gaslamp: Speculative works that possess a Victorian aesthetic but do not make technology or industry central to their plot and/or do not offer any sort of social or political critique relevant to the modern world are best referred to as “gaslamp” rather than “steampunk.”
Thus, the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett and others, which are set in an alternate world that combines magic and an extremely Victorian culture and level of technology, are best described as gaslamp fantasies. Although the stories mention Victorian technologies, the technologies are not significant or central elements of the plot — on the contrary, the ways in which magic supplements or replaces technology is more critical to the series. Similarly, although the works include political intrigue and tension — Lord Darcy is the chief investigator for the Duke of Normandy — they offer relatively little cultural or political critique relevant to today’s world.
On the other hand, The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, is thoroughly steampunk. Set on an alternate Earth in which Charles Babbage’s difference engines are used to run 19th century England, the novel explores the social and political implications of a much earlier historical shift from an industrial to an information society and presents a dystopian view of the 1990s that resonates with real-world concerns about privacy issues. Technology — and its effects on the social order — are central themes within the novel.
Of course, between these two poles lies a vast sea of quasi-Victorian speculative fiction that ought to provide fans and scholars with plenty of room for debate. How central of a role must technology or industry take to make a work steampunk? How heavy-handed or relevant of a sociopolitical critique must a steampunk novel present? What if a novel’s technology is so advanced that it’s almost magical, such as in Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters? Is there room in steampunk for “magic” at all, or must that word be shunned entirely?
I’m looking forward to hearing the arguments.
(Photo courtesy of StockXchng)

Now back to my own opinions on this matter.  

I think that "Steampunk Fiction" should indeed have some sort of parameters to avoid the feeling, in the mind of readers that we are applying a popluar label just to sell our product, but there should be flexibility int hat all fiction has the possiblity of some elements of almost any imaginable genre, in small doses, without being totally kicked out the genre entirely.  I for instance , just finished reading a murder mystery where the killer pretended he was a vampire so long, that , mixed with drug abuse, he began to believe it so strongly that wearing a cross, silly as the heroine that that was, actually saved her life, because the killer believed it might hurt him, so it caused him to hesitate at the critical moment.  It was still very much a murder mystery and the killer wound up in a place for the criminally insane.  I, for instance, enjoy writing Steampunk Fiction where time travel figures into it, but I should mention that I did this as the simplest and most logical plot device I could conjure up to account for the plethora of ray guns my steampunk colleagues, in the real world, are always sporting at events.  I should also add that I inserted plot devices to make time travel and the use of obviously anachronistic weapons and equipment to be a very rare event in the course of any given story, or at least chapter, in a story rather than a central element of the book. Focus is primarily on ways that slightly advanced devices are used in clever ways, newly invented, but time period appropriate, devices are used to increase potency, and character development and activity stays paramount at all times.

I'll leave the above debate to others and just add for now that I feel that Steampunk fiction should walk hand in hand with two other important areas: namely Drama as Steampunk AND Tabletop Rolepaly Gaming as Steampunk.

Drama as Steampunk I define as PUBLIC dramatic skits, performances, videos, or any other performance art where the person interacts with others in character as though they actually were their Steampunk personae.  In order to do this effectively they need to create extensive fictional backgrounds, personality development, and current world events as well as personalities, equipment, and weapon/vehicle statistics for everything in their world.  Talk about fiction writing!  Dramatic enactment, if done well, requires significant fictional writing before you actually even design the ensemble or equipment you wear and carry.  Of course some of this may be done in reverse where equipment is obtained, then given fictional attributes that seem to match it's appearance, but the point still remains that fiction is essential to good dramatic roleplay.

The second area (other than books of course) are the various table top games existing or being developed to encourage people to "roleplay" steampunk personae characters in a much more private setting accompanied by other "gamers" who are doing the same.  These games not only entertain, but also teach creative imagination, problem solving techniques, team work (if the Gamemaster is any good anyway), and cooperative authorship of pretty high quality fictional stories that should be recorded and kept for sharing with others.  I can think of few grounds more fertile than the combined and interactive imagination of a group of highly creative players who make stories much less predictable and far more truly varied in character portrayal and outcome than is likely to exist in the mind of any single author. 

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