Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Steampunk and Other "Punks"

I've spent a few minutes over the last few days thinking about being a punk, or how being a punk might affect your life. This is mostly to do with how we tend to use the word punk nowadays and how the usage of the word within the genre fiction community is moving away from a sense of political comment and towards an emptier sentiment of the "cool-sounding descriptor".

To unpack that last sentence a bit, I think formulations that add the -punk suffix are turning into the same phenomena of describing weird things as "like [uncontroverisal thing], but on acid!" It's a hyperbole that no-one who took acid would see the same way as a credulous member of the public. Everyone would sort of know what you meant, but not many people would appreciate what that would actually be like.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'd like to point out that I don't have any problem with steam-powered swashbuckling adventure or whimsical clockwork flights of fancy or any of the wonderful and interesting tropes that Steampunk, Dieselpunk or Clockpunk bring to the party. I'd also like to admit to not being much of a punk at all; I just think that when you use a term as powerful and meaningful as "punk", you need to respect it.

So let's walk the line of nPunk, some words that have been punk-ified:

The Inkpunks - This is a group of authors, editors and creatives that features Sandra Wickham and numerous other likeable individuals. I can even see why there is some kind of overlap in terms of DIY type activity (crochet, craft and artistic projects). I have the least amount of problems with this kind of thing in the context of the above comments; it just seems like a snappy name, not a manifesto choice. (Feel free to tell me otherwise!)

Cyberpunk - This is punk, extrapolated. It was born in a time where a popular punk movement was being developed and propagated in wider social awareness; the themes of nihilism, political involvement, direct action, the opposition to oppressive forms of commercial and government activity, anarchism and the pursuit of an alternate lifestyle all seem to feature in the literature. It's not high philosophy, but has an authentic and believable attitude to issues the authors believe will proliferate and worsen over time.

The best addition to the genre, over and above the issues that were contemporary to punks at the time, was the question of humanity and where one drew the line between human and machine. I may be absolutely derivative and write acres of dreck whenever I try and address the subject, but it's still captivating.

Steampunk (and Clockpunk and Teslapunk and etc.) - Now here, I have a problem. I think it's best to chop the issue into bits:

1) I know it was a kind of joke name for a genre; I'm fine with people having a sense of humour about this stuff and I like a lot of the more swashbuckling adventures and other related fiction I have seen. This much is OK.

2) I don't know what Steampunk is anymore. That's not some kind of existential wail, it's just difficult to put it all into context. Is it a fashion and DIY-based movement with an aesthetic and a catchy name? Is it a genre of alternate histories around a common theme of the use of steam that tends to feature Victorian social mores and a basis in pulp novels and penny dreadfuls? Or is it actually capable of addressing serious social issues, bringing to light some of the political upheavals in the Victorian period and judging them against our own progress (or lack of it)?

3) Am I reading the right stuff? Am I just missing all the interesting works where serious issues are being addressed? I've enjoyed the Diamond Age, ripped through Retribution Falls and the Black Lung Captain at a ferocious pace, enjoyed The Native Star and have purchased the sequel and generally found the books to be good fun. I just can't remember any really serious examinations of race and class and gender; they all just seem to ultimately fall into the background of Victoriana; I can't remember reading Steampunk that had a punk sensibility.

4) Here's the root of it; why call something punk and then not treat it like the wonderful portmanteau of ideas it is? Many of the institutions the punks of the 70s and 80s were disaffected by (in the UK at least) were relics of Imperial reign; from the Queen, to the Parliament, to favouritism and the old-boy network, all were historical anachronisms. Do we say that we are the punks that write about steam, or do we let the iconoclasts of these fictional worlds have their say?

It's not an easy problem to solve and I'm not trying to denigrate a genre that many people are very fond of, but surely there must be elements that I'm either missing (so, please feel free to recommend something for me to read if you have any suggestions) or that have been overlooked in the pursuit of swash and buckle and high adventure.

Would you agree with the sentiment that letting the punk back into Steampunk can only enrich a genre which is in danger of becoming a description of the window dressing rather than the strange view into weirdly familiar and exciting territories that it could be?

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