I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

Over at Bookslut, the Specfic Floozy takes another look at the subgenre (or possibly sub-subgenre) of “steampunk,” which she defines thusly:

For the uninitiated, steampunk, a term that is prominently tossed around in the late ’80s. is one of the many subgenres of cyberpunk (others — some more tongue in cheek than others — are sandalpunk, bronzepunk and stonepunk). Nikola Tesla and/or Charles Babbage frequently pop-up as characters, as do set pieces involving dirigibles, steam engines and, inexplicably, the Japanese. While the idea of meshing Victorian-esque machinery with future societies had been floating about long before the label was applied, it was William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine that was the watershed title that brought the term into widespread use. Well, widespread is a relative term — but steampunk was suddenly the hot thing in discussions about speculative fiction.

I don’t really recall it being all that big a deal, but I wasn’t reading a lot of SF criticism in the late 80’s and early 90’s, so who knows. What I find particularly puzzling about the piece, though, is the set of books she chose to read in the course of re-evaluating the genre: Christopher Priest’s The Prestige is arguably steampunk– it doesn’t really strike me as attitudinal enough to really fit as a historical-fiction offshoot of cyberpunk, but I don’t have any major objections to it.

(Stranger choices below the fold…)

But The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers? That’s a fantasy novel, and not remotely punk. And while Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age certainly has its punk aspects, I don’t think nanotech-wielding Neo-Victorians in a future Hong Kong really count as “steampunk.” At a minimum, I would expect “steampunk” to involve, you know, steam…

As I said, I wasn’t really plugged into the critical side of the genre back then, so I’m not sure how people defined things at the time, but these books don’t seem to me to have much of anything in common. I have a hard time imagining how you draw a sensible subgenre boundary that encompasses all three.

Are these really all considered “steampunk” books?

11 thoughts on “I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

  1. Hmm… I’ve always associated Steampunk with Manga and anime. That was the first place I ever heard of the term. Steam powered Giant robots were popular at least 10 years ago – maybe more. Ain’t any way I can see Diamond Age or Anubis Gates as Steampunk, and considering them so makes the whole article suspect.

  2. I can’t see either of those books as steampunk. I think the key to steampunk is imitating the “future war” genre of the 1870s to 1930s, especially in it’s gadget-centeredness. Steampunk is often also alternate history, but doesn’t need to be.

    The one argument that I would put forth against the existence of a steampunk genre is that some of the best books of the genre were written before cyberpunk. I’m thinking of the early seventies works of Ron Goulart, Harry Harrison, and, most especially, Michael Moorcock (in particular, his Oswald Bastable trilogy). Back then, some of us referred to it as “gaslight science fiction.”

    Markk makes a good point about Anime. I think Japanese anime artists, like Miazaki, have produced some of the best gaslight science fiction of the last twenty years.

  3. Nope, Chad, you’re spot on. It wasn’t the best movie, but if someone asked you what steampunk is, have them rent the movie Steamboy.

    You’re damn skippy if nano is involved, it ain’t steampunk. As it is, literary criticism has tried to appropriate all sorts of things incorrectly. Good night, what feminist criticism has tried to do with the concept of cyborgs! (Hint: they stole a nice-sounding word and completely divorced it from its meaning. I went postal on that in the class where I saw this happen. Words have meaning, and if you want people to give a damn about what you’re saying, you’d better realize that people are going to think about the Borg/Robocap/Terminator/etc if you use the word cyborg.)

  4. I would happily extend “steampunk” to Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (“Quicksilver”, “The Confusion”, “System of the World”) despite that those are set in a time that predates steam power. The other examples (excepting of course “Difference Engine”) don’t qualify. It’s not really honest to call steampunk a genre at all, considering it has so few bona fide exemplars. Probably the name is recognizable only because it’s such an appealing notion, however rarely and poorly executed. Probably it should be described, therefore, as a “notional genre”.

    I’m sure we can all think of irresistably appealing notional genres that have no exemplars (yet!).

  5. Have you read The System of the World, Nathan? Because a steam engine definitely makes its appearance there…

    Still, I wouldn’t grant that series the appelation of Steampunk. I’d say Diamond Age manages a neat trick by feeling like Steampunk without being steampunk at all.

    I bet MacLeod could write some groovy post-singularity neo-steampunk if he set down to it…he already writes about mega- and micro-babbages.

  6. There’s a pretty good overview of “steampunk” in Wikipedia, here, including a number of examples. There’s an oblique reference to Anubis Gates, but no real case is made for it being an exemplar. I certainly agree that The Diamond Age isn’t steampunk.

    The problem with Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is that while it’s sort of about issues of interest to steampunk authors (e.g., the emergence of modern science and technology and their impact on society), it sticks to the actual past rather than imagining any alternate history in which technology developed faster than it actually did. (Well, OK, so far I’ve only read Quicksilver. Maybe in the final volume Newton and Leibniz duke it out with clockwork-powered, proto-Babbage-engine-driven robots. But I’m guessing not.)

  7. Gregory Keyes’ Newton’s Cannon et al might qualify — an alternate Revolutionary period where technology and science are being attacked by “magic” sponsored by largely-hostile “spirits’.

    The thing to realize, is every time SF/F throws up a really successful and innovative novel, it gets followed by a horde of also-rans trying to imitate the concept. Thus, Tolkien was followed by armies of elves and orcs (after both his original publication, and the D&D-assisted revival), and Tad Williams’ classic debut in Tailchaser’s Song was chased by packs of feline fantasies….

    Of course, Sturgeon’s Law applies to all such wanna-bes, but if there’s enough talent in the pool, then it can spawn a genre.

  8. What about China Miéville’s works? I know it is fantasy, but the residents of New Corbuzon make much use of steam-powered technology, including computers. I call them steampunk fantasy.

  9. What about China Miéville’s works? I know it is fantasy, but the residents of New Corbuzon make much use of steam-powered technology, including computers. I call them steampunk fantasy.

    The Wikipedia article I linked to (above) has China Miéville as the very first author mentioned in the “fantasy steampunk” subsection.

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