The Null Device

Steampunk and its discontents

Charlie Stross is becoming annoyed by the glut of "steampunk" scifi, partly because of the surfeit of mediocre hangers-on that are jumping onto the hugely profitable gravy train, but mostly of the toxic political undertones romanticisations of the late 19th century carry when unexamined:
We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).
Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world).
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

There are 2 comments on "Steampunk and its discontents":

Posted by: Peter Hollo http://www.frogworth.com/blog/ Wed Oct 27 23:39:12 2010

It's pretty interesting! You may also be interested in <a href="http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/10/stupid-things-we-say">Nisi Shawl's Tor.com post</a> about steampunk from a "POC" point of view.

Posted by: Anton Sherwood http://ogre.nu/ Fri Nov 12 05:58:40 2010

It's a bit of a mystery to me how the free-trade movement, whose first significant success was the repeal of the Corn Laws (June 1846), provoked <i>Oliver Twist</i> (1837&ndash;39) or <i>A Christmas Carol</i> (1843) or even <i>The Communist Manifesto</i> (February 1848).

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