Steampunk, it should like, be a punk genre

What exactly are they rebelling against?

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The whole notion of punk inherently lies in rebellion. Punk rock was a rejection of the excesses of mainstream rock (according to Wikipedia), but after some time it simply became a marketing genre. Cyberpunk rejected the gleaming white sterile clean futures that dominated science fiction for stained dark polluted gritty futures like Bladerunner and Neuromancer. Some of the early novels that defined the steampunk genre seemed to understand this, and while the book I consider perhaps the best, most pure example of steampunk, The Difference Engine, is a superbly crafted exploration of an alternative Brittain, with Charles Babbage’s analytical engine made to work, largely the genre has abandoned it’s roots for cliched devices without much exploration of their impact on the human experience or society.

Any anachronism is a kind of rejection

Certainly one could argue that retro-futurism, or really any kind of alteration or alternative history is a rejection and a rebellion. And that’s true, as far as it goes, but the point of literature is to go beyond merely rejecting and show some of the implications of that rejection. In The Difference Engine some of the societal implications of the computer revolution occurring in the 1800s. But most steampunk can barely be bothered. Goggles are slapped on people’s faces for no reason, there are gears everywhere, and everyone uses airships or zeppelins or dirigibles or aerostats but the point is nobody uses powered heavier than air flight. But somehow every modern-day steampunk writer forgets that heavier than air travel is possible, and has certain advantages. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to write about Zeppelins, but why? Is physics different in your secondary world? Is there a religious proscription against heavier than air flight? These are the sorts of questions that can power introspection into the human experience, but they are ignored in favor of marketing tropes.

Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash

Part of the problem may lie in the fact that steampunk is now more than a literary genre, it’s also a movement, or a fashion sense or a lifestyle. There are steampunks conventions and steampunk bands, lots of top hats and ray guns.

There is much to rebel against in the Victorian era.

The mid-1800s saw a resurgence of a kind of straight-laced morality, judgmental and hypocritical. Women wore corsets so tight it contributed to their fainting, people were forever visiting townhouses with calling cards and dressing up properly to have house parties for which they’d rent pineapples, but behind closed doors, those same people practiced acts they decried as perverse. And meanwhile, the British Empire was fading, and the American Union was rent. There are many broad themes to explore in this time, the sun setting on the empire on which the sun never sets and the manifest destiny that leads to countless atrocities, the Opium Wars as some colonies began to throw off foreign rulers and simultaneously the inheritance of the British Raj by the British crown in favor of the failures of the East India company.

So if you want to slap some goggles on a story and have your characters bildungsroman take place in a dirigible, consider rejecting some or other tenet of history, so that it’s not just steam, but punk.

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