If You Have to Tell People...

Or why I hate "-punk" as a genre descriptor.

So I found this blog post—somehow one doubts by a historian—about "Why Steampunk Sucks".
To any prospering SteamPunk authors out there I would like to explain to you what “Punk” actually means in the cultural sense. Punk is at its core about rebellion, it is about youth rebelling against the oppressive moral values of the older generation, it is rebellion of the poor and disenfranchised against the wealthy elite of society. Punk stories should be about cynical protagonists fighting and carving out a better life for himself against a society that wants him to grow up, accept his place and go back to the ghetto. Punk is about being beaten down and pushed into the sewer, it is dirty, it is gritty, but it is also about getting back up, crawling out of the sewer, screaming “I am not going to take this any more !” and fighting back.
You know what's funny? That he thinks it is a point against steampunk that it's not really punk. While I have pointed out that no "cyberpunk" is actually punk—standard left-liberal narratives about corporations and the state are not punk—that is a point in its favor. Punk is stupid. Punk is, far and away, the most puerile, petulant, and tantrum-throwing of all the juvenile Marxism-influenced movements, and please recall that that list also includes both hippies and anarchists.

Indeed, to me, and to all thinking adults, the more attention steampunk pays to the second half of its name, the worse it is. 19th century class structures were largely oppressive—people actually decided to try Marxism, they were so bad—but they were also complex. If you have not made a detailed study both of sociology and economics generally, and of the period specifically, you are simply going to wind up with a series of middle-school civics slogans, and whatever plot you choose to string between them will suffer for it.

For example, you might know what a Tory is. You might know what "Radical" means. But unless you have actually read up on the period, would you know that a Tory Radical was very often an agrarian populist whose views of industrialists were routinely denounced by socialists as extreme? Or that they were, somewhat less often, also anti-Imperialist ("Little Englanders", they were called)?

Try working that—"King and Country" = populism, opposition to big business, and anti-Imperialism—into a "punk" narrative. Can't do it, it's a political "divide by 0" error. Punk is a purely post-WWII phenomenon, directly or indirectly influenced by Soviet propaganda, and can only view the world in a Cold War lens. It wasn't fashion that swept like a scythe through the subculture, in the '90s, it was perestroika.

You can't read that into the 19th century, the class structure was fundamentally different—industrial capitalism gave way to entrepreneurial by the post-war era, and that's the era punk comes from. Still less can you read punk into eras before that; nothing even comparable to capitalism existed prior to the Reformation, and without capitalism, what, exactly, is punk?

The central conceit of steampunk, and its children, doesn't actually incorporate punk anyway. "Information revolution comes earlier, make advanced gadgets with 19th (or whatever) century materials and techniques" has nothing to do with punk. Kaja and Phil Foglio describe their Girl Genius series as "Gaslamp Fantasy", probably because large portions of it are, well, fantasy (see also: Shadowrun). And most "steampunk" stories are actually, as I pointed out to my sister at the beginning of last year, "steampulp", or, if that be thought too limiting (and "pulp" has managed to retain its pejorative connotations, somehow), "airship opera". Think about it.

As a side benefit, well, google steampunk and you're mostly going to get ads for clothes. Not that that's a problem in itself, but if we start calling the genre "airship opera" we can eliminate a number of unwanted results at a blow. Until the bastards start tagging their clothes-sites "airship opera", anyway.


penny farthing said...

As much as I love browsing overpriced steampunk clothing sites and imagining how awesome my life would be if I could really sew, it would be nice to have a way to search only for written works. I want airship opera to catch on.

As I have said, my favorite thing about steampunk is its optimism. It takes place in a past with a bright future. I find apocalyptic steampunk to be pretty boring, and even that is more optimistic than most stuff in that genre. Mostly, steampunk stories just throw characters of whatever class and gender the author finds interesting into a story that would probably be pretty unlikely in the real Victorian age, and throw in lots of action and shiny machines. It works, and no it isn't punk, thank you very much. Let's keep it that way.

Anonymous said...

I was so crestfallen by that excerpt. "Is THAT what steampunk is supposed to be? I thought it was abrasive optimism and unlikely ingenuity and shiny brass buttons!" In a word, I thought it was steampulp. Whew! I'm so relieved.