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Steampunk at ConVergence Part Two: “The Steam Panels”

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July 2011
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Not all was rosy at the con.  I attended two panels dealing with the subject of steampunk.  One was annoying, and the other OK.  I left each of them early.  The annoying panel was entitled “The Future of Steampunk” and included the writer Catherynne [sic] Valiente.  She said she liked to talk and she wasn’t kidding. Apparently none of the three panelists was the moderator and so a problem emerged when Ms. Valiente (in particular) made some provocative statements that members of the audience wanted to rebut.  Ms. Valiente has a rather abrasive manner and what she said might have seemed less offensive if it had been presented in less absolute terms.  But the critique of steampunk came from her opinons presented simply as if they were right.  She is, after all, one of the Guests of Honor.

The arguments were old and particularly tiresome to me personally.  I heard enough Marxist and post-colonial criticism 20 years ago in graduate school.  I do not disagree that literature is deepened if it includes all the people in a society and not just white people.  Neither do I disagree that romanticizing imperialism seems reactionary.  But I think that critics of steampunk broadly as a cultural phenomenon cannot mix up the cosplay with literature.  Steampunks, if they are white, may assume an aristocratic or gentry character and costume without advocating for imperialism.  Indeed, I would not dream of advocating anything — except perhaps top hats.  But the knee-jerk indoctrinated Marxist cultural critic roots out “reactionary” elements with the same zeal that a Freudian critic roots out phallic symbols.

What is particularly irritating is when someone suggests that the literature of steampunk will not be good literature until it starts including more people of color and more gritty, realistic visions of the British Empire.  What such a critic is hitting upon is that worst of all possible phenomena in literature:  Romanticism!  Our 20th century culture embraced Realism.  At the same time, popular literature is mostly fantasy — that is romance in the broad original sense of the word.  It has a love story and fantastical elements.  Many books in the science fiction genre pride themselves on being “hard” sci-fi.  That mode of realism can certainly be entertaining.  But, I believe that most of them are “romanticizing” science and technology.  They give the illusion of serious extrapolation but will most often swing one of two ways away from realism.  One way is romanticism, the advocacy of the scientific view of the world and its premises, showing its power and glory.  The other way shows the power too, but focuses on the bad side-effects and destruction of science.  But this too is romance.  It hearkens back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a seminal book firmly in the tradition of Gothic horror.

The critique of  “white middle class folks pretending to be upperclass Brits” seems lame to me.  More steampunkers are developing “explorer” or “scientist” characters, but the insinuation that this is somehow more virtuous than playing an aristocrat seems to be based purely in Marxist ideology.  And why should all steampunks be required to be Marxists?  Or materialists?  Can we not play Tories as well as Liberals and Radicals?  This notion that somehow writing stories that glamorize imperialsm is “dangerous” strikes me as a little sad.  I think we have quite a lot of imperialism still going on, in its cultural form — and certainly chauvinism and jingoism.  But if we are to write with Victorian England (or even simply the 19th century), then pro-imperialism and class snobbery are a part of that world.

I think the criticism really comes from a feeling on the part of writers and convention panelists that their audience is a bit dim.  What they are disgusted with is people playing steampunk who have not bothered to research the world of the 19th century.  They are, simply, objecting to the ignorance of people who just put on a top hat and a monocle and pretend to be steampunks.

One observation I found more interesting than all this classist line of discussion was a remark made by one of the panel to the effect that steampunk had no single authorial source.  It is an organic popular movement.  Those outside it consider it a fad and believe it is bound to go away or be co-opted by commercialism.  Maybe.  Writers may stop being interested in the idea as too many other writers try to jump on the bandwagon.  Readers may tire of it too, the way they tired of cyberpunk. But writers are still writing cyberpunk novels.  Catherynne Valiente is one of many “punks” who like the idea of “punk” and really couldn’t care less about steam engines.  And a good point was made that of all the novels yet written in the steampunk mode, few if any deal with steam engines.

There was some productive conversation indeed, and I took some notes for my novels.  One panelist remarked that steampunk is dead as soon as it is the subject of a panel at a conference.  A joke.  However, I personally would like to see steampunk discussed in a panel that is better organized than the ones I attended today.  Why do people on a panel come without any presentation?  Why do they suppose the audience is there to listen to them talk to each other?   The hands in the air should give them a hint.  The panelists at the second steampunk panel I attended were better about calling on raised hands.  As so often, though, when I raise a hand it is to respond to something just said by way of disagreement or correction.  If one has to wait ten minutes before getting called on, the moment is gone.  Oh well.


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