The Hard Edge of Empire
by Charlie Stross
I am becoming annoyed by the current glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of Tor.com and io9.
It's not that I actively dislike steampunk, and indeed I have fond memories of the likes of K. W. Jeter's "Infernal Devices", Tim Powers' "The Anubis Gates", the works of James Blaylock, and other features of the 1980s steampunk scene. I don't have that much to say against the aesthetic and costumery other than, gosh, that must be rather hot and hard to perambulate in. (I will confess to being a big fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius.) It's just that there's too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it's in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)
We've been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently,
But there's a dark side as well. 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).
Contemplating the numerous errors of the zombies'n'zeppelins fad in SF makes me twitch, for reasons that parallel China Mieville's denunciation of The Lord of the Rings (except that I have the attention span of a weasel on crack and am besides too lazy to anatomize the errors of a generation at length in such an essay: personally, I blame the internet). The romanticization of totalitarianism is nothing new (and if you don't recognize the totalitarian urge embedded in the steampunk nostalgia trip, I should like to remind you that "king" is a synonym for "hereditary dictator" and direct you to the merciless skewing Michael Moorcock delivered to imperial hagiography in his Oswald Bastable books). Nevertheless, an affection for the ancien regime is an unconsidered aspect of the background of most steampunk fiction: much like the interstellar autocracies so common in space opera (and again, let me cite Michael Moorcock on Starship Stormtroopers). The Science! in steampunk (which purports to be science fiction, of a kind ... doesn't it?) is questionable at best (Cherie Priest, I'm looking at your gas-induced zombies) and frequently flimsier than even the worst junk that space opera borrows from the props department, because, as it happens, the taproots of steampunk lie prior to the vast expansion in the scientific enterprise that has come to dominate our era. But that's just about forgivable, inasmuch as much modern SF doesn't even like to pretend that sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship, and not a metaphor. That leaves the aesthetic ... which I can't find anything intrinsically wrong with, as long as steampunk is nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown. 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).
You probably think I'm going a little too far in my blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun. But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?
(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.
Only none of this stuff is fun, exactly, so I suppose it has to go on the list of "Novels I will not write" ... filed under "too angry".