On Steampunk and the Empty Genre Problem of Consumerist Storytelling
“It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, and if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication and lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder and the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.”
– M. John Harrison, Viriconium
The spirits of empty genres haunt the landscape of speculative fiction like hungry ghosts. Peek beneath the surface of any forum of hopeful authors interested in writing imaginary fiction and you’ll start to encounter weird terms. Dieselpunk. Biopunk. Fantasy of Manners. Noblebright. Cassette Futurism. Steampunk. These terms ostensibly describe genres of imaginative literature – but can you name a Noblebright book? Can you name a story of Cassette Futurism?
These terms don’t really describe genres, they describe hypothetical genres by plucking out a few aesthetic or conceptual guidelines which could theoretically be developed into a genre of story. More accurately, they describe settings. Consider the Wikipedia definition of ‘Decopunk’:
“Decopunk, also known as coalpunk, is a recent subset of dieselpunk, centered around the art deco and Streamline Moderne art styles, and based on the cities of New York, Chicago, and Boston around the period between the 1920s and 1950s and inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927 film).”
Note, this is almost purely an aesthetic description. For the sake of thoroughness, we can see the ‘conceptual’ hypothetical genre in ‘Solarpunk’:
“Solarpunk is a movement, a subgenre… that encourages optimistic envisioning of the future in light of present environmental concerns, such as climate change and pollution, as well as concerns of social inequality.”
The latter is… weird. Not only is the fiction speculative, so are the genres! It reminds me of a few years back when everyone was bewildered by the ‘dragonkin’ and ‘wolfkin’ on Tumblr. Nobody really does any of this stuff, surely. They just imagine it and talk about imagining it online. And that’s part of the problem with these endless lists of empty genres.
The exception that proves the rule is steampunk. Everyone’s heard of steampunk. The best terrible reality television show ever made was 2015’s Steampunk’d. You can probably name more than one notable work within the steampunk genre too. There’s William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comic, Barry Sonnenfeld’s universally beloved 1999 film classic Wild Wild West starring Will Smith, and so on. Steampunk is undoubtedly the most established of these empty genres, so it works as a lens to focus the point.
The point is that a good story demands a moral thesis; a theme. A story without one is pure stimulation, nothing but an account of sequential phenomena. In the absence of a theme, reading becomes a merely consumptive act. Approaching a story in this way thus reduces a good and deeply human experience to something hollow, and ultimately meaningless. The empty genre problem is an example of this corruption as it pertains to the setting of the story.
When an author chooses a setting, it should be because, along with the other elements of the story, it participates in eliciting the particular theme he wants to show. When Raymond Chandler gives you a private eye pounding the streets of Los Angeles in The Big Sleep, the setting supports his efforts to show how a regular guy can stick to a moral code in a society that’s corrupt from top to bottom, and what that code will cost him. As I have previously argued, a Robin Hood story takes place in Sherwood Forest because that setting supports the themes of a Robin Hood story; Robin lives in Sherwood because Sherwood is a Kingswood, a private hunting domain for the Crown, and Robin is a jolly outlaw who enjoys thumbing his nose at the exploitative upper-class Normans. The setting underscores the character and themes of the story.
But steampunk has none of this. Cherie Priest’s novel Boneshaker serves as a frustrating example. According to Wikipedia, Boneshaker is “a science fiction novel… combining the steampunk genre with zombies in an alternate history.” But why are there zombies, and why is it steampunk? There’s no meaningful thematic connection in the novel between the zombies, the gears, and the story. In other words, the choice to include them is a purely aesthetic one, completely disconnected from any thematic point to the story. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series suffers from the same problem.
Furthermore, there is a surprising trade done in steampunk’d objects wherein ‘makers’ glue gears and other mechanical scraps to watches, goggles, corsets, and hats, for sale on Etsy. But the problem is that these objects, once added, serve no functional purpose whatsoever beyond ticking all the aesthetic boxes of the setting in a way that satisfies the urge to consume and to construct identity through consumption, in the exact same way that adding a steampunk veneer to a story’s setting without connecting it to the story’s theme accomplishes the same goal.
Steampunk as a genre doesn’t really exist. Its aesthetic obligations are largely disconnected from any set of themes that might successfully define it as a genre. Along with the rest of these empty genres, it’s really just a Rolodex of settings. In the hands of mere consumers, they proliferate endlessly as a form of collection and categorization. Harrison warned about the role of collection and categorization in worldbuilding-as-consumption, but the same behavior plays a role in genrebuilding-as-consumption. The builder of deep worlds who never truly writes or reads parallels the builder of broad settings who never truly writes or reads, who is attempting to survey every place that is not there.
In the hands of a competent author, any of these empty genres could be the setting of an interesting story full of compelling themes. You might look at a steampunk setting, with its insistence on analog technology and Victorian Era social mores as a story where the social order of the Old World was never destroyed. The houses retain their power, guilds of artisans maintain beautiful machines, and science remains the sphere of certain eccentric gentlemen of status. Technology is ordered toward human good. In such a society, you might expect to see stories whose conflicts flow from social circumstances, matters of honor, class dynamics, dangerous tech, an evenly matched or even integrated faith and tech, etc.
Unsurprisingly, this is precisely what you see from many of the seminal works of the genre. In Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, the first World War did not happen. Thus, the old social order remained intact and the colonies were never spun off, leading to a conflict driven by class dynamics and matters of honor. Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gate gropes instinctively toward this by using a time travel plot to set the bulk of the action in the late Georgian Era, and James Blaylock’s Homunculus takes the short road and sets the entire story in Victorian Era London. In Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone, the steampunk elements are used to represent the rapidly industrializing society that has left the protagonist feeling alone, isolated even among other people, thanks to his comparatively archaic upbringing in the ancient castle Gormenghast. In the novel, the old social order is pushed into a sort of senile dotage by the spread of the new technology.
Of course, these stories were all written prior to the conceptualization of steampunk as little more than a way to trigger an easy nostalgia. They were ideas for stories in a setting where the setting informed the thematic purpose of the story, besides being fun to read. But as the aesthetic elements of steampunk are flanderized by the consumptive urge, the stories themselves ossify into self-reference and cargo-cult obsession with literal bells and whistles. Indeed, when consumption becomes compulsive, story itself is an inefficient way to meet the consumptive impulse. Why read all those words when you can experience novelty by adding ‘-punk’ to the end of a word and get in one moment the thrill of an entire set of stories?
A mark of mediocre writing is the thematic dissonance that arises from story elements selected for aesthetic preference without consideration of how those choices support the thematic thrust of the story. The result is a weak thematic impact or, worse, a discordant note that ruins the spell of a good story by forcing the gimmick into the reader’s consciousness. Reading some of these stories is like having your skull caved in by the hammer of quirky nostalgia. I don’t mean to suggest that all stories need to aim for some literary pinnacle, but slapping some steam engines and copper fittings into a story to pander to fetishistic consumers is writing as a base commodity, aimed purely at titillation.
Write steampunk instead. Write a real story. Write a fantasy of manners or elf-punk, or cassette futurism. There are cool ideas worth exploring in all these empty genres. But don’t write for consumption. The transcendent part of storytelling, the part that drags you through the experience by your collar, the part that can raise the hair on your arms with its power, is all in the way the disparate elements of story — plot, character, structure, prose, and setting — come together to show the moral meaning of the tale. Let us fill these empty genres with tales of power and works of art and lay the consuming spirits to rest.