Felix Gilman is a Campbell and Locus-nominated author who combines a mixture of storytelling that draws from the American western tradition, steampunk adventure, and magic realism. His book, THE HALF-MADE WORLD has been compared to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. It’s a dark, compelling and highly imaginative look at the making of a national identity, and a fantastic vivisection of group mindsets—anarchy, industry, religion, democracy, and science—and their struggle for dominance over the individual, the nation, and a world fully-made to their own dogmatic standards.
The main attractions of steampunk from a writer’s point of view
by Felix Gilman
I get invited to do quite a few of these blogging-about-steampunk things (thank you, by the way!) and I find them increasingly hard to do. It’s that every time I try to say anything about “steampunk” it becomes more and more obvious to me that fiction is only a small part of it, and in particular books are an even smaller part of it.
There’s the dressing-up thing, and there’s the making-stuff-with-your-hands-out-of-old-things thing, and there’s all the anime & etc & etc. Most of this has nothing to do with the sort of fictional canon that from my perspective is what it’s all about – most of the people who are into the broader steampunk thing have never heard of Michael Moorcock. (I think, anecdotally. Their loss). Writers opining on The Meaning Of Steampunk always has a certain “geezer-rock-critics grumbling about music like they invented it” quality.
I personally have never worn goggles or anything with a gear on it, unless you count wristwatches. I have never made anything with my hands, steampunk or otherwise. When I was at university I went through a phase of trying to dress like Oscar Wilde, that’s sort of steampunk-esque avant la lettre, maybe? I once rode in a hot air balloon but I was on holiday with my in-laws, it wasn’t really what you could call punk anything. Even my books are not exactly core steampunk, just sort of fellow-traveling.
With those disclaimers out of the way, here are some of the main attractions of steampunk from a writer’s point of view as I see them. No particular order.
1) You can affect a sort of Victorian diction. On the one hand this is a lot easier to do without sounding goofy than authentic high-medieval speech – nobody since Tolkien has been very good at that. On the other hand, you can learn all the slang from books, so it’s a lot easier than writing contemporary people, if you don’t get out much. Perfect!
2) You can write sort-of-science fiction without having to even try to get the science right, and if anybody calls you on it you can say that you are writing an ironic commentary on the pseudo-scientific discourses of the Victorian era. This is fun, even though for some reason it makes Charles Stross angry. In my current work-in-progress there’s a guy with what’s basically a perpetual motion machine. Why not?
3) In fact in general the way steampunk seems to have developed is entertainingly ironic and meta-textual. Steampunk fiction is usually at least 50% about other fiction – it’s not about Victorian London, it’s about the pulp imaginings of Victorian London – unlike, say, cyberpunk, which generally liked to pretend it was about the actual near-future. Maybe it had to turn out that way, because steampunk is necessarily about worlds that didn’t and couldn’t exist? Maybe it’s just because Michael Moorcock and William Gibson have different senses of humor. Who knows. The point is that writing about writing is fun, at least for the writers.
4) It’s customary at this point to praise steampunk for its capacity for political criticism but actually I don’t know that it does that very well. The 19th century presents a lot of big fat obvious non-controversial targets for criticism but I’ve yet to be convinced that making a big show of smacking around Victorian millowners and alternate-world versions of Henry Clay Frick for being horrible to their workers really does much except confirm us all in our sense that At Least Everything Is All Right Now.
5) Although one thing that I do think steampunk can do well and that has some real-world value, maybe, just a little, is this. We still live in 18th and 19th century institutions and mores, grown old and familiar and a bit frayed but still heavily there. Steampunk goes back to the beginning of the modern era and tries to dramatize the newness and the shock and the excitement of it – the moment when the past we take for granted was a frightening and exhilarating future – and through the addition of the fantastic and the grotesque and the absurd — and even the self-consciously and in-your-face obviously vulgar and pulpish — it helps us to see the deep strangeness of the structures we take for granted, and it helps us to see their creation as contingent, not inevitable. (Maybe that’s true about the contingency and maybe it isn’t. But it’s a useful exercise to think it either way). This can be good both for seeing what’s horrible and cruel and not necessary about our inherited traditions and institutions, and also for seeing what’s precious and fragile and easily-lost about them.
Anyway. I have said this before and I’ll say it again: sooner or later and let’s face it probably sooner steampunk will be over – one more film like Suckerpunch and that’s it, absolutely nobody will be able to look at a gear or a top hat or a zeppelin without laughing. This applies to writers and makers and costume-types alike. The thing is now approaching fin de siècle: Europe, 1913. Enjoy it while it lasts.