Tee Morris began his writing career with his 2002 historical epic fantasy, MOREVI The Chronicles of Rafe & Askana. In 2005 Tee took MOREVI into the then-unknown podosphere, making his novel the first book podcast in its entirety. That experience led to the founding of Podiobooks.com and collaborating with Evo Terra and Chuck Tomasi on Podcasting for Dummies and its follow-up, Expert Podcasting Practices for Dummies. He won acclaim and accolades for his cross-genre fantasy-detective Billibub Baddings Mysteries, the podcast of The Case of the Singing Sword winning him the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Audio Drama. Along with those titles, Tee has written articles and short stories for BenBella Books’s Farscape Forever: Sex, Drugs, and Killer Muppets, the podcast anthology VOICES: New Media Fiction, BenBella Books’ So Say We All: Collected Thoughts and Opinions of Battlestar Galactica, and Dragon Moon Press’ Podthology: The Pod Complex. When he is not writing, Tee enjoys life in Virginia alongside Philippa Ballantine, his daughter, and five cats (3 female, 2 males). Considering the male-to-female ratio in his house, Tee understands how General Custer felt near his end.
Foggy Goggles: The Problem with Steampunk Sub-genres
by Tee Morris
When reading a recent blogpost from the Parasol Protectorate’s Gail Carriger, I felt my hackles rise. They stood a hint taller when I followed a link to The Steampunk Scholar who gives an in-depth look at what I believe to be the silliest trend currently running amuck in steampunk. The gist of both posts is that Gail’s New York Times bestselling series really shouldn’t be considered “Steampunk” but a softer cousin of the genre — “Bustlepunk.” Gail, as she is a class act, opens her commentary on this as follows:
I tend to not weigh in, Gentle Reader, on the controversial subject of bustlepunk, and prefer to let the experts argue amongst themselves as to whether my books are officially steampunk… Since Soulless came out in 2009 I have obeyed to the letter the old Internet adage “do not engage.”
I admit—I’m a new kid in the community. I know this. It was only in March of this year when I (with Pip Ballantine) stepped fully into the fray. Our first steps into steampunk were with the launch of a steampunk podcast anthology. We followed this first step with our second step — the book, Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel, now just over two months old.
And yet, reading both of the earlier cited columns, I’m asking the same question:
With the accomplishments Gail has achieved with the Parasol Protectorate series, I’m stunned that there are Steampunk SMOFs (Secret Masters/Mistresses of Fandom) who believe she doesn’t write steampunk on account of — as described by Gail herself — her books being unabashedly frivolous and fun. “Of course that can’t be steampunk!” these SSMOFs trumpet from pulpits on high. “We must give it its own classification — bustlepunk! Yes! That’s it! Bustlepunk! The softer side of nitty, gritty, icky, grimy, and dirty steampunk!”
Yes, I’m the new guy, but I’m just going to say it — Enough with the sub-genres!
It’s not just bustlepunk (and yes, every time I say that word, a kitten dies) that I speak of. It’s all of these contrived sub-genres that are cropping up in order to distinguish themselves from “true” steampunk. I first discovered this segregation when explaining to a curious bystander what steampunk was. When asked for some examples from film and television, I went with a favorite example: Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang.
One of the steampunks in our group turned to me and said:
“Well, Tee, Chitty Chitty, Bang Bangis more dieselpunk.”
Not only was the steam-curious furrowing his brow at that, so was I. Dieselpunk? What the hell is dieselpunk?
- Stonepunk (No kidding — Stonepunk. Think The Flintstones.)
To those in the mainstream struggling to understand what steampunk is, dropping sub-genres like these only muddy the boiler’s water, making for a really poor performance and a bad stink coming from your analytical engine’s exhaust.
So if this rule of “a case of the whimsies” applies and Gail Carriger therefore doesn’t write steampunk, then you better tell Kaja and Phil Foglio they aren’t writing steampunk either. And someone call The League of S.T.E.A.M. They are having their steampunk card revoked, regardless of their delightfully witty writing and artistic direction.
And while you’re at it — best proceed with caution when reading Phoenix Rising. Between the explosions and intrigue, our whimsies are strong.
Part of what appeals to me (and, I imagine, outsiders of the steampunk circles) with this Science Fiction sub-genre is the passion, wit, and downright cleverness and creativity of “what could be.” From the possibilities K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock first envisioned back in the late-1980’s came a “future-that-never-was” along with a wide definition of what steampunk is all about. When Pip and I attended The 2011 Steampunk World’s Fair, we were struggling not to gawk and gape at what people defined as steampunk, but never did I hear anyone describe someone’s outfit as being a great ricepunk outfit or how their elaborate cannon and teapot was an amazing dieselpunk creation. And when I saw rayguns of Grordbortian inspiration, never did the term retropunk ever bandy about people’s lips. What we were a part of was a celebration of ingenuity and do-it-yourself technology with style. It wasn’t about the niche you fit into, but what you as an artist were defining as steampunk.
Now as steampunk begins to approach mainstream in its appeal, we as writers, costumers, and artisans of various media should stop and ask ourselves how wise it is to search for that magic genre we fit in. If we are not edgy enough are we merely writing bustlepunk? (And there goes another kitten…) If we decide to set our steampunk in Calcutta, have we ventured into currypunk? What if our steampunk traces its true origins back to the earlier era of the Restoration? Do we dare explore the possibilities of powderpunk?
How silly can this hair-splitting get?
Steampunk is more than an era, more than Victorian London, and far more than the technology of Babbage taken to a higher plane. Steampunk is a celebration of what you can accomplish when your heart and your imagination is behind it. It is adventure. It is wonder. It is, as Nathan Fillion’s Richard Castle so eloquently puts it, “…a subculture that embraces the simplicity and romance of the past but at the same time couples it with the hope and promise and sheer super coolness of futuristic design.”
And certainly not bustlepunk.
This is steampunk.
Let’s keep our sights on what we do together, not searching for our own little niches. That way, we are better artists, a stronger community, and an artistic movement that changes perspectives.