Today we welcome Mike Perschon, also known as the Steampunk Scholar.
Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, husband to Jenica, father to Gunnar and Dacy, doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and English faculty at Grant MacEwan University. He runs the blog The Steampunk Scholar.
Advocating for Aesthetic
By Mike Perschon
At my most pedantic, I refuse to think of steampunk as a genre. When I’m sitting with folks having drinks at a con, I let the term slide, since it’s abused so much in North American parlance. Whenever someone refers to genre and fashion in the same sentence, I cringe. However, beyond all my academic proclivities, I champion the understanding of steampunk of an aesthetic, not a genre, for reasons related to playing nice in the online sandbox.
To understand steampunk as a genre is to invite the tyranny of subjectivity. Look at online forum discussions on steampunk literature to see what I mean: someone joins the discussion to say they’re reading Gail Carriger’s Soulless, only to be told that isn’t real steampunk, but paranormal romance in the Victorian era. Or someone bemoans Jay Lake’s use of “magic” in the last half of Mainspring. Often, the definition of steampunk literature is tied directly to someone’s personal likes and dislikes. Those who have mistakenly assumed steampunk is science fiction are nonplussed by secondary worlds and fantasy elements; those who simply want romanticism and high adventure eschew the serious-minded, perhaps heavy handed rigors of solid alternate history; one person says Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was certainly steampunk: another says absolutely not. Digging further, we find a number of arbitrary standards have been assigned to the moniker of steampunk, further clouding the difficulty of defining an already troublesome compound word.
Some make appeals to etymology, trying to explain the term via steam and punk, respectively. “Steam” implies the industrial revolution and the nineteenth century. “Punk” means oppositional politics, or avant-garde styles. Articles abound advocating for more steam, or more punk. Some say if you don’t have steam, you don’t have steampunk, eliminating over half the literature on my shelf in one fell swoop, including a number of seminal works such as Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates. I’ve offhandedly said that there are very few steampunk works that use steam power: usually, we see aether, phlogiston, cavorite, or some other fictional substance that will let the writer/artist/creator really take their flight of fancy where they wish. Few steampunk writers have chosen to be constrained by the limitations of steam technology. More often, we see the argument that if there’s no punk, if it isn’t opposing Empire, it can’t be steampunk. Out the window goes K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night, along with James Blaylock’s The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, along with any number of recent steampunk works. The argument goes that any book not engaged in postcolonial criticism of the British Empire isn’t true steampunk. I played around with etymological approaches early in my research, and abandoned them in the first few months. The term is a joke that gained cultural commodity. It’s here to stay, but it’s ultimately pretty meaningless. More power to all of you who want more steam (historical accuracy) or punk (socio-political critique), but it doesn’t need to be there for the work to be steampunk.
After reading fifty steampunk novels, seminal and contemporary alike, attending a number of steampunk conventions both at home in Canada and south of the border in the States, watching steampunk films, reading steampunk comics, and perusing countless steampunk artworks online, I concluded there are three elements present in works labeled steampunk. The first is technofantasy, which simply put, is technology that appears scientific, but is never explained using the physical sciences. Even when steam or electricity is the motive power of steampunk technology, there is rarely a Vernian attention to how this would actually work. There are only a handful of books labeled steampunk that take the time to think through how their technology would work. Most often, it just does. When there is an explanation, there is a change in the way the physical universe operates. Mark Hodder does a fantastic job of explaining this in a self-aware fashion in The Case of the Clockwork Man: “Prognostication, cheiromancy, spiritualism—these things are spoken of in the other history, but they do not work there…” to which Burton adds, “there is one thing we can be certain of: changing time cannot possible alter natural laws” (57). Nevertheless, steampunk regularly violates natural laws, but under the guise of technology, and is therefore mistaken as a form of pure science fiction, when it might be better to understand steampunk as science fantasy.
The second element is neo-Victorianism, which I use to indicate steampunk’s evocation, but not accurate re-creation of the nineteenth century. Only the most exclusive aficionado of steampunk would demand steampunk occur in nineteenth century Victorian London. Instead, steampunk is the suggestion of this period, but not necessarily place or even time. Steampunk can occur in any time, and any locale (in this world or a secondary one, such as in Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air and its sequels), but it repeatedly suggests the nineteenth century and early twentieth century to us in one way or another. Another way of saying this would be Industrial Era, but I think that places too much focus on technology, whereas neo-Victorian can be inclusive of the fashion, customs, architecture, and technology of this period.
The third element is retrofuturism, which is to imagine how the past saw the future. This is closely aligned to neo-Victorianism, but takes on its own unique form, sometimes independent of the neo-Victorianism. While retrofuturism is often mistakenly understood as actual prognostication from the nineteenth century, as in the works of Jules Verne, a study of what nineteenth century people hoped for in their own speculative fiction produces the conclusion it was anything but what we’re seeing in steampunk. Speculative writers of the nineteenth century looked ahead to the end of steam, the rise of electricity, and perhaps more salient to the steampunk aesthetic, the loss of the corset in women’s fashion. Retrofuturism can be understood as how we imagine what the past hoped for in their future. It’s what we often refer to as the anachronism in steampunk, though this is often a misnomer in steampunk literature: after all, what is anachronistic about a secondary world’s inclusion of these advanced technologies in a quasi-Victorian society? That isn’t our world, so there’s nothing inherently anachronistic about such technology, save by the comparison to our world. Even most steampunk that takes place in “our” world lacks anachronism: the use of steampunk elements in Jay Lake’s Mainspring Earth isn’t anachronism: it belongs there. That’s why Mark Hodder’s novels are so brilliant – the characters understand their world is wrong. Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. That’s anachronism. But the airship Leviathan in Scott Westerfeld’s young adult series isn’t so much anachronism as part of the alternate world he’s created. Recently, I’ve been far more interested in how steampunk plays with retrofuturism in the socio-political sense, as in the novels of Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger, where we see the “New Woman” mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula fully realized in the characters of Maria Isabella Boyd and Alexia Tarabotti. Again, I’m looking to balance the conflation of steampunk with technology. Obviously, it needs to be there, but it doesn’t need to be the focus of the narrative.
This last year has really shown the advantage of taking such an approach. I don’t have to label a book entirely steampunk or not. Rather, I can discuss how much of each aspect it uses, and what it does with those aspects. I don’t have to get into a fight about whether Firefly is steampunk. I just ask how much of the aesthetic it utilizes, and in what way it does so. If all three are present, it’s clearly the steampunk aesthetic. If we’re missing one entirely, we may not be dealing with steampunk per se: perhaps it really is just neo-Victorian fantasy, as in the case of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Or maybe it’s just retrofuturist technofantasy, as in Alex Proyas’ Dark City (pulp era, not neo-Victorian). Is Harry Potter steampunk? No, but aspects of the steampunk aesthetic were employed by the design folks involved in the post-Chris Columbus films.
Further, the aesthetic approach can be applied to literature, film, music, fashion, and art. It enables a way of discussing steampunk without being elitist-exclusive or needlessly inclusive. This bothers some: they don’t want their steampunk to be an empty aesthetic. From my perspective, the steampunk glass isn’t half-full or half-empty: it’s empty, awaiting the artist to fill it with something. Want your steampunk to have more punk? Fill the aesthetic with your activism. Want your steampunk to have more steam? Make your aesthetic accurate. Just looking for a good time? Then add some absinthe to your aesthetic, and let loose the airships of war, or exploration, and head for the horizon. Genres are for publishers. Aesthetics are for artists.