Today we welcome Andrew Mayer, author of The Society of Steam series. One lucky commenter will win The Falling Machine (The Society of Steam Book One) AND Hearts of Smoke and Steam (The Society of Steam Book Two). I know there’s been a slew of North America only contests. Our gadget contest is open internationally, and I’ll put up a special open internationally contest this weekend with some steampunk goodies I picked up at RT. Now, back to our guest.
Andrew Mayer was born on the tiny island of Manhattan, and is still fascinated by their strange customs and simple ways. When he’s not writing new stories he works as a videogame designer and digital entertainment consultant. Over the years he has has created numerous concepts, characters, and worlds including the original Dogz and Catz digital pets. These days he resides in Oakland, CA where he spends too much time on the internet, and not enough time playing his ukulele.
by Andrew Mayer
I walked into a clothing store on Haight street in San Francisco this weekend. Sitting in the jewelry trays, below with all the pseudo-psychedelic trinkets, and to the left of the feathered jewelry that seems to have infested San Francisco like an avian flu over the winter, were a number of steampunk pins. They were mostly exposed wristwatch innards with a pin glued to the back—sitting there like clockwork butterflies, although not quite as colorful
After taking a long look at the items in the glass case I asked the women behind the counter the same question I ask almost everyone when I see steampunk themed items, “Do they work?”
After a bit of hemming and hawing her final answer was that no. That’s not unusual but it does make me sad—not just for the thousands of watches that have died so that we may have gear-encrusted jewelry and bowler hats, but for steampunk itself.
I know that may seem a bit hyperbolic, but I’m beginning to worry that even though steampunk itself has begun to penetrated mainstream culture, we’re missing the mechanized forest for the iron trees, and it may end up being nothing more than a broken fashion statement.
To me that Steampunk has reached a crossroads of sorts in the last year, with the true fork in the road being the Justin Bieber video Christmas video that featured a breakdancing Santa, and the Beebs wearing a mechanized arm. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the appropriation of the trappings of steampunk by mainstream culture, and I’ve said so publicly.
At the same time there’s a danger of the zeitgeist passing by without really ever really giving steampunk its chance to shine. And like everything about this quirky, unique genre it isn’t easy to pin down where either of the many paths forward might lead.
One thing that’s become clear to me as I work on finishing up the final book in my own trilogy is that my own feelings about what Steampunk is, and the impact it has had undergone a transformation in the four years since I started writing them.
If I have any unique perspective to bring to Steampunk I think it comes from the fact that I decided to mix it with superheroes, another genre that’s had a long and winding road on its current path to mainstream success. As I’ve been pulling elements from the two genres to create my own (hopefully) unique blend, it’s also given me a chance to compare and contrast their impact on popular culture.
Superheroes are currently enjoying a strong resurgence. Not in comics, which have been on a fairly steady downward sales trend over the last decade, but in movies and television. And the genre has been here before: in the 80s, and the 60s there were plenty of superhero movies, although they were played more for camp. Even as far back as the 1940s, Batman and Superman both had serials that played in front of movies in theaters across the United States. And back then 1940s the comics regularly sold copies in the millions, and probably had as much of a hold in popular culture as the current round of films have in ours today, if not more.
Steampunk has been around since the 80s, but it seems to have never quite caught on in the same way. Despite making cameos in television, inspiring numerous video games, and clearly being the inspiration for the new Sherlock Holmes films it seems that we’ve yet to have a true culture-busting moment of impact. Yes, a number of movies have been optioned by Hollywood, but so far none of them have reached the all-important first day of filming—usually the true point that you can tell a film is actually going to come out.
So what is it that Superheroes have the Steampunk doesn’t? They’re both visually appealing, both are highly metaphorical, and both often deal with popular themes of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong.
The first issue is that Steampunk exists in the mind of many as more of a pastiche than as an actual fully defined genre. It is, at moments, greater than the sum of its parts, but it is definitely made up of parts, with gears and corsets often being the main ones.
Secondly, I think the metaphors that Steampunk deals with best are primarily political in nature. That can present a problem because attempts to push the politics of the genre tend to run into two main issues: first is the fact that there is a strong “politically incorrect” undercurrent to the proceedings.
One of the features that makes Steampunk so enticing is that it was built on a worldview that was only possible due to massive British imperialism. While it’s fun to puncture the hot air dirigibles of political stuffed shirts, the need to keep it from going down like a lead balloon often end up either glossing over of that facts of history, or recoiling away from the more unpleasant details by moving it into a an “alternate world” setting that takes it out of any historical context at all.
Personally I think that’s a mistake as the greatest metaphorical impact of steampunk comes from the fact that the ability of mankind to inflict global suffering maintained by a rigid philosophy was what makes the Victorian era resonate so strongly. The 1800s were basically the birthplace of modern Western culture, especially technology and politics. It was, for all the ugliness it contained, the cradle for the global world that we live in today.
I can’t say that embracing the messy, uneasy parts of the genre more closely would fixe the problem, but it might add some edge to a genre that can be very hard to define. No, it’s not the easy power fantasy that superheroes enjoy, but embracing it might help us to find the elements of the genre that could resonate with a larger audience.
Steampunk also seems to defy a way to easily define the characteristics of its protagonists. Is it the spunky heroine or the spectacled engineer that is truly the archetypal hero of the genre? How about the bumbling gentry, or the intrepid scientist? Yes, superheroes come from all walks of life, but you can always expect them to overcome overwhelming odds whether they’re a playboy billionaire, or a geeky teenager.
So what’s next for this plucky little genre with a 20 year history? I do think that steampunk is going to continue to grow, but perhaps not with the same abandon that it did over the last decade. Barring a major successful movie or television series, I think it’s already lost the opportunity to make a major cultural impact on aesthetic or cultural grounds for the next few years. That saddens me not only because I love to write these stories, but because I think that there’s a case to be made that, given the right mix of ingredients it could have done a great deal.
But with the rise of post-cyberpunk digital culture, and a series of genuine political movements around the globe, we may be entering into an era where the Victorian metaphors aren’t quite as apt as they used to be.
That said, I do think the literary growth of the genre has been astounding, and does seem to be chugging along. So who knows? Maybe we’ll get that movie after all. And meanwhile this little genre that could is going to be worth watching for a while longer.
– Andrew Mayer
One lucky commenter will recieve The Falling Machine (The Society of Steam Book One) AND Hearts of Smoke and Steam (The Society of Steam Book Two). North America only please. Contest ends at 11:59 PM PST, April 24, 2012.