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March 19th, 2010

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12:40 am - Steampunk Musings
My first exposure to steampunk was in 1988, with the RPG Space: 1889, which is in itself fairly unusual, because most often RPGs are several years behind fiction. It was a fun and silly game that I played a bit and largely forgot about, large part because I generally don't find retro-SF to be all that interesting. Next, in 1990 I encountered the novel The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. I heard a bit of buzz about the book, picked it up, and never got past chapter two – I found the premise completely uninteresting – realistic alternate history recasting the Victorian Era as a steampunk era bores me. At that point, I didn't think about steampunk for the next 17 years. Then, a couple of years ago, I started encountering information about steampunk culture, like this surprisingly well done New York Times article.

Then, I saw several steampunk RPGs come out, including the intriguing-looking The Kerberos Club, as well as other RPGs like the recent Eberron D&D setting , which isn't steampunk, but has some features in common. It took me a while to understand what about steampunk interests and doesn't interest me. The short form is that I find that it makes boring SF, but can make excellent fantasy.

I'm complete uninterested in the Victorian era as a realm for hard SF – I don't find it intrinsically very interesting, and unless you're headed into fantasy territory fairly deeply, I find steampunk technology to be either dull or ludicrous. However, when you include magic and various other sorts of weirdness, then I find the setting gets vastly more interesting – not because I enjoy most settings better with magic, I often don't, but because if you give up on steampunk as either hardish SF (like the Difference Engine) or retro-SF (like Space 1889), and instead make a steampunk fantasy setting, suddenly I become interested because the setting seems a whole lot more free, and w/o that freedom I find the Victorian era to be a somewhat constrained and stifling setting.

I'd vastly rather play in or read about a modern supernatural game or a future space opera or transhumanist SF game than any sort of steampunk SF. Similarly, my tastes in reading about the historical past go considerably further back, to the Hellenistic era and the Roman Empire, Dynastic Egypt, Pre-Ming China, and various other eras and times that are far more different from our own than the (to me at least) rather mundane and tawdry Victorian era.

However, when I consider steampunk as fantasy, then I'm not contrasting it with the various wonderful (to me) space opera and transhumanist SF settings that I love, but with many pastoralist pre-industrial fantasy settings. Looked at in that light, steampunk is urban industrial fantasy, and I find that to be very interesting indeed. As a species, most of us now live in cities, and that percentage is increasing rapidly – current predictions are that 80% of all humans will live in cities in 2050. For us, rural areas are becoming alien places that (at least to me and too many other people) resonate with our imaginations far less than the streets and tall buildings, parks, and plazas of cities. So, it's about time that we had fantasy that was urban and industrial. Steampunk isn't the only option – Steven Brust's Dragaeran Empire novels feature a non-industrial fantasy world that none-the-less has a heavily urban feel, but steampunk is one option for this sort of fantasy. As a result of these thoughts, I (at last) now see much of the appeal of steampunk, but definitely prefer it with magic, interesting non-humans and all of the other trappings of fantasy that I find enjoyable [[1]].

I also somewhat prefer steampunk setting that take place on other worlds rather than as a recasting (even with magic and non-humans) of our Victorian era, in part because of my taste of both interesting worldbuilding and unfamiliar settings, but also because it's easier to avoid being exceptionally offensive. Much of my work in Cultural Anthropology when I was getting my MA involved studying Victorian era Colonialism (primarily in East & Southeast Asia), and so my vision of the Victorian era is one of colonial oppression that even outstrips our own corporate colonial excesses, and steampunk easily risks glossing over, or worse yet, glorifying these aspects of that era.

In fact, I recently ran across a rather large amount of thoughtless nastiness in this steampunk zine focusing on "reclaiming" orientalism, which includes quotes like the following:
Critics of Orientalism have done much to cast shame upon our often patronizing and bizarre representations of Eastern life and tradition, but fortunately for those incorrigible aficionados of Oriental romance, steampunk allows us to reject the chains of reality and all the racism and guilt associated with it, to explore anew this imagined world of sultans and saberrattling Islamic conquerors; harems and white slavery; samurai, dragons and dark, bustling bazaars frequented by the strangest sort of folk.
Which would be fine if all people of color and non-white cultures were mythic creations of fiction, but is vastly less acceptable in own wonderfully diverse world. So, while it's possible to do steampunk based loosely on our own history well, I've seen rather too much glorified colonialism as well as too many settings where the Confederate slavers' rebellion succeeded and where slavery continues in the US, and both of these make me somewhat uncomfortable.

In any case, I see steampunk and other similar pre-modern urban fantasy settings as being exceedingly rich settings for both fiction and gaming, but any of them that have obvious connections to our world need to be written in a way that is sensitive to the fact that playing with real history and the relatively recent oppression of various groups of people should not be done carelessly or without at least minimally careful thought.

[[1]], speaking of steampunk fantasy novels, can anyone recommend any? I've seen more RPG than novels, my only major criteria is no zombies (zombies annoy me)
Current Mood: geekygeeky

(7 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
Narrowly replying to the RPG stuff, then, I'm curious as to your opinion of Adventure! (around here we use a hand gesture for the obligatory !) ?
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
I'm not fond of the dramatic editing, but as for the setting, I quite like it. The 20s is pretty much the earliest era that I tend to be interested in for actual SF - not that Adventure really counts as SF - it's more supers fantasy. I love the setting and general background. In addition to the 20s being the era of the first stirrings of modern ideas about prejudice and people, pulp supers are very cool indeed, and tech with tubes and weird rays works for me better than steam tech (perhaps a legacy of reading E.E. Smith's Skylark series as a young teen). I suppose that's part of it - I've read some SF written in the Victorian era, and I mostly just find it interesting as an exotic historical curiosity - I've read and honestly enjoyed some 20s SF.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
Agreed on all three counts. These days "punk" with a noun before it seems to indicate historical fantasy, "nifty clothes found here", and not much else.
[User Picture]
Date:March 20th, 2010 09:17 am (UTC)
If you're not fightin' the Man, or at the very least acknowledging that the Man is a problem, it's not -punk.

I just recently read someone - unfortunately I forget who - arguing that pretty much the only thing cyberpunk, steampunk, cthulhupunk etc. have in common is that the setting emphasizes the word coming before the 'punk'.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
For steampunk fantasy, I find China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council) to be excellent and highly imaginative.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2010 08:52 pm (UTC)
Iron Kingdoms was an excellent fantasy steampunk RPG. I'm not sure what's going on over at Privateer Press, but most of their Iron Kingdom books appear to be out of print. I wish I had the money to finish out my collection of books for the setting.

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