Goggles + corset = Steampunk?

So I was going to do a few more blog entries on the query process and getting an agent and whatnot, to try and juice that particular feat for all the wordage I could, but a friend of mine who shall remain nameless sent me a link today – this link, specifically.

After “PHWOAAAAR”ing and drooling like one of Pavlov’s fkn dogs, and perusing the galleries of the terribly talented designer in question (purely to admire the garments you understand) my higher brain finally kicked into gear (took around ten minutes) and I actually got to thinking. The question I finally arrived at is: “What makes this steampunk?” She’s got the goggles, she’s got the corset… is that all it takes?

But instead of adopting a combative stance, as many other folks seem to be doing in regards to SP atm, I figured I’d just lay out what Steampunk means to me. Because let’s face it, when you’re talking a topic that’s, you know, completely made up, it’s hard to be wrong per se. So awaaaaaay we go:

1. “Steam” = aesthetic: Yes, there is an undeniable aesthetic quality to SP. When most people think of SP, they drift very quickly into realms of the visual – clockwork, pig iron, rivets, leather straps with shiny buckles. Guys with big boots and waistcoats and girls in corsets with artfully arranged smears of grease on their pale, perfect… cheeks and goggles, goggles, omfg, why are there so many goggles.

Steam = marvellous, mechanized technology (not all of it steam-powered necessarily) used in a historical setting. The actual plausibility or mechanics of the tech isn’t really the important thing – whether the airships are powered by “phlogiston” or the cowboys are running around with “tesla guns”, or if you’re just using coal and diesel to power your mechanical oddities, the important aspect is: technology that would be considered futuristic for the time period is available (either commonly, or to an elite few) with far-reaching consequences for the setting – the most obvious being that women feel the inexplicable urge to run around in not much more than a leather miniskirt, corset and a trusty pair of strategically placed goggles. Hoorah for science.

It’s impossible to divorce SP from this aesthetic – while it shouldn’t be the only characteristic of the genre, it’s certainly the facet that most differentiates SP from other sci-fi and has the geek boys high-fiving all the way to the cosplay conventions.

2. “Punk” = ideology: So what is punk? There are no common politics amongst punks (left-wing to neo-nazi to apolitical). There is no common aesthetic (skinhead, mohawk, longhair, trashbag, lolis, gothics, what?) – there are even books that would argue that any conformity of aesthetic is completely missing the point of what punk was supposed to be about. Punks are quick to slap the “poser” label on folks who conform to the visuals and not the values, but trying to define the values of any given punk “scene” can be impossible. And of course, there are folks who would say that punk is nothing but an aesthetic, that modern punks are so far removed from their progenitors in ideology that all that remains is the silly haircut/safety-pin stylings.

I’m not a punk, never have been. But one thing I can say about every single punk that I’ve ever known is this: they were pissed off about something. Pissed off about the government. Black people. Racism. Gays. Homophobia. Hippies. The environment. Animal rights. The fact that it’s impossible to get a good steak in this town. Whatever. Every single one of them was angry, and wanted the world to know about it.

So, to me, punk = rage. At the government, the police, the machine. Whatever you want to call it. That’s what punk comes down to, imo. And rage usually leads to rebellion – a desire to change that which fertilizes our discontent. The need to break shit. Even if you have no idea what you’ll build after the current structure comes tumbling down.

Without a sense of that violent struggle, that discontent at the way things are and the desire to change it (even if the odds against actually eliciting change are so remote as to be impossible), there is no Punk. And you can’t spell Steampunk without the word Punk. If your book/comic/film has loads of corsets and goggles and steam-powered robots but no sense of that anger or rebellion, you might have missed the point (though the cosplayers will still love you).

3. Steampunk can be set anywhere, but not anywhen:  I think it’s safe to say the lack of a historical setting is a bit of a deal breaker for SP. It’s hard to draw many distinctions between Steampunk set in a futuristic setting and most plain old sci-fi. But as far as setting it in Victorian England, or even Victorian times? I’m not so sure.

There are plenty of SP works out there set outside the UK (Cherie Priest’s “Clockwork Century” books are probably the best known currently). Work like “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (the comic, not the film) kinda set the scene for the modern SP trend (although in truth, SP has been around a lot longer), but I think it’s totally counterproductive to limit the setting to the UK, or even the time period between Great Exhibition and Victoria’s death (Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan is set during WW1, long after Queen Victoria was dead, and ain’t nobody claiming it’s anything other than Steampunk).

Purists will argue differently of course, but as mentioned above, creating “rules” for a setting/genre/whatever that’s completely fictional and constantly evolving is puuuuure cracky-talk. Breaking those original conventions is what’s going to make this genre interesting, rather than seeing it stagnate the way Urban Fantasy seems to be (sassy girl + supernatural bad-dude + contemporary urban setting = profit)

So it would seem aesthetic + attitude + historical setting = steampunk, at least in my head. Anything else is at best, a distraction, and at worst, the product of peeps with too much time on their hands arguing about silly shit on the interwebz.

I’m no expert, but when you’re talking about stuff that’s totally made up, who the fuck is?

.godrednu eht ma I

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About Misterkristoff

New York Times and Internationally Bestselling SciFi/Fantasy author, and master of drunken karaoke-fu. View all posts by Misterkristoff

6 responses to “Goggles + corset = Steampunk?

  • Drew

    I enjoy your logic here. For me it’s an alternate history concept that is appealing. I’m sure you’re aware of the term punk being a catch all term for a movement. I found myself mostly fascinated with teslapunk – that is the movement of fiction based on the ideas, designs, concepts of Nikola Tesla. If he was not discredited by his peers and retained his patronage from JP Morgan, what would have happened if free electricity were available…

    • misterkristoff

      I’ve not come across the word “punk” used to describe many movements, tbh. Didn’t know it was a phenominon. There’s cyberpunk, of course. Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Biopunk (which is pushing it imo) but that’s about all I can recall. I wasn’t aware the word had evolved into a catch-all and lost sense of its roots?

      Yeah, Tesla is a very interesting figure – he’s used an incredible amount in works of fiction these days for that very reason, I suspect. Wikipedia has an entire page covering his appearances in pop culture. Still, what to expect from the fellow who supposedly invented the “Death Ray”. 🙂

  • Hillary

    I enjoyed your assessment, and that link.

    I’ve been standing back watching the genre expand, and trying to understand what’s so interesting about it. I like your take on “punk”, on the ideology and the fire inside of it. Setting a story in a well-dressed, be-goggled Victorian era for the sake of describing the fashion and gadgets doesn’t do much for me. Someone pushing against the establishment (or a part of it), or examining the potentially destructive power of the new technology in that same era could be fascinating.

  • misterkristoff

    Well, glad to hear you say that – it’s pretty much the central theme of my book. 🙂

    Technology propelling the setting far beyond its traditional boundaries, but the pollution from the tech destroying the setting at the same time. And of course, a small group of people rebelling against the authorities who create the tech.

    TBH, I’m not sure why Steampunk is so popular now, why it seems to have captured the nerd imagination the way it has. Is it harkening back to the glory of the “good-old days” with no consideration of the general shittiness of life in Victorian times (slavery, child labor, unchecked imperialism and so on)? Is it the cosplay? Is it the undeniable aspect of “cool’ that airships/clockwork robots/automata have? Is it that the idea of it hasn’t really been explored or popular before, and we’re desperate for anything “fresh”?

    Nooooo idea 😛

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  • Victorian = Steampunk? « Visceral Writings

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