Of Steampunk Reloaded, Backlash, and Vaporpunk Translations

Jeff VanderMeer • October 28th, 2010 @ 8:00 pm • Culture

Vaporpunk [capa fechada]

UPDATE: Great post on Tor.com by Amal El-Mohtar, that I love for its comparison of Steampunk and heroic fantasy along with the idea of breaking Steampunk up into tiny bits to see how it ticks. And then NPR weighs in on the Stross, although their post title kind of misses the point.

Bear with me–there’s a lot to talk about, and it’s a bit rambly…

Charlie Stross has a really thought-provoking and often spot-on blog entry that’s basically about feeling supersaturated by Steampunk. He’s sick of it, and especially of escapist versions of it. (There’s also a totally separate but related discussion to be had here regarding “commercial” versus “literary” fantasy/SF, to the extent such terms can be defined, and escapism versus realism. What’s acceptable? When do we find it fun and when do we find it icky? Is it consistent? Since there’s a lot of escapism readers seem to have no problem with whatsoever.)

Anyway, I can sympathize, since Ann and I spent a fair amount of our time earlier this year reading for Steampunk Reloaded to bring readers the best of the last decade…and I’m burned out on Steampunk. That’s one of the hazards of being an editor, exacerbated by the work S.J. Chambers and I did on the Steampunk Bible recently. I am really proud of both books, but I can’t look at another word of Steampunk right now.

That said, I think Stross’s post, as one of the waves of periodic backlash against Steampunk, while serving as a good reminder and general corrective, fails to take into account that there is a decent amount of socially and politically aware Steampunk out there, even satirical Steampunk (much of it at the short length captured in our antho). Indeed, my own “A Secret History of Steampunk,” original to Steampunk Reloaded and featuring additional contributions from Fabio Fernandes, Rikki Ducornet, Matt Cheney, Felix Gilman, Lisa Hannett, Angela Slatter, and others, attempts to recontextualize the Edisonade without ignoring its racism—perhaps what Jess Nevins refers to as “cooking”—while exemplifying the tinker/maker impulse in parts of the Steampunk community that harkens back to Ruskin and the crafts movement, among other artistic impulses.

Stross also seems annoyed at the massive amount of Steampunk coverage on io9.com and Tor.com. I can definitely see his point, but, again, given the timing, this seems a little unfair. Take, for example, Tor.com’s ongoing Steampunk Fortnight. There’s been some really serious commentary mixed in with the lighter stuff. Not just Nisi Shawl’s post (referenced below), but Jaymee Goh on Steampunk and commodification, and G.D. Falksen’s run-down of Steampunk and History with an interesting primer on issues like women’s rights and the plight of the working class in the context of the Victorian era. And, perhaps my favorite post, a wonderful personal essay by Ay-leen the Peacemaker on The Ao Dai and I (don’t miss it!).

I find myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with Stross’s post in large part because of the timing. For the past year Beyond Victoriana and Silver Goggles, SteamPunk Magazine and Steampunk Workshop (for a lot longer), and other sites have been posting a lot of material on the bleeding edges of Steampunk, re-examining Steampunk through perspectives that are anything but escapist—and in some cases reclaiming the “punk” part of the name. (Yep, I’m leaving out sites and foci, but feel free to add your own.)

In terms of international approaches, the Brazilian Steampunk community has been quite active, sparking publication of two anthologies, one of them pictured above. French Steampunk is suddenly ascendent (lumping individual European countries in with the UK is a big mistake, since their traditions in literature and the arts all differ, often significantly), and other communities also seem to be on the rise. Not to mention, on Tor.com, Nisi Shawl recently talked about her own, unique approach to Steampunk and about new approaches to Steampunk generally here, and Yakoub Islam is working on a Steampunk novel titled The Muslim Age of Steam–check out this fascinating post connected to that effort.

All of this new energy, combined with the trend in the past few years for more and more women authors to write Steampunk—the literature better reflecting what seems to be a rough gender parity in the related subculture—makes it seem like this is the best time to be entering into a dialogue with Steampunk as a reader or writer, despite my jaded statement above. You could even say that to some extent the forthcoming anthology Steam-Powered , focused on lesbian characters and featuring great new writers like Shweta Narayan, N.K. Jemisin, Amal El-Mohtar, and Matt Kressell, is just one early natural result of such energy and discussion. I expect there will be others.

In fact, despite the barrage of near-constant Steampunk posts and references, this is one of those times in the history of a subgenre where it simultaneously creates echoes or copies of copies of itself while also entering into new and interesting spaces. In part this is because Steampunk now offers an important entry point for writers interested in innovation precisely because it has become commercial–potentially, you can use “Steampunk” for seriously weird, beautiful, unique, non-trad material because it’s an acceptable delivery system that publishers have begun to be able to market effectively. (“New Weird” had a similar if much more limited effect in the early aughts, in part because it was too single-platform in terms of media and in part because it didn’t make a good mimic.)

I should note, perhaps ironically, that I don’t write Steampunk (despite one story I call “anti-steampunk,” “Fixing Hanover”) but have been so deeply involved in documenting it that I find this crossroads fascinating; I do realize and respect that I may have a slightly different perspective than those more personally involved with it.

Anyway, perhaps the most important reason for this post is to announce that—as part of the idea of using the aircraft carrier that is Steampunk Reloaded to escort and give visibility to other ships, er, texts—we’ll be offering not only Jacques Barcia’s “A Life Made Possible Behind The Barricades” (check out his story in a recent Clarkesworld) as a mid-November online supplement to the anthology but also translations of the beginnings of all of the stories in the recent Vaporpunk antho (a combo of Brazilian and Portuguese authors). These latter translations are courtesy of Fabio Fernandes and Larry Nolen, and meant to give English-speaking readers a taste of what Brazilian Steampunks are up to. (And, hopefully, lead to full-on translations of some stories later on.) Many, many thanks to Larry and Fabio for that. Barcia’s story will later appear in the second Apex Book of World SF, btw.

IMG_9543
(The antho has reached bookstores faster than expected, but contributors never fear: we are in the process of sending out your copies.)

20 Responses to “Of Steampunk Reloaded, Backlash, and Vaporpunk Translations”

  1. Romeu Martins says:

    Yeah! Great news!

  2. Amal El-Mohtar says:

    This is a fabulous post! I haven’t read Stross’ yet, but have heard about it from a few people — I’ve been trying to keep from reading anything analysing Steampunk in the last several weeks because I had to write a Tor.com post myself (which I’m told goes up today, meep), and knew that if I started reading I wouldn’t be able to write what I had to say, given that so many people (like Ay-Leen! Gah! What is the POINT in anyone writing anything about multiculturalism in steampunk when she’s doing it all so well?) are writing really insightful and articulate stuff. I wonder if we’re at the meta-point where we have to start writing posts justifying the writing of posts about Steampunk? I actually ask this non-facetiously — I love watching a critical apparatus build around a literary phenomenon, and I’m definitely enjoying watching this discussion unfold in all its complexities.

  3. The Saddling Saint says:

    I feel like the main problem is Sturgeon’s Law – 90% of everything is crud – and Steampunk is just the easiest target right now given it’s huge popularity. Sure, there’s a bunch of crap out there, but you’re gonna find that in every genre. You just gotta keep an eye out for that 10%.

  4. Allegra says:

    Thanks for the post. Hadn’t read that article, but it’s damned interesting.

    Good news on Steampunk Reloaded. I got my copy in the post a little while ago (thanks very much) and it is well on the cards for review in the next SPM :)

  5. jeff vandermeer says:

    Oh, good, Allegra! It’s a finished copy or an ARC?

    Amal–hell yeah, re your article. Just read it. Wish Steampunk Bible hadn’t gone to press or we’d’ve quoted from it. I don’t know if the final copy edit included the phrase but I think in our future section it says something like “released from the tyranny of the 1800s…”

    JeffV

  6. Jha says:

    Posts like Stross’ make me sad, but I completely understand where he’s coming from: it’s one of the reasons why I steampunk the way I do, after all. Still, it’s a bit demoralizing to see such blanket statements coming from such high-profile folks, because it really eclipses the work people have been doing. Also, not everything beyond Empire has that clear steampunk connection (my short “Between Islands” doesn’t really have that in-your-face steampunk element until towards the end).

    Stuff like that is what makes me appreciative of posts like this one!

    I’m so excited for Steampunk Reloaded! And sad it is not here yet.

  7. Selena says:

    Spot on!

  8. Jake von Slatt says:

    Would Patrick O’Brian criticize Diana Gabaldon for resorting to time travel to put her protagonist in the 18th century?

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Jha: Yeah, I mean, as you know Selena and I have been interviewing people from all parts of the Steampunk subculture, and it is soooo not possible to pin it down as just one thing, which means generalizations about it are also impossible. What I also love is that while I think there have been some dust-ups and conflicts between various parts of the community, my overall sense is that each part of the community has, in general, been receptive to and willing to listen to, other parts. It’s just impossible for me to think of “Steampunk” as being “just fiction” at this point, either, of course, and I think it’ll be fascinating to see how the different parts of the community influence one another over the next decade.

    I am soooo sorry we haven’t gotten the Reloadeds out to contributors yet! We’re working on that this weekend.

    JeffV

  10. Telly says:

    The best blog I have found for steampunk outside england is this one.
    http://thesteamerstrunk.blogspot.com/
    The same site you are linking to just did a whole thing on this wonderful blog.
    http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/10/steamers-trunk#comments
    I found this blog when i09 posted about it a few weeks ago. The girl who runs it was on the big steampunk 101 panel they had at NYCC.
    This blog is great! It helped me make a Fez and I found out about great free online books.
    I also like the fact that it does not try to make me feel guilty for enjoying fiction.

  11. Jonathan Wood says:

    Interesting to see you mention the New Weird. I’ve always been surprised that Mieville’s New Crobozun stuff hasn’t been claimed by Steampunk given his ReMade and his clockwork AIs.

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh, it has, but I refuse to acknowledge that fact.

  13. Jess Nevins says:

    There’s only one thing to do when the old folks shake their canes at you and tell you to turn down that racket, it’s not real music.

    Crank up the volume.

  14. Joshua Curtis Kidd » Blog Archive » Steampunk and Colonialism says:

    [...] Jeff VanderMeer responds to Stross’s post and points out what he sees as the socially and politically aware Steampunk that is out there. [...]

  15. Defending Steampunk « The Undiscovered Author says:

    [...] what all the fuss is about… (Another author, Jeff VanderMeer, responds to Stross’ post here.) But he does make some good points, and they coincide largely with points that I made in my [...]

  16. Lane says:

    I understand the backlash and all, but it really seems a bit unfair to me, since, as stated above, 90% of everything is crap. We can all agree that most feaux-medieval fantasy sucks for pretty much the same reasons that Stross mentions in his post, can’t we? Which is what gets me excited and hopeful about the rise of steampunk popularity. As far as I can tell, steampunk is basically just fantasy that picks a different historical period to emulate than the standard medieval one. So if steampunk outlasts fad-stage in the public eye, maybe more people will realize that there are more potential time periods than medieval for secondary world fantasy (and maybe even more culture-models than European).
    Also, to a lesser extent, sometimes steampunk just seems to be more mainstream-friendly New Weird. Which can be annoying, since, at least arguably in some cases, steampunk settings seem derivative reimaginings of New Crobuzun much like many D&D inspired settings are reimaginings of Middle Earth. Though I guess that shouldn’t bother me too much, since really why shouldn’t the fantasy field just as likely be dominated by Mieville-clones as by Tolkien-clones? In some ways, steampunk feels like an alternate reality like in Alan Moore’s Watchmen or ABC comics, where a particular medium is dominated by romances or pirate stories instead of superheroes.

  17. Steampunk News » Arguments, occasions, and more says:

    [...] in frequency and volume. The latest kerfuffle stems from Charlie Stross's entry on the genre. Jeff Vandermeer has weighed in, as has Dr. Fabre of the Steampunk Tribune. The arguments are not new to anyone who has [...]

  18. Steampunk News » MRP Adventures: And the question is… says:

    [...] and Ay-Leen (and seeing them being cited in relevant places), and reading further commentary from Jeff Vandermeer (who, bless him, has been working really hard to showcase what I think really is the best of [...]

  19. Steampunk News » Signal Boosts: Vaporpunk and Mentions of Silver Goggles Elsewhere says:

    [...] input with regards to multicultural steampunk. He’s also mentioned my work in response to the Stross-hates-steampunk debacle, and recently again when talking about steampunk literature at Omnivoracious. In more exciting [...]

  20. Glory Gapp says:

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is excellent blog. An excellent read. I’ll definitely be back. que es la gastritis

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