“Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.” - Jess Nevins
If you’ve ever been in (or at least near) the field of project management, you may have heard the dreaded term “scope creep”. Scope creep is the phenomenon by which a project starts spiraling out of control, getting bigger and more complicated, whether that expresses itself in the amount of work to be accomplished or in the features and functions that characterize a given product. Scope creep is generally considered a bad thing, and one of the number one priorities for a project manager to try to control and minimize. To use a fiction analogy, scope creep would be akin to a novel that keeps adding another 20 pages everytime it gets near the end, and/or keeps changing and diluting its themes and settings to the point where the end result only barely resembles the original query proposal (and thus, yes, editors are definitely a species of project manager).
It wasn’t until just recently though that an incident made me wonder if scope creep could be applied to an entire fictional genre. This is a sticky business as a concept, especially for a gent like myself who tends to look fondly on imaginative mash-ups for storytelling purposes. Scope is, in its purest sense, an imaginary constraint imposed on a creative process (even if that process is as mundane as designing a new lid for a ketchup bottle). But on the other hand, as those dang editors and producers and other aspects of “The Man” will tell you, creativity without constraint can be just as much of a pitfall. Erik recently wrote a piece regarding Orson Welles that illustrated just this point.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about the genre known as Steampunk. What was the original scope of Steampunk? Arguably, the best way to determine that is to go straight to the first quoted use of the term by author K.W. Jeter, in his 1987 letter to Locus magazine.
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it [to] Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…
Prior to this, Jeter is also considered to have written the first true Cyberpunk novel, thus why he still had “punk” on the brain. Although really, I think the most important thing to take from the above letter is that the world missed out on a fantastic genre label with the term “gonzo-historical”.
The next most important thing is Jeter’s definition of the genre he christens as Steampunk: “Victorian fantasies… based on the appropriate technology of the era…”. Now to be fair, “appropriate” in this context already meant “let’s get down with some crazy Jules Verne/H.G. Wells shit!”, but there is still a clear declaration of a cultural and historical boundary. A scope, if you will.
Since 1987, that scope has mutated, morphed, and overflowed to the point where 20 years later people are wondering if the term Steampunk still has any real meaning (such as in this blog where “retrofuturist” and other such terms are proposed as a more honest phraseology). But in more personal terms, the incident I referred to earlier that got me thinking about this came courtesy of my wife, who was relating with some annoyance a conversation she’d had. Dawn, although she occasionally incorporates some elements of gears and gaslamps into her artwork, does not consider herself a “Steampunk enthusiast”. When she admitted this to an acquaintance hoping to get her to join a Steampunk cosplay group, the puzzled response was:
“Really? But you like Serenity!”
Dawn was at a loss for words, and so was I when she related it to me. Serenity/Firefly is considered Steampunk? Seriously? How does that even begin to make sense? If this person had brought up Dawn’s love for Howl’s Moving Castle, then there’d be some room for debate, but Whedon Almighty, if there are people who honestly perceive Firefly as Steampunk now, then I’ll have to come down on the side of the term losing all sense as describing a genre. The scope creep has well and truly diluted it to the point where Steampunk might as well just be defined as “I like Steampunk, and this is cool and retro, and I like cool and retro stuff, so it must be Steampunk!”
For that matter, I don’t want to label the game Bioshock as Steampunk either, even though it seems to be the fashion to do so (NOTE: listing since corrected by some wizard of Wiki magic). Is it really enough now to have some bathyspheres and creatures inspired by old-fashioned diving suits and call that Steampunk? Jules Verne certainly proposed such things in his works, but an actual bathysphere (whose design Bioshock pretty much just copies) wasn’t built until 1929, and the “standard diving dress” homaged in the Big Daddies was used all the way to the 1960’s. Bioshock’s design and feel hearkens from that period between the World Wars (and perhaps slightly beyond), presenting a neon-lit, art deco dystopia that really says nothing about Victoriana to me. It’s a beautiful, evocative fantasy world, but there ain’t much steam to it.
Am I nitpicking? Consider the quotation at the start of this blog, from Jess Nevins. Jess Nevins is the official annotator of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, widely considered one of the works which first brought Steampunk stylings to the attention of a broad audience (annotator means this is the guy who has to track down all the obscure contemporary references Moore would throw into the dialog or imagery). He is also the award-nominated author of the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. In short, I would consider him just a little bit of an authority on the subject, but his tongue-in-cheek “definition” bespeaks a man feeling that the term Steampunk has gotten rather generic, perhaps after seeing yet another Steampunk cosplay consisting of a WWII bomber jacket with gears glued on.
There’s nothing wrong with the concept of Steampunk in its original scope. In fact, in my opinion it doesn’t even have to be Victorian England or even Victorian Earth, so long as some core of that 19th century social and technological aesthetic is showcased. You want seedy goblinoids combing cobblestoned streets in urchin gangs? Cool. Cowboys driving ironclad horseless carriages across the desert? I’ll bite. Pith helmeted gentlemen blasting away at aliens with the benefit of their multi-barreled, revolving elephant guns? Fuckin’ sweet.
The “punk” aspect of Cyberpunk or any of its derivatives (of which Steampunk is only the most well known) is not just there for show, but because any of those genres should capture a spirit of a society bleeding out on a technological fringe, a technology that has the power to both free and oppress, a height of wonderment and possibility contrasted with a depth of exploitation and despair. These are the times and places where the rebels thrive, in the scientific revolutions that reshape the world. But as Jeter (by accident or design) covers in his letter, these revolutions make their own specific genres, because today’s breakthrough is tomorrow’s mundanity (or obsolesence), and therefore there also needs to be that freeze frame of reference and context inspired by a particular setting where that technology matters. And if you don’t have the tech as a major theme, then you’ve got something entirely different. It’s not enough to just have your fiction set in an alternative 19th Century London, which is why separate terms such as “Gaslamp Romance” and “Gaslamp Fantasy” were coined.
When I think about it that way, the technology named in the first part of a given “-punk” portmanteau ceases to be a cute affectation and actually becomes a very important measure of scope, because each tech is tied to the vision of an era (even if it’s one still to come), and each of those eras has a distinct look and feel to consider. In particular, there is such a term as “dieselpunk”, and it’s dieselpunk’s era, aesthetics and tech that really scream Bioshock to me. Dieselpunk represents that neon-lit, gas and electric powered world of both hope and Great Depression that rose from the ashes of Victoriana to dominate the first half of the 20th century. Crimson Skies? The Rocketeer? Pure dieselpunk.
Move forwards to the next great revolution in technology and you get Atompunk, that strangely smiling, Commie paranoid era of both nuclear families and nuclear escalation. Bioshock, although technically set in the year 1960, is a freeze frame of the prior era, doubtlessly due to Andrew Ryan’s hatred of the way the surface world was headed. You won’t see anything of the atomic age in Rapture, but if you want to bask in the glow (heh) of atompunk, look no further than the Fallout series.
This may be the first time some of you have ever heard of these other terms, which might be why Steampunk has become such a catch-all word when referring to retrofuturistic fiction and styles. If you use them in conversation with other geeks, you might have to explain them, but I think at this point it’s worth investing in some division. I fear the alternative is letting Steampunk become akin to Judge Potter Stewart’s infamous non-definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it”. Or just something that happens when goths discover brown.
P.S. If nothing else, I want people to start describing stuff as “gonzo-historical” again. Make this happen.