The politics of the unreal…
Josh Jasper, at Publisher Weekly‘s Genreville blog, drew our attention to a politically-edged fight brewing in the science-fiction and fantasy world. Jasper linked to this essay by Charlie Stross criticizing the “Steampunk” genre for its over-exposure, flimsy science, and bad politics. Stross is admittedly following in the footsteps of China Mieville who, in this 2002 article in The Socialist Review, denounced J.R.R. Tolkein‘s The Lord of the Rings for its racist and conservative politics:
Elves are natural aristos, hobbits are the salt of the earth, and–in a fairyland version of genetic determinism–orcs are shits by birth. This is a conservative hymn to order and reason–to the status quo.
In a similar vein, Stross argues that Steampunk acts as a nostalgic glorification of Victorian oppression and a “romanticization of totalitarianism”:
We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn’t want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats… It’s the world that bequeathed us the adjective “Dickensian”, that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto.
One of the authors Stross singles out, Cherie Priest, responds sarcastically in a post titled A Zombie’s Lament. In search of a more thoughtful take on the issue, I turned to our author Jean-Christophe Valtat whose novel Aurorarama marks Melville House‘s first foray into Steampunk (or science-fiction and fantasy, for that matter). I had never considered the political aspects of the genre before and I asked Valtat if he had any thoughts on the matter. He responded with an essay which makes a spirited defense of the genre’s political and cultural significance. Here are a few highlights:
In many respects–the ongoing onslaught of welfare policies through the western world, the renewed drive towards the cheapening of the labour force in favour of shareholders, the subsequent widening gap between social classes–the 19th century might be our future as well as our past…
As the great steampunk thinker Walter Benjamin explained, the 19th century was a fantasy about itself, a daydream about a utopia that never was. In this sense the 19h century was as steampunk as “steampunk” is: always imagining itself different from its grim reality, and always trying to give a sense of purpose to the sufferings it bred…
It is moreover my theory that all writers belong, more or less consciously, to the 19th century, that time when literature was taken (too?) seriously and regarded as able to educate, elevate, delight and even change life. Perhaps that is what we are missing, too. After all steampunk writers may not be more nostalgic about the 19th century than people who like to read a novel by Balzac or Dickens, or a poem by Hopkins or Rimbaud. Perhaps it’s a certain idea of literature as a power that we are nostalgic about.
You can read the essay in its entirety below…
In Praise of Teslapop.
Talk about bad timing for my time machine. Just when I set up shop as a “steampunk” writer, I hear that not only there’s too much of it around, but also that “steampunk is in danger of vanishing up its own arse”… like a vulgar hadron collider. What a birching. It would have made Swinburne weep with joy.
My first line of defense, gentlemen of the jury, would be that Aurorarama is not steampunk. For one thing, steam power isn’t used much, because the novel takes place well above the Arctic circle where the reserves of coal are somewhat difficult to exploit. So the founders of New Venice naturally turned their sights towards electricity, and were especially interested in the work of Nikola Tesla – maverick scientist and pop culture icon. Which brings me to the second point: Aurorarama is not very punk either. I must admit that, unless “punk” is a polite and paradoxical synonymous for “geek,” I never really understood what was punk in steampunk. For me it’s more like a collage of references from popular literature and popular science – a “pop” form. So, what I write is definitely Teslapop.
There’s a bit a cowardice in that defense, isn’t it ? Maybe I should come forth and speak loud in favour of steampunk. Stross’s argument is twofold: the first one is that steampunk is revisionist through its undue romanticizing of the past, and the second one is that the “Science in steampunk is questionable at best.”
The first argument is the most interesting, because there’s obviously some escapism and nostalgia involved in steampunk.
For one thing, I think that escapism is good and healthy and that there’s more to man than reality, just as there is more to language than present tense and affirmative sentences. Regarding nostalgia, though, I just feel the argument is wrong. While Stross tries to jerk the tears from our eyes with “the fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine-year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms,” he sounds very much like the average steampunk novel which is bound to overplay rather than downplay the melodramatic aspects of Victorian life: forced labour, high crime rate, violence towards women and minorities, social inequities, disease, pollution, irresponsible use of new technologies, political cynicism etc… which are all ingredients of the genre.
What I find more curious is that Stross seems to think that those days are over in the “developed world.” In many respects – the ongoing onslaught of welfare policies through the western world, the renewed drive towards the cheapening of the labour force in favour of shareholders, the subsequent widening gap between social classes – the 19th century might be our future as well as our past. This is partly, I would suggest, what steampunk is about.
Zombies, here as anywhere else, are just another metaphor for the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disease-ridden poor out to seek a revenge, and airships are most likely the symbol of a technological hubris that is both empowering and bound to come a cropper. Likewise, recurring figures or names such as Darwin Babbage or Galton simply reflect our current concern with genetics (and eugenics) or artificial intelligence, and where they could lead us.
It is very naive to think that we are through with the 19th century: it is, in many respects, a nightmare we haven’t quite woken up from. Most of what we experience today – in urban life that is – has its origins in the 19th century. I always find it fascinating to think of a time where the things we are used to, and pretend to be adapted to, were felt for the first time: huge capitalist production and commodification, enormous cities and crowds, speed, networking, mass media, the rise of a visual culture, unprecedented destruction in warfare etc… And what makes it more interesting is that it all fell on dazzled, unprepared brains. The impact of this mode of life on the nervous system and the way that people tried to shield themselves from it (self-mechanization, neuroses, alcohol, drugs etc…) were analyzed and debated instead of simply regarded as normal. It could be one of the ambitions to steampunk to go back to the source of the life we live and, by exploring those “first times,” try to make our times a bit clearer for ourselves.
Of course, I do not deny the seduction of the era. Contrary to us (citizens of the developed 21st-century who are simply happy to wallow in our hard-earned shallow vulgarity) the 19th-century insisted, if only to save face, that there also were such things as manners, honour and beauty – at least for those who could afford it. That the century suffered from a massive case of false consciousness, if not downright hypocrisy, is beyond doubt, and maybe we are all the more clever because we can chuckle about these things. Perhaps what steampunk writers see in the 19th century is the poetical interest of that spectacular gap between appearances and reality. As the great steampunk thinker Walter Benjamin explained, the 19th century was a fantasy about itself, a daydream about a utopia that never was. In this sense the 19h century was as steampunk as “steampunk” is: always imagining itself different from its grim reality, and always trying to give a sense of purpose to the sufferings it bred. Alternate history, which is a huge part of steampunk, is quite at home in that context of struggling technologies, compulsive explorations, delirious social reforms, and failed revolutions. There was a pervading sense of possibility that we, in our “finished world”, may have forgotten. The 19th century was sure to have a future while the only thing we are sure of is that we have a past: no wonder it is this past that so interests science-fiction writers.
Another good side of that civilized false consciousness is that, for me, the 19th century is a time where extravagant beauty could be enjoyed without guilt or second thought. It is moreover my theory that all writers belong, more or less consciously, to the 19th century, that time when literature was taken (too?) seriously and regarded as able to educate, elevate, delight and even change life. Perhaps that is what we are missing, too. After all steampunk writers may not be more nostalgic about the 19th century than people who like to read a novel by Balzac or Dickens, or a poem by Hopkins or Rimbaud. Perhaps it’s a certain idea of literature as a power that we are nostalgic about. If we live up to it, of course, is another question.
Now it is true that steampunk is riddled with every kind of self-duplicating cliches – zombies, airships, clockwork humans, anarchists etc… – but that is a bit like saying that mathematics are riddled with cliches because they are using the same axioms over and over. Cliches (or myths, if you prefer) are technically inherent to alternate-world building, because it would be too complicated and boring to present the reader with a world where everything would have to be explained down to the least detail: you can only present something new if it is delineated by familiar objects, if only for the reader to complete by himself what the book cannot explain or describe. The novelty – in all senses of the term – comes from the collage, the montage, the criss-crossing and hybridation of historical and fantastic references, the spark that comes from banging the cliches together. A steampunk novel is laborious and volatile dosing of the pleasures of recognition and the pleasures of discovery. Then again, the dosing can fail miserably, but it is not necessarily the genre that is to blame.
As to Stross’s second argument, the science, bad as it can be, is just another aspect of that collage of cliches. Steampunk science is less interested in the facts of hard science than in the vulgarization and social discourse of 19th-century science, with its relentless inventivity, its striking advances but also its ridiculous duds, its delusions of grandeur and control, its inability to set its own limits (like its misdirected forays in psychic science and supernatural events), its almost total lack of restraint or ethics. It is no wonder that science-fiction (and the mad scientist) were invented in the 19th century, ripe as it was with all the fictions that science held about itself. It is the actual science of the 19th century that is, to use Stross’s language, “questionable at best” – which is also what makes it so fascinating. Instead of bemoaning the lack of seriousness by fiction writers in their approach of science, it could be said that steampunk is a study in the lack of seriousness by scientists in their approach of science. But, of course, that too is a thing of the past, I suppose.
So it seems there is more to Steampunk than meets the goggled eye, and if there is so much around, well, it could well be simply because it is symptomatic and relevant to our times. And don’t even get me started on Teslapop.