>”Steampunk is for Goths who discovered brown.”
“It’s a great trend in costuming , but the book didn’t sell that well.”
“It was based on a movie that wasn’t too successful. The costuming is popular, but it’s so over.”
“It’s based on Victorian upper class. It was an ugly era. We shouldn’t glorify it.”
Those are just a handful of the ‘nays’ I got on Steampunk — from people who acquire novels – or lead the thought on the subject.
They could of course all be right: But I have never been too good at accepting ‘received wisdom’ at face value. Contrarian by nature I take these sort of things as something of a challenge. This is probably incredibly stupid and I’d be a lot be a lot better off accepting things. If publishing believes it is over… they must be right. They know best, right? Heh. It would have been enough to make me want to write a Steampunk book – even if I didn’t have a proposal floating around out there already.
Don’t Goths read? And don’t people read about Goths, even in brown?
I’m a little iffy about the book that didn’t sell too well – which book? My own interest in an alternate history that focussed on an age of steam began with Harry Harrison’s 1973 ‘A Trans-Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah’ (which had coal-fired rocket ships), and Keith Roberts’s 1968 ‘Pavane’ (which was a depressing heavy treatment of a fascinating idea – where the suppression of the reformation had lead to a Catholic dominance of Britain and the World – and steam was still the major power source). I enjoyed Tim Powers Anuibus Gates – even I wouldn’t have called it Steampunk as much as time-travel. Or do they refer to the much later Gibson and Sterling’s Difference engine? Or Jay Lake’s Mainspring, or Meivelle’s Perdido Street Station? I don’t know. Some of these probably didn’t sell too well, although they did get noticed. (Notice and sales don’t actually go hand in hand. It depends who is noticing. Literati critics for example tend to ‘notice’ the sort of books which just don’t sell.)
However, it is fair to point out that Sir Terry Pratchett’s ‘Nation’ is de facto Victorian era alternate history and has many of the trappings of Steampunk – and outsold all of these books put together, and just about anything else.
I think the movie reference is probably ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ — IMO the sub-genre has been totally undermovied for its cinematographic potential. What a surprise. Hollywood likes books that out of copyright, so they can make movies for which they don’t pay the author, and then secure the copyright to their work for generations. I had hoped that the recession would send them back to their once counter-cyclical to economic trend roots and change the direction of the industry, but it hasn’t happened. Hasn’t happened in publishing either. Time was when the industries to be in bad times were cheap mass entertainment (movies and books) or beer (cheap booze) as escapism (especially if it leaves you feeling more cheerful for a while) is popular in tough times. The movie and publishing business have tanked along with upper-middle class goods sales the last 3 times, which should make us scared. Message: we aren’t seen as good uplift-your-spirits worth what the product costs any more.
The Victorian upper class one I just had to try and swallow my tongue or I might have had howling roll on the floor laughing fits. It’s a very PC answer from a very PC author and editor… Hmm. I guess medieval-styled high fantasy is based on a lovely era… for peasants. We in the editorial upper class should decide what is suitable for the proles to read, eh?
Anyway: all of the reactions got me thinking why Steampunk might – despite their comments – actually still be popular. Rising rather than falling. After all, genres and subgenres wax and wane, and then just one book can stir them to life or even fierce flame again. (I notice Baen are doing a bunch of Slowship books. That was dead as mackerel until some blokes wrote Slow Train to Arcturus.)
The first question was why might this subgenre be popular in first place – because if you can work out what made it tick, you can exploit those directions. And as I was once upon a time trained in logic an debate, let’s start by establishing a few premises
1)Steampunk is set in a world (either alternate history or just plain elsewhere-fantasy) where steam power is the most common form of powering things.
2) It’s 19th century, usually Victorian in the underlying cultural setting (which affects everything from architecture, fashion, to cultural mores).
So what makes it attractive?
These are my ideas:
1) The cool costuming possibilities (and this too IS important). It’s escapist, it’s fun.
2) The accessibility of the technology – yeah, there is brass and clockwork and steam and smoke-stacks… but it’s big old-fashioned engineering. It’s stuff we understand. It’s quirky, but plausible. Familiar enough, but different.
3)The 19th century was an expansive, hopeful century (at least for the West – which, I dare remind people – is still the cultural background for a lot of the market for sf and fantasy. We’re so busy appealing to markets we don’t have and possibly won’t get, that there is an inclination to neglect our core audience. They still are the people who buy English language sf and fantasy. People who live in America or Western Europe or Commonwealth countries, not Iran or China… yet). This ties in with the fact that Steampunk (with the exception of some of the more literary new grunge stuff – which garners awards and yet fails to get the sales volume) is less dystopian and dark than cyberpunk (which doesn’t seem to be flourishing as well recently).
4)Because it is set in 19th century social and cultural milieu it is de facto less politically correct. A lot still rests in a nest of 19th century culturally acceptable ideas. ‘Manifest destiny’ and colonialism — now a prime evil — underlies large parts of the genre. This is of course correct for the era, and provide appeal to readers right now (yes, it leaves the bad bits out -which I agree were awful and if you were one of the colonised or a child laborer much worse then), when various aspects of 20th/21st century are rather depressing, and yesteryear seems rather attractive. The same magic that worked for fantasy, which has its strength in comforting escapism even if it is wildly inaccurate and reflects an idealised and sanitised view of the very upper class of medieval society. It’s why the pulp sf – with a view of a brave new exciting world full of promise sold well. It’s why dystopia and tears sell well in good times, not bad. Yes, it was an ugly era. But it was an era of hope – and there was a courage and grandeur to it that seems absent now – which loops back to costuming.
There is an element of wish-fulfilment about this. No, I don’t think the readers all want to return to Victorian sweatshops and gin-sluiceries any more than many of the readers of my journey into living and being self-sufficient on a remote island really all want to do all of that… but there are aspects they yearn for. That they like reading about.
I don’t think any of these factors have gone away. I do think the literary/new weird tarnished the attractiveness in the current economic environment, and if I was an acquiring editor, that’s not the kind of thing I would buy until the economy was doing extremely well. (but I’m not an acquiring editor, and my opinions on what I’d buy and push appear to be very different to theirs. I’d be asking the hard question – why is publishing – which is normally counter cyclical to economic trends now running in tandem with the trends, while other counter-cyclicals – like beer continue to reflect an inverse?)
However, ultimate long-term success really hinges on pleasing readers once you have passed the gatekeepers: I think if you want to be a success in this sub-genre you’re going to have capitalise on what attracted people – and that includes the cultural aspects and quirky costumes and brass gadgetry.
So: what’s your take on it? What makes it work, or fail?