I’ve been wanting to jump back into the steampunk wars and Patrick Nielsen Hayden on Cosma Shalizi on Felix Gilman (to whom many intellectual roads are beginning to lead …) gives me the opening that I was looking for. Cosma’s thesis is that we have already had a singularity.
The Singularity has happened; we call it “the industrial revolution” or “the long nineteenth century”. It was over by the close of 1918.
and says why. To which PNH adds
I hope Shalizi will forgive my quoting his entire post, but it seems to me to have resonance with certain recent arguments over steampunk. It might even hint at why SF (and fantasy!) keep returning to the “long nineteenth century” like a dog to its bone.
Which leads me to the following speculations (below the fold).
First, and I’m quite sure that this point is not original to me – although I have been arguing it for a long time … The ancestry of modern SF lies as much in the 19th century “condition of England” novel as it does in more obvious ancestors like Frankenstein. That is to say – one of the skeins one can trace back through modern SF is a vein of sociological rather than scientific speculation, in which events happening to individual characters serve as a means to capture arguments about what is happening to society as a whole. In the nineteenth century, there was clearly a tension between the novel-as-fleshing-out-of-individual-experience and the novel-as-depiction-of-our-social-state (Middlemarch is one of the few novels I’ve read from this period that really manages these tensions successfully). Science fiction took one of these routes (an awful lot of early SF - e.g. H.G. Wells is primarily sociological speculation). Returning to the long nineteenth century is nothing more and nothing less than SF coming back to its roots.
Hence, the initial impetus of ‘steampunk’ was in large part an effort to recapture this sense of social inquiry, bridging the gap between nineteenth century inquiries and our own. Here, I am not referring to K.W. Jeter and others who were using Victorian tropes, but to the two books which really brought steampunk to a wider audience – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Both of these are unabashed exercises in sociological speculation, which use nineteenth century forms to explore modern anxieties. Gibson and Sterling’s book is indeed arguably a Singularity novel as well as steampunk – but the singularity is the emergence of an unusually baroque form of the ‘vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, “the coldest of all cold monsters,”’ that Cosma is talking about.
The vast majority of modern steampunk doesn’t particularly care about sociological speculation. Instead, it’s inherently nostalgic, conservative, and comfort-oriented. As Charlie Stross argues, it’s more interested in the trimmings – the romanticism of totalitarianism – than in the underlying politics of the societies it depicts. Scott Westerfeld’s counterblast isn’t particularly convincing:
Stross then challenges the world to write a “mundane steampunk” novel that would reflect the true nightmarishness of the long 19th century. Um, we might begin with the book most associated with the current wave of steampunk, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.
We might. Or again, we might not. No less an authority on Cherie Priest than Cherie Priest tells us
“I’m going to try to make a world where the trappings of steampunk as we understand them are symptomatic of the world, and not just gears glued on a top hat. If there are going to be goggles, then I would like there to be a reason for them. If there are going to be dirigibles, well, why? How does this work? Four or five years ago, I was poking around on this forum where there were a whole bunch of British teenagers were going on about, ‘Oh, these American steampunks, bless their hearts. They’re trying so hard, but obviously real steampunk only happens in Victorian Britain.’ Going on about all their class struggles and exploration [sic – I presume that this is a transcription error for ‘exploitation – HF], and blah, blah, blah. I thought, wait, we had all those issues in America too.
… “All of these notions collided with the idea that I was going to have a world with all this advanced Victorian tech. There had to be a reason for it. It can’t just spring from Zeus’s forehead. There are two things that drive technology above all else: pornography and war. That’s where the money is. So, all right. In the 19th century in America we had a Civil War, and if you start poking around in the old patent databases from late in the war, 1864 or ’65, you find all these incredible machines that people proposed. … But it didn’t happen because they ran out of war. So, fine. We’ll start there. What if they didn’t run out of war – what if it kept going? Let’s give it a full generation, 20 more years….
The difference between what say, Sterling and Gibson wanted to do (and what Stross wants), and what Priest is doing, is perfectly clear. Sterling and Gibson wanted to use Victorian technologies as a set of metaphorical tools to explore social change. Priest wants to use class struggle, exploitation, war and all that blah-blah-blah as a means of justifying cool-sounding Victorian technologies. A long war allows her to justify the inclusion of fun-sounding “tanks and crawling machines and elaborate guns” in her novel. A Dickensian factory allows her to have a heroine who wears goggles (she needs them to do her work). But the point of interest for Priest isn’t the war, or the class struggle, or the Dickensian factory conditions. It’s the zeppelins and digging machines, and the funky-looking goggles. The former provide a patina of sociological plausibility for the latter.
I don’t mean to bag on Priest, whose book I didn’t greatly enjoy, but who is a perfectly competent writer (and infinitely better than Gail Carriger, the execrable author co-profiled with her in the Steampunk issue of Locus that I have just linked to).1 But there’s something real to Stross’s critique that Westerfeld (whose own novel in the genre is a juvenile adventure with a Hapsburg heir set in a fantasticated World War I – hence, perhaps, the neuralgia of his response) doesn’t get. A genre which is caught up solely with generating more metaphors that conform to a very particular – and quite limiting – script, is a genre that is intellectually dead on arrival. What was good about Gibson and Sterling – and what is good about Gilman today, is that they’re using these metaphors to get at interesting ideas. But they are not really representative of the genre as it seems to conceive of itself today.
1Carriger’s Soulless is one of the worst novels that I’ve ever read (I was stuck on a long plane ride, and had nothing else – not even an easily reachable in-flight magazine). The prose style is horrid. If one wants to write sub-Victorian prose, one needs at the least a sympathetic editor who will tell one that ‘reticent’ is not a synonym for ‘reluctant,’ nor ‘desultory’ for ‘insulting.’ But what sank the novel far, far below the common level of mediocrity were the discussions of sex, which somehow were simultaneously ghastly-coy and the conveyor of more information than you wanted to know. I understand that the novel’s sequel ‘’Changeless’’ has already been published, and that ‘’Lifeless,’’ ‘’Talentless’’ and ‘’Hopeless’’ will follow soon after.