The Goggles Do Nothing

by Henry Farrell on December 8, 2010

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.



Straightwood 12.08.10 at 5:28 pm

The appeal of retro science fiction is partly grounded in its celebration of visible technology. Unfortunately, the grand engines and cathedrals of the modern era are the invisible structures etched in microchips and spun in the invisible gossamer of software. Even the most ignorant man could be impressed by a locomotive, a dirigible, or a battleship. But what does Ubuntu signify to the average person? What does a hyper-threaded multicore CPU the size of your thumb convey by way of technological power?

In short, the most powerful technologies of the modern era have become decoupled from the popular imagination, and this has led to a regression of literary expression to a more comprehensible alternate future, one in which important things clang and bang as loudly as they should.


Stuart 12.08.10 at 5:38 pm

Of course if technology had ended up stuck in steam and cogs, given 150+ years and the same sort of economic pressures then it doesn’t seem unreasonable that by now most of the cogs would be smaller than the eye could see and most of the complexity would be hidden from the average person anyway.


Pascal Leduc 12.08.10 at 6:25 pm

the though of a difference engine with 40nm cog technology is very amusing. Easpeacialy when you think that such miniature mechanical devices in our own world are made using MEMS technology which is basicly using transistor fabrication technology to make things other then transistors.

an amusing book idea would be a dan brownish conspiracy story about a mad scientist murdered by a secret order of steam punk society preservers because he realised that he could use the photo-lithographic method used to make micro-scale mechanical devices to make instead a kind of electrical switch turned on or off by a seperate electrical current.


Cian 12.08.10 at 6:43 pm

Pynchon’s Against the Day is a steampunk novel.


Jonathan 12.08.10 at 6:45 pm

Can you give a more specific example of the “reticent” confusion? I’m perfectly willing to believe that the book isn’t well-written, but “reticent” can be a synonym of “reluctant.” Look at the OED def. 2: “Having..informed my employer of my impending call-up, he is naturally reticent to improve my position.”


Cryptic Ned 12.08.10 at 6:48 pm

‘reticent’ is not a synonym for ‘reluctant,’ nor ‘desultory’ for ‘insulting.’

I’m guessing this also means that author pronounces “desultory” “de-ZULT-o-ree”.


anon 12.08.10 at 6:53 pm

‘reticent’ is not a synonym for ‘reluctant’

um, not to nitpick, but how not?


LizardBreath 12.08.10 at 7:29 pm

5: I don’t have a copy of the OED to refer to at my desk, but I’d react to that by saying that a citation to someone misusing the word doesn’t make it right. “Reticient” as a synonym for “reluctant” sounds simply wrong to me. (Now, it’s an error I see made often enough that it’ll probably become a correct variant usage rather than an error pretty soon, and maybe it’s already made it to that point. But it still sounds wrong to me.)


Brennan Griffin 12.08.10 at 7:34 pm

Aww, come on, that’s a little uncharitable. Carriger isn’t that bad. It was an entertaining bit of fluff. I guess if you went into it expecting more than that, you might be disappointed. Her work would more properly be compared against its competitors in paranormal romance subgenre, not steampunk. Come to think of it, maybe she’s really starting a new sub-subgenre: steampunk paranormal romance, which would be…frightening.


Henry 12.08.10 at 8:00 pm

“Google”: suggests that the Plain People of the Internets overwhelmingly take my side on the reticence-reluctance question.

And Brennan – there may be worse out there in the genre, but the book really sucks. I’m not opposed to paranormal romance on principle – happy to pick up an MLN Hanover novel, even if I would prefer if it were a real Daniel Abraham novel. And Madeleine Robins’ “Sarah Tolerance historical romances”: (admittedly with rather more history than romance) are sliced super-awesome.


Jonathan 12.08.10 at 8:11 pm

I’d hate to have to call in a Linguist Log post on this, complete with references to many corpora, associated graphs, and statistical musings; but the word has been used that way since at least 1875. It’s in the dictionary.


praisegod barebones 12.08.10 at 8:12 pm


On the assumption that you don’t want to come across as being gratuitously snide at Scott Westerfield’s expense, it might be worth making explicit that Westerfield’s Leviathan is ‘juvenile’ in the sense of being aimed at what publisher’s call a ‘young adult’ (ie oldish child) audience, rather than the Rush Limbaugh sense. (The assumption I’m amking is correct, right?)


Salient 12.08.10 at 8:29 pm

The appeal of retro science fiction is partly grounded in its celebration of visible technology.

Eh, it’s technology that moves. Everything moves in steampunk. What’s exciting about a hot air balloon? The inflation of the balloon, whoompf. Motion is exciting. Motion within motion whirlybirding is exciting. Steampunk ~= maximal motion, or the maximal experience/sensation of motion if you prefer.


LizardBreath 12.08.10 at 8:39 pm

10: I’d actually be really interested in a full history there. Generally I try not to be prescriptive about variant usages, but I’ve never seen reticent used as a synonym for reluctant where I wasn’t otherwise willing to believe that the speaker/writer was likely to be simply wrong about matters of usage. I’d be interested to know if it used to be more frequently used in that sense and the usage fell out of favor, or if there’s anything else about the history that would explain my reaction.


Henry 12.08.10 at 8:39 pm

praisegod – I hadn’t even thought of the other reading of it. Yes, I am happy to confirm that I meant ‘juvenile’ in the strictly non-pejorative and technical sense of a “Robert Heinlein juvenile” or whatever – a book aimed at adolescents. Mind you, the book didn’t grab me (I didn’t finish), but I could see how others would enjoy it.


Henry 12.08.10 at 8:44 pm

And Jonathan – feel free to call in the LanguageLog airstrikes on this if need be, but while I know that there is fraught controversy over whether and how to tell whether a particular usage is ‘right’ in some Platonic sense if it is commonly accepted, there is an extremely reasonable argument that reticent/reluctant is wrong in just the same way as disinterested/uninterested is wrong – that is, it stems from an obvious confusion (albeit perhaps a historically rooted one) and is leading to the gradual displacement of a highly useful word by a complete redundancy.


Gareth Rees 12.08.10 at 8:56 pm

The OED says, “reticent, adj. 1. a. Reluctant or disinclined to speak out or express personal thoughts and feelings freely; reserved in speech; given to silence or concealment. … 2. Reluctant to perform a particular action; hesitant, disinclined. Chiefly with about, or to do something.”

So the progression of meaning has gone taciturn → reluctant to speak → reluctant in general. This is known as “semantic bleaching” and for good or ill it’s a common form of language change. It’s one thing to resist this change by sticking to fine distinctions of meaning in your own writing and speech, and quite another to insist on overbroad claims like “‘reticent’ is not a synonym for ‘reluctant’”.


JP Stormcrow 12.08.10 at 8:57 pm

Shorter Jonathan: I’m reluctant but not reticent.


MPAVictoria 12.08.10 at 8:57 pm

Shorter Henry: Who is the Oxford English Dictionary to argue with me?


praisegod barebones 12.08.10 at 9:03 pm

Well, I read Leviathan a few weeks back, and thought: ‘it’s a good rollicking adventure story for kids’. And the shortform of of the critique you’ve linked to seems to be ‘steampunk doesn’t do much more or better than rollicking adventure stories.’ And fair enough, except that there’s a place for rollicking adventure stories for kids, and people who choose to write them shouldn’t be criticised just for doing that.

I’m curious as to exactly what makes something steampunk, though. Does it have to have a Victorian setting ? Or is it just that there’s no electricity based technonology? (Or in other words: is ‘Julian Comstock’ steampunk? None of the discussions I’ve seen have identified it as such; but I’m at a loss to see what criteria could explain why ‘Perdido Street Station'[ and ‘ The Diamond Age’ are not.


Henry 12.08.10 at 9:13 pm

MPAVictoria, I see your OED, and raise it by a “Merriam-Webster”:

bq. “Reticent” first appeared about 170 years ago, but the “reluctant” sense of “reticent” is a mid-20th century introduction. Though it is now well-established, this newer sense bothers some people, particularly because it has veered away from the word’s Latin origins — “reticent” is from the verb “reticÄ“re,” meaning “to keep silent.” But there is some sense in the way the newer meaning developed. We first tended to use the “reluctant” sense of “reticent” when the context was speech (as in “reticent to talk about her past”), thus keeping the word close to its “silent” sense. Eventually, however, exclusive association with speech was abandoned. Now one can be “reticent” to do anything.

Here there are two questions. First – whether you believe that well-established errors in usage become truths by general acclaim, or that there is some sense in which a word whose Latin origins are rooted in tacere should still refer to silence. I tend towards the latter, although I recognize that dictionaries (which need to respond to usage) must necessarily tend towards the former, while sometimes deprecating especially opprobrious misusages. Second – whether the modern vulgarization of ‘reticent’ had become so well established by the mid/late nineteenth century or not that a writer trying to ape Victorian writing would be justified in so employing it. While Jonathan says that the word has been used in this sense since at least 1875 (perhaps on the authority of the OED), Merriam Webster disagrees, and seems to do so on the basis of experience with how the usage has changed (another source on the Internets suggests that M-W used to deprecate it as a subsidiary and not entirely kosher usage, but now has admitted defeat)..


MPAVictoria 12.08.10 at 9:21 pm

“First – whether you believe that well-established errors in usage become truths by general acclaim, or that there is some sense in which a word whose Latin origins are rooted in tacere should still refer to silence. I tend towards the latter…”

This is a ridiculous belief. Language is how we communicate with each other as a society, hence whichever uses society at large deems correct are in fact correct. Your position is particularly absurd when applied to the English language which historically has been one of the fastest changing languages. We no longer speak the same way Chaucer did, or Shakespeare, or Dickens or even Hemmingway.

I haven’t read the book so perhaps your criticisms of it are valid but the author was entirely correct in usage of the word reticent.


Substance McGravitas 12.08.10 at 9:23 pm

We no longer speak the same way Chaucer did, or Shakespeare, or Dickens or even Hemmingway.

Indeed we grant the latter an extra M for Macho.


Henry 12.08.10 at 9:31 pm

We no longer speak the same way Chaucer did, or Shakespeare, or Dickens or even Hemmingway.

That should be ‘Hemingway,’ or has the populace determined by unanimous consent that the spelling of his name has changed in the last five minutes?


Gareth Rees 12.08.10 at 9:33 pm

well-established errors in usage become truths by general acclaim

That’s how all language change happens. When one person uses a word in a new sense, it’s a mistake: when tens of thousands of people use it, it’s a dialect usage, and when millions of people use it, it’s standard.

I notice you don’t insist on sticking to original senses of words yourself: for example in your last sentence you use kosher in the OED‘s sense 1c “Correct, genuine, legitimate” for which the earliest citation given in 1896. If kosher can acquire new meanings, why not reticent?

there is some sense in which a word whose Latin origins are rooted in tacere should still refer to silence

This is the etymological fallacy, isn’t it?

that a writer trying to ape Victorian writing would be justified in so employing it.

This is a fair criticism of Carriger: that the modern sense of reticent is anachronistic for a novel set in the 19th century. If that’s all you were saying, then I agree with you. But you could have avoided this misunderstanding by saying “‘reticent’ was not a synonym for ‘reluctant’”.


gmoke 12.08.10 at 10:05 pm

“Language is speech” said James R. Sledd according to Lew Welch.

Reading Kevin Kelly’s _What Technology Wants_ and came to the same conclusion about the Singularity. It’s already happened and is what Kelly calls the Technium.


Phil 12.08.10 at 10:07 pm

Language is how we communicate with each other as a society, hence whichever uses society at large deems correct are in fact correct.

But “society at large” is not univocal. We know that usage is fluid; one way in which it’s fluid is that usages are contested, and one way in which they’re contested is through statements of the form “usage X is wrong”.


MPAVictoria 12.08.10 at 10:31 pm

Yes my point is obviously invalid because I misspelled Hemingway. Should I go through all your posts on this website and look for errors?


MPAVictoria 12.08.10 at 10:33 pm

True, but I think that once a definition of a word makes the OED we can assume that it has become a standard meeting. Henry, however wise he may be, is not the final arbiter of the English language.


LizardBreath 12.08.10 at 10:38 pm

25: You’re right about the process by which language changes, but that doesn’t establish that any given change has happened yet. I’d believe that reticent won’t sound wrong used as a synonym for reluctant fifty years from now. I’d say fifty years ago, you wouldn’t have been arguing that it was correct — it would have been clearly an error made by someone who didn’t quite know the meaning of the word. Now? It still sounds wrong to me, and I don’t see it used that way by people who I generally think of as good writers who are comfortable with a large vocabulary.

Maybe I’m behind the times, and it’s no longer an error and has become standard. But saying that it’s possible for what was once an error to become standard usage doesn’t establish that the change has occurred in any given instance.


spyder 12.08.10 at 10:44 pm

I might suggest that Stephenson’s most recent works seem to be going backwards from steampunk. His latest, Anathem, has thousand years old, forced-monastic communities of scientists struggling against a modernist backdrop of Ice Road Truckers. Before that he was writing about swash-buckling pirates and the crowns of Europe during the enlightenment. Do we need a new genre nomenclature?


MPAVictoria 12.08.10 at 10:50 pm

meeting = meaning
Wow I am having trouble today. I am going to quit while I am behind.


Henry 12.08.10 at 10:51 pm

MPAVictoria – it was a pretty obvious tease – and if you want to use dismissive sarcastic one-liner comments and then expand them to suggest that other people’s arguments are ‘ridiculous’ you should do your best not to be offended when they in turn do not treat your arguments with the gravity you feel they deserve.

But if you want a serious counter-argument – your point is wrong for the reasons that Phil lays out. If you want to go for the ‘whatever the commonality says is right _ipso facto_’ position, you have to deal with the fact that there isn’t any commonality as such. There’s no ‘we’ here kemosabe, in the sense that you want to invoke one. And there is _especially_ no ‘we’ in the English language, which is used by a very wide community of peoples in very different ways, varying from the various stripped down versions used as linguae francae in parts of Asia, through Indian-English, Australian English, and the village where I spent much of my childhood years in Ireland, where ‘ye’ was still used for the second-person plural.

To clarify my original argument, it’s probably a good idea to separate out two quite different strands of it that sit somewhat awkwardly with each other, and which I have been glomming together indiscriminately. One is the one that you are taking issue with – that one should not use ‘reticent’ as a synonym of ‘reluctant’ in general. This is a partisan and idiosyncratic stance, based on the fact that this is not reticent’s original meaning, that it has acquired some useful connotations as a result of that meaning, and that by treating it as a simple cognate of reluctant, we are losing those useful connotations. There is no word that I know of that quite captures the original meaning of ‘reticent’ – ‘taciturn’ is the closest I can think of, and it is considerably more pugnacious. You can treat this as an effort to contest an emerging usage, on the grounds that it loses us more than it gains.

The second question is whether someone in Victorian England (even a fantasticated version of it) would have used the word ‘reticent’ in this sense. Gareth – fair enough that I should have used ‘was’ – but this was largely implied in the ‘If one wants to write sub-Victorian prose’ bit earlier in the sentence, surely? Here, the evidence that reticent was used in this way seems weak. Jonathan says he has an 1875 example, but it seems to me probable, given the Merriam-Webster discussion, that this was a sport (it may be that there were differences between the US and UK on this, but this seems to me unlikely – perhaps I am wrong). An error may be made several times independently, before it begins to gain sufficient currency to become a usage.

And here, I think this was a straightforward error on Carriger’s part, if only because were many other such errors of style and usage. I had never known that members of the English Victorian upper middle classes spoke quite so much like modern Americans before reading her. But the reason why I was specifically annoyed by this one was that it was _both_ a mistake in terms of period usage, _and_ a usage that I personally find abhorrent for the reasons outlined above.


Gareth Rees 12.08.10 at 11:01 pm

Maybe I’m behind the times, and it’s no longer an error and has become standard

That’s teetering on the brink of the fallacy of bifurcation. There’s a very wide range of possibilities that lie between “individual error” and “worldwide standard usage”. Clearly reticent = “reluctant” has not reached the latter state (evidence: you, Henry, M-W, a hundred peevologists), but it’s certainly left the former (evidence: Carriger; the OED citations; 180,000 ghits for “reticent to”).


Chris Bertram 12.08.10 at 11:06 pm

I’m not even sure what a singularity _is_ . But insofar as I’m grasping it dimly, the the Saunders book (see my adjacent post) identifies it with the rural>urban transition. We (well England) did it before 1918, but it is still going on.

If it is something specifically technological then the recent and ongoing transition from a mechanical-chemical world to a digital one would all seem to be well post-1918.


Henry 12.08.10 at 11:07 pm

Can I put ‘peevologist’ on my resume? It sounds almost as good as ‘licensed pataphysician’ – a status I have always aspired to.


Gareth Rees 12.08.10 at 11:20 pm

Jonathan says he has an 1875 example, but it seems to me probable, given the Merriam-Webster discussion, that this was a sport (it may be that there were differences between the US and UK on this, but this seems to me unlikely – perhaps I am wrong)

The OED‘s citations for sense 2 of reticent are these:

* 1875 Rep. Sel. Comm. Condition of South (43rd U.S. Congr. 2 Sess.) The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.

* 1932 Daily Capital News & Post Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri) 14 Feb. They were reticent about leaving it [sc. home].

* 1948 Jrnl. Amer. Folklore 61 Dreams, promptings of the spirit, and peep-stones have all combined to make the reticent girl give in to the proposals of a polygamous suitor.

* 1959 Times 8 Oct. Having‥informed my employer of my impending call-up, he is naturally reticent to improve my position.

* 2008 F. Kellerman Mercedes Coffin xxxviii. 311 She knows he’d be reticent to hire a lawyer to defend her?

It’s easy to use Google Book search to find more citations to fill in the timeline and show that early usages are probably not isolated mistakes or “sports”:

* 1906 Parliamentary Debates the poor were always very reticent to expose their condition

* 1915 The Pacific reporter 144 the likelihood that more harm may result from being reticent to consult a doctor

* 1937 China monthly review 83 Chinese quarters here have been reticent to discuss the amount of American assistance given China thus far during hostilities.

* 1946 Billboard 9 Nov ops are reticent to book several months ahead when they feel that the next couple months are blanked out

If you have access to more or better corpora I’d be interested to see what you can find in them. But the evidence looks good to me that reticent has been used in this sense—albeit by a minority—on both sides of the Atlantic for more than a century.


jackd 12.08.10 at 11:24 pm

If I may interrupt a fun language fight with a return to the topic of the post, more or less…

praisegod barebones @20 –

To address your specific questions, Perdido Street Station isn’t steampunk because it is explicitly a fantasy. Although Mieville implies that the magic in Bas Lag is of a more rigorous sort than most fantasies, you’ve still got rather a lot of arcane power floating about. That the nonmagical technology is roughly Victorian is incidental. The Diamond Age, on the other hand, is pretty straight science fiction. The Victorian elements are sociological rather than technical, and there is no implication that any of the strange and obscure dealings going on are products of Other Powers.

You can see that I’m assuming steampunk is an SF subgenre. One could argue that New Weird is where fantasy walks into steampunk territory and I wouldn’t disagree much.

I’m not familiar with ‘Julian Comstock’, except for the Wikipedia summary, but based on that, I’d venture that Wilson was steampunk-inspired if not actually trying to write for that subgenre. Since it’s set in the future, Wilson is placing it in SF, but it looks like he’s using mutated/adapted/advanced(?) 19th-century technology.


Anderson 12.08.10 at 11:24 pm

I am mildly puzzled by people who argue that (1) usage determines meaning and (2) we should not lobby for or against usages we find unsatisfactory.

The notion seems to be that Language just IS and we should let it flow through us.

I agree that usage ultimately determines meaning, which is one reason why I tell people to quit using words the wrong way.


peter 12.08.10 at 11:36 pm

Henry – You are probably correct that you are not the first with these ideas. The late management studies academic, Stanley Hyman, did his PhD in the early 1950s in an anthropology department on the sociology of HG Wells’ novels.


Jeff K 12.09.10 at 12:03 am

looks like around 1900 “too reticent to speak” gave rise to “[very|extremely] reticent to speak”


Alex K 12.09.10 at 12:08 am

Regarding the two linked criticisms, I’ve often wondered, though I’ve never really been able to expound upon it, if there’s some inherent conflict between artists and social reformers. There was of course a whole lot of wretchedness in the 19th century, but wretchedness is a key ingredient for drama and conflict. Kind of like when you get a David Brooks or whoever talking about how “exciting” laissez-faire capitalism is. The difference is that Brooks would have few qualms with readjusting reality to fit his fantasy, and neo-romantic SP and other Fantasy/Sci-Fi authors are content to keep it in fantasy.


Alex K 12.09.10 at 12:11 am

Is that Westerfeld fellow really a professional author? Good lord.


rm 12.09.10 at 12:41 am

whether you believe that well-established errors in usage become truths by general acclaim, or that there is some sense in which a word whose Latin origins are rooted in tacere should still refer to silence

IN this Tenthmonth of 2010, I declare that we should stop the shameful sliding of the meaning of words from their origins. Down with descriptive grammar! Let’s return as many word as possible back to their proper meanings. I will start with Henry’s sentence, above:

either of two all-of-you hold dear that well-standing-out wanderings in using-phenomena exist-arrive loyalties by the shouting-toward of many people, or that at that place is some perception in which a speech whose Latin risings-up-like-a-spring grow their roots down to tacere should motionless carry back to being still.


Henry 12.09.10 at 1:50 am

Gareth – I’ve been enthusiastic about the ways in which you could use the Google Books corpus to find out all sorts of interesting things about mutation of genre etc, but simply hadn’t thought of it as a good way to settle blogfights. Nice. But as far as I can see (on the basis of an admittedly first-cut analysis), it supports my basic contention. I did a search on “reticent to” between 1830 and 1901 to see if there was any evidence of the usage in the Victorian era or just before. Of the first hundred examples that Google Books provides, I found just this “reticent to talk”: and this “reticent to give us information”: Both of these, however, like the 1875 OED example, fall under the “when the context was speech … thus keeping the word close to its “silent” sense” form described in Merriam-Webster.

So – as best as some minutes of research can determine (if anyone wants to plough through the 500 odd remaining results from the Victorian period in search of counter-examples, they are very welcome to), Merriam-Webster is incorrect – this usage was around before the 1950’s. However, Carriger is clearly wrong – while there was an (extremely rare – if the incidence in the first hundred searches is at all a good sample, there were maybe a dozen or two dozen examples in the whole corpus) usage of reticent-as-reluctant in the period, it was apparently confined to reluctance to _speak_ about something. This is not how Gail Carriger used it – for those who have access to Amazon search inside, the “relevant quote”: is:

bq. “The Duke of Snodgrove is notoriously reticent about any additional expenditure at his wife’s balls. Victuals were probably not on the list of acceptable offerings.” He sighed. “The man probably owns half of Berkshire and cannot even provide a decent sandwich.”

which is unambiguously wrong (I have also done a search on “reticent about” by the way, and come up with no examples of reticence=reluctance during the period in question). And there is much, _much_ more of this. The same page has a description of Lord Macon’s need for a “considerable amount of fuel, mostly of the protein inclination.” The horror is all coming back to me. Ms. Carriger has clearly seen the English language from a distance, and perhaps even has a distant acquaintance with it (they might faintly incline heads toward each other should they pass on the street), but certainly no more than that.


JP Stormcrow 12.09.10 at 4:21 am

Maybe she actually means that the Duke of Snodgrove just doesn’t like to talk about the extra expenses. It adds that touch of ridiculousness to the otherwise unsublime.


Randolph 12.09.10 at 6:04 am

A few notes:

1. Steampunk is a design movement first, then a literary movement. As a design movement it fuses Victorian forms with Arts and Crafts ideas. So far steampunk literature is largely an attempt to imagine a world where steampunk designs make sense. (That’s what Cherie Priest said, no?)

2. In some sense, I think that steampunk is science fiction’s valedictory. The age of exploration is over, and is not going to be recreated in space. We have visualized many futures, and now we are living them out. It may be that science fiction, as a genre, has fulfilled its original purposes, and is now turning into something else.

3. It may be that steampunk, after a twist, will turn out to be about the future rather than the past. That was the case with the Arts and Crafts movement, which became the source of Modernism. New manufacturing technologies are emerging, and it may be we are on the verge of a twist.

& environmental considerations might lead to a revival of lighter-than-air craft!


shah8 12.09.10 at 6:36 am

/me shakes his head…

Guys, guys, guys, and I feel like I’m just talking to guys. There is a, um, block of literary steampunk, hey, it’s beyond even Ian R Macleod.

Nobody, but *nobody* ever talks about The Steam Magnate by Dana Copithorne. Nobody ever talks about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama.

Can we talk about the better stuff? Please?


shah8 12.09.10 at 6:37 am

Oh, and Paolo Bacigulpi’s big book is much better understood as a steampunk rather than straight sci-fi.


Randolph 12.09.10 at 7:57 am

shah8, I reviewed The Steam Magnate, largely favorably…but I don’t think it’s steampunk.


Jacob 12.09.10 at 11:17 am

While we’re being peeveologists, according to Wikipedia Jarry insisted that ’pataphysician should always include the apostrophe at the front.


ajay 12.09.10 at 11:42 am

Going on about all their class struggles and exploration [sic – I presume that this is a transcription error for ‘exploitation – HF]

…because certainly there wasn’t any exploration happening in Victorian Britain? There wasn’t any body of popular Victorian literature about explorers? Not sure about that, to be honest.

(And I’m really puzzled why “The Diamond Age” shows up in discussions of steampunk.)


Charlie Stross 12.09.10 at 12:00 pm

Randolph @47: actually, no: Steampunk was a literary movement first. Back in the early-to-mid-eighties a bunch of SF writers — notably K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock — published novels such as “Infernal Devices”, “The Anubis Gates”, and “The Digging Leviathan” (all coincidentally missing from the execrable wikipedia entry for Steampunk) and using the term “Steampunk” as a description for their work.

However, steampunk remained something of a literary backwater until the early 1990s, even within the SF ghetto.

Chris @35: I’m not even sure what a singularity is. Here’s a link to Vernor Vinge’s original and definitive introduction to the singularity from 1993. This well-defined (but highly arguable) version collided and exploded messily with Hans Moravec’s speculations about mind and simulation (first popularized in his book Mind Children, from 1988), giving rise by way of extropianism to The Rapture of the Nerds (coincidentally the title of a novel Cory Doctorow and I are working on for publication in mid-2012). (Warning: contents of final link are not meant to be taken entirely seriously.)


Ray 12.09.10 at 12:19 pm

My friends have urged me not to get involved in this debate, but I am reticent to keep silent…


ajay 12.09.10 at 1:51 pm

53: citation for Tim Powers referring to “The Anubis Gates” as steampunk? It doesn’t have, apart from anything else, any steam in it.


Fats Durston 12.09.10 at 1:58 pm

…because certainly there wasn’t any exploration happening in Victorian Britain? There wasn’t any body of popular Victorian literature about explorers? Not sure about that, to be honest.

A huge body by the explorers themselves (see Imperial Eyes, Geography Militant, orThe Myth of the Explorer, for instance), and plenty of secondary material for Victorian readers.


belle le triste 12.09.10 at 2:05 pm

I’ve just been reading Andrew Lambert’s book about the Franklin expedition to find the North West Passage*: this was more or less the Brit Empire’s steampunk moonshot

(Or actually not, as Lambert aggressively argues… )


Wax Banks 12.09.10 at 2:58 pm

This was an interesting post; the comments thread is utter shit. Nice work!


ajay 12.09.10 at 3:08 pm

57: Lambert argues that Franklin wasn’t trying to find the North-West Passage? That’s an interesting take. I wonder how he deals with Franklin’s orders:

“Her Majesty’s Government having deemed it expedient that further attempt should be made for the accomplishment of a north-west passage by sea from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, of which passage small portion only remains to be completed, we have thought proper to appoint you to the command of the expedition to be fitted out for that service… “


rea 12.09.10 at 3:19 pm

“Peeveologist”? Surely the appropriate term is peeve wrangler. Peeves, you know, are often kept as pets, although seldom to advantge.


rea 12.09.10 at 3:23 pm

Lambert argues that Franklin wasn’t trying to find the North-West Passage?

In a book titled, “Gates of Hell: Franklin’s Quest for the Northwest Passage”?


John Holbo 12.09.10 at 3:28 pm

At the risk of changing the topic from ‘reticent’ to “Boneshaker”: I quite agree that the novel is a bit meh, but disagree about the diagnosis. The problem is that all the thrilling stuff – goggles, zeppelins, blight, zombies, air pirates, Seattle with a 200 foot wall around it – appears right at the start. The stage is set for … the sort of story that would contain those elements. And then we actually get something fairly low-key, relative to the set-up. A mother looking for her son, who has run off into a dangerous situation because she didn’t tell him some stuff – and didn’t have any particularly good reason not to tell him some stuff, except for a mix of somewhat misplaced guilt/anger/shame. That’s not a bad set-up, but it sort of collides with the props in a way that makes the whole less than the sum of the parts. It’s not stock genre story-wise, which could be good. But it ends up not being great non-genre material because the novel is just … too much of a first-person shooter zombie scenario. It just can’t be a first-class mother and son tale. The author doesn’t really keep throwing fresh whiz-bang zeppelins n’ zombies bits at us. I think she’s trying to make room for a serious story. But there’s already too much of that stuff – she’s gone down that path too far to back out. But then, because she doesn’t keep rushing in headlong, ramping up the rip-roaringness with properly timed and spaced reveals of new steampunkery excess, the whole thing just goes a bit … flat … by the middle or so. But I feel pretty good about Priest’s potential, and not at all sore about having spent several hours listening to this thing on audiobook. The next one will be better.


belle le triste 12.09.10 at 3:36 pm

He argues that the “search for the north west passage” element was a mixture of public-consumption hype and plain over-simplification. That Franklin — and those who sent him — were pretty well aware that the NWP was a non-starter as an actual usable way through for shipping, and thus largely a secondary goal for the project, which was primarily concerned with geomagnetic mapping. He says that if Franklin had returned with the scientific work without ever reaching the Bering Straits, this would have been more than satisfactory for those who sent him.

Publisher’s description of book, via Amazon: “Franklin’s mission was ostensibly to find the elusive North West Passage, a viable sea route between Europe and Asia reputed to lie north of the American continent. Lambert shows for the first time that there were other scientific goals for the voyage and that the disaster can only be understood by reconsidering the original objectives of the mission. Franklin, commonly dismissed as a bumbling fool, emerges as a more important and impressive figure, in fact, a hero of navigational science.”


rm 12.09.10 at 3:45 pm

It may be that steampunk, after a twist, will turn out to be about the future rather than the past. . . . & environmental considerations might lead to a revival of lighter-than-air craft!

Imagining our future adaptation to the end of oil also helps one read 19th-century science fiction without seeing their imagined futures as totally absurd. In Mary Shelley’s The Last Man we’re in the 2090s, and the only conspicuous technological advance from Shelley’s time is the hot-air-balloon air travel industry. Politics are about monarchy vs. republicanism and Christendom vs. the Evil Turk. However, what if the collapse of high-tech civilization following peak oil led to massive political upheavals, such that millions of people died and politics regressed to authoritarian, jingoistic, atavistic tribal nationalisms? It’s not like we don’t see that beginning now. Then Shelley’s world becomes a possible future again.


Charlie Stross 12.09.10 at 4:13 pm

ajay @55: I’m misremembering an editorial from Cheap Truth #15 in 1985, written by “Vincent Omniaveritas” (aka Bruce Sterling). Who was calling it “West Coast Victoriana” back then.


DN 12.09.10 at 5:21 pm

@40 and per Henry’s observation about the origins of SF.

I’ve been reading a lot of genre history lately (in prep. for an SF/Politics course I’m teaching in the spring) and this does seem to be the consensus, i.e., that modern SF owes traces much of its lineage to “state of England” novels. Indeed, I was rather under the impression that, mainly via Welles, this was perhaps a dominant influence on much contemporary SF.


ajay 12.09.10 at 5:22 pm

In Mary Shelley’s The Last Man we’re in the 2090s, and the only conspicuous technological advance from Shelley’s time is the hot-air-balloon air travel industry. Politics are about monarchy vs. republicanism and Christendom vs. the Evil Turk.

Gosh, how absurdly different from the concerns of our own political discourse.

(I’m sure it would have been seen as nonsensical if HG Wells had written a future history in which, despite flying machines, spaceships, visual telegraphy and so on, the ambassadors of the Great Powers of Europe were still arguing with Russia over friction in the Balkans. He could have called it “The Kosovo War”.)

65: ah, that makes a bit more sense. (Even if The Anubis Gates is technically West Coast Regency…)


ajay 12.09.10 at 5:26 pm

66: also note that writing a “state of England” novel in the nineteenth century was basically writing a science fiction novel – you’re almost inevitably going to be writing about sudden, radical, unsettling technological advances and how they are going to affect people and society. The difference is that the radical technological changes were really happening rather than just being predicted or hypothetical.

(Similarly, writing a “state of England” novel in 1941 would have been basically writing a war novel.)


TheSophist 12.09.10 at 7:48 pm

@ JH (#62): Zeppelins ‘n Zombies? Did they record “In My Time of the Season of Dying”?


rm 12.09.10 at 8:05 pm

But, ajay, the king is not actually in charge, and the Ottoman Empire is no more. However, given the continuities with today’s stupid politics, it’s easy to imagine people clamoring for real kings and caliphates in a post-oil-shock world. As I said, it’s already begun.

You are not being literal-minded enough. You big jerk.


gmoke 12.09.10 at 11:26 pm

“The Khilafat movement (1919-1924) was a pan-Islamic, political campaign launched by Muslims in British India to influence the British government and to protect the Ottoman Empire during the aftermath of World War I.”

Does that have anything to do with Osama bin Laden and his stated aim to rebuild the Caliphate?

How about the Durand Line? Is that of any relevance (reticent or reluctant as it may be) in the troubles between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO?

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Chris Williams 12.09.10 at 11:50 pm

Sticking with the tradition that this thread should mainly be about sidetracks, I’d like to remind everyone that the Franklin expedition was the only time that the RN 1818-1850 polar exploration MO ever killed more than a couple of people per ship. J Ross, Parry, and JC Ross had between them mapped rather a lot of the NW passage in this period. But owing to the lead misfortune, we get, over and over again, the tale of ‘the incompetent Franklin expedition and all its luggage and reactionary Victorianness’ and tend to miss out the rest of the picture.


Keir 12.10.10 at 1:26 am

re: 68 cf Wells’ The Wheels of Chance which is all about the radical social change possible owing to the bicycle.

(Also everything Wells ever wrote, of course — Wells undisputedly writing one of the great sate of England novels.)


ajay 12.10.10 at 9:40 am

72: absolutely! and what about Rae and McClintock? Give some credit to the unpolished lower-class Jocks as well as the Navy! (Yes, OK, I know John Ross was unpolished and a Jock as well.)

73: thanks Keir. The key to this sort of discussion is that I throw out elaborate hypotheses and someone else does the tedious work of testing them. Then when I get something right by chance, people say “My God! What intuition that young man has!”

Isn’t Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Cranford” about the social changes brought by the railways? And “Kim” and “Dombey & Son” as well, to an extent.


Lisa 12.10.10 at 10:53 am

64. 68., There’s an longstanding argument that quite a lot of things that are identified as steampunk don’t have the necessary, technological-driven forward thrust that was the essence of steampunk’s precursor in Victorian/Edwardian science fiction, and are thus better described as Gaslit Romance. The browser game Echo Bazaar for instance, looks quite steampunky but has very little technology – the society is much more on the decadent and decaying side of victoriana and the creators are on record as resisting the steampunk label for this reason


belle le triste 12.10.10 at 11:12 am

The book is actually titled “Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation” in the UK: “The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin’s Tragic Quest for the Northwest Passage” is apparently its US /Canada title only.

And it’s pretty good on all those other folks. The Franklin stuff is kept to the beginning (setting off with fanfare into years-long mystery) and end (denouement; what details there are of what happened) , but the middle three-quarters is about precursors and context, and successors and all these folks like Parry and the Rosses and McClintock and Rae (and the very effective and persistent campaigns of Franklin’s widow to get “something done”). Also some interesting stuff on polar-inspired art of this period: there’s a terrific if rather uncharacteristic Landseer of two polar bears crunching bloodily on human bones…

I just ordered the David Woodman book that gathers together and analyses all the Inuit testimony, which wasn’t paid very detailed attention at the time except to denounce it: the Victorian public weren’t at all prepared to process tales of British sailors driven to eating one another.


belle le triste 12.10.10 at 11:15 am

Re Chris’s point at 72, Lambert says somewhere that the Franklin debacle was partly a consequence of the not entirely deserved good fortune of early expeditions, in only losing small handfuls at a time. The luck couldn’t hold forever.


Chris Williams 12.10.10 at 12:18 pm

I usually quite like Lambert’s work, but I’ve got to disagree with the ‘bullet-dodging’ assessment of the RN exploration. The thing that did for Franklin wasn’t any of the threats that the earlier expeditions had faced – being crushed by ice, or being iced up for so long that they ran out of food – but an entirely new one: being driven crazy and then killed by lead solder in the tinned meat. It doesn’t compare. Sure the process was dangerous, but global navigation in ships of any kind was dangerous in the period 1820-1850.

As it happened, I didn’t mention McClintock above because although he was the first man through, he did damn nearly lose his crew in the process. The ‘find Franklin’ expeditions were all a bit more daring and dangerous than the earlir ones. For a real, though far less powerful, critique of the RN you probably need to focus on Scoresby, and what he managed to do whilst also making a living.


dsquared 12.10.10 at 12:22 pm

It goes even further back – the Mabinogion is basically about the radical social changes which came about as a consequence of magic cauldrons and goblins.


Chris Williams 12.10.10 at 12:38 pm

Yr man Spufford’s _Red Plenty_ begins with Russian peasant tales of super-abundance also.


belle le triste 12.10.10 at 12:48 pm

Yes, Lambert’s curiously dismissive of the lead-solder theory. He acknowledges it — though not terribly clearly — but moves from “there is no solid proof yet that anyone on the expedition died of lead poisoning” (which is true: the Beechey island trio all died of TB) to “therefore lead solder is not the culprit”. Which he says is scurvy, I think.

I enjoyed the book — certainly he marshalls an astonishing amount of material — but he’s oddly inexact with details at times. I found it really aggravating that he mentioned Ross’s location of Magnetic North several times, but never actually said WHERE — since it migrates, this is pertinent. When Amundsen relocated it was nearly a hundred miles away from where Ross found it.


ajay 12.10.10 at 1:41 pm

an entirely new one: being driven crazy and then killed by lead solder in the tinned meat

…or from the distilled water supply, and/or botulism from improperly tinned food, I believe. There were a lot of bulging tins discovered.

Whatever the Franklin pathogen was, it acted oddly. Something bad happened between May 1848 (“all well”) and April 1849 (last message, Franklin and 24 men dead, ships abandoned).


Jackie M. 12.10.10 at 5:40 pm

Latecomer here… and I know this is something of a tangent? But regarding the American vs. British teenagers Priest quoted as arguing over class struggles and exploitation in Victorian England vs. America, I can’t help but think that there were two rather major social events that took place in Victorian-era America during the 19th century.

And I know that there is one group of writers out there right now exploring the possibilities of combining a steampunk aesthetic with at least one of those narratives… anyway, I thought it was probably worth mentioning that there is quite a bit of untouched meat left on the sociological bone of the 19th century.


Zamfir 12.10.10 at 6:17 pm

The Victorian era lasted 65 years. There is not a country in the world that did not have at least 2 major social events in that period.


praisegod barebones 12.10.10 at 6:28 pm

Jackie M.

It looks as though on this thread, on-topic is the new off-topic. So no need to be reticent about it.

Comments on this entry are closed.