Guest Post: Chris Kelly on Putting the “punk” into Steampunk

Recently Chris Kelly (@indiechris on twitter) interviewed me on his site Dun Scaith about so-called “biopunk” fiction. Today I’ve invited Chris to tell us a bit about one of the genres he writes in–Steampunk.  This is a genre that, it seems to me, erupted after the publication of The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It’s a kind of alternate history generally set in Victorian times, when steam engines were a dominant technology –before the widespread adoption of, for example, internal combustion engines, telephones, or electricity. It imagines what might have happened if technologies had evolved differently — say, if computers had developed without electricity. I don’t have too much familiarity with this genre, myself, but I do usually attend the Arisia SF convention each year, and I can tell you that as a subject area for discussion, and as an influence on fashion and so forth, Steampunk has a greater influence in some parts of SF fandom than does futurism or “outer space”. It really does get you to wondering, “what if?”.

Below the fold, Chris talks about a particular aspect of the steampunk aesthetic: what makes it “punk”. So without further ado, take it away, Chris!

Putting the Punk into SteamPunk — by Chris Kelly

What is steampunk?

(This section taken from my site Steampunk World )

Steampunk is a vast, wide-ranging sub-culture.  People might just dip their toes in, such as playing a tabletop steampunk RPG; or they might wade in, playing steampunk LARP games once a month.  They could doggie paddle in, dressing up for certain events, or they could scuba dive – wearing steampunk clothing throughout their daily lives.

And I have no idea where all those weird watery metaphors came from, but never mind.

When it comes to fiction we bring problem upon problem on ourselves.  If steampunk is aesthetic then it’s all about appearance.  So what is the genre? What are the themes?

Joseph Robert Louis recently posted the  best description of steampunk I’ve seen on my blog, Dun Scaith.

But what about the Punk?

In my mind, the only thing JRL forgot was the punk. Biopunk, cyberpunk, steampunk all have that punkness in common. But what is it? In cyberpunk and biopunk it is a bleak view of a dystopian future where science hasn’t lived up to all we’ve been promised.

In steampunk I think it refers to a hint of rebellion. A lot of people commonly see the past as some sort of golden age. They tend to forget it was the shit that made the gold shine like sunlight.

Take the London Sewers as an example. A fantastic work of Victorian engineering, they are for the transportation of crap and yet are beautifully architected. But what’s commonly forgotten is the period known as the Great Stink and the fact that this is what inspired the sewers manufacture in the first place.

The Poor Get Poorer

Steampunk can be almost satirical in that it can become a stereotype of the system that already existed in London (or wherever your story is set). Steampunk inventors are ripped off by steampunk businessmen who become richer whilst the poor factory workers become poorer.

In my newly released novel, Matilda Raleigh: Invictus, Matilda is the richest woman in the British Empire. In the prequel to Invictus, which will hopefully be out in 2011, Matilda starts off as a 20-ish world-weary homeless woman, living on the filthy streets of London.

I think, in steampunk, the poor can be more interesting to write about. Certainly their lives seem more punked. The poor, deprived and oppressed are hardwired for rebellion, and this seething under the surface, ready to boil over element contrasts beautifully with the aesthetics of steampunk.

Still not a genre

However, I think steampunk is more an aesthetic than a genre. (Much as YA isn’t a genre, it’s a way of writing). Another genre must be combined with steampunk. Many other genres work, such as horror (Frankenstein), science fiction (The Time Traveller), or adventure (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

For Matilda Raleigh: Invictus I combined steampunk with sword and sorcery. I hope you’ll check it out.

Thanks, John, for having me on your blog as part of my October long blog tour.

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