Friday, July 12, 2013

Jha's Very Own Steampunk 101

So, SDCC, where I am next scheduled to appear (alongside Kaja Foglio! And Anina Bennett! And Claire Hummel! And Dina Kampmeyer! It will be a righteous all-girls'-morning-in and you all should come) will have a Steampunk 101 panel. 

I get a bit confused because it seems to me that many times Steampunk 101 panels always get scheduled after several panels have been scheduled, and wouldn't you want the 101 to come first? (Of course, upon further reflection, it then occurs to me that the 101 panel tends to be scheduled on a day when more people can make the con.)

Then it makes me wonder what happens when people come onto my site and whether they think their definition of steampunk is in line with mine. I am sure that my definition of steampunk is in no way contradictory with theirs, but I have met people whose definition of steampunk seem to me a woefully inadequate way of speaking about it in a way that encourages growth and inclusivity (I am looking at you, "Victorian science fiction" people!) rather than continued derivatives.

For Dickens Fest in January, the minister of the local UU invited me to speak about steampunk, just for a few minutes. One of my department colleagues snarked at me and said, "oh? can you REALLY give an introduction to steampunk in less than five minutes??" And I was like, "sure, why the fuck not?" Nobody needs an accurate history of the nuances of steampunk; folks just need a general outline of how it coalesced and a description of what it is now.

So here it is, after, haha, four years of blogging, my definition of steampunk, paraphrased the best I can from my Dickens Fest speech (the outline of which I have since lost but I sort of remember the basics). Let's see if we're on the same page!

What is it?

People tend to get confused about exactly what is steampunk: a literary genre? A fashion? A look? Because if you just say it's a literary genre, then it doesn't account for the clothing, but if you call it a fashion, then that doesn't account for the movies and so on.

I think Mike Perschon, the original Steampunk Scholar, described it neatly when he used the word "aesthetic". (This is, of course, the very subject of his dissertation, WHICH YOU CAN DOWNLOAD HERE!!) Using the word "aesthetic" allows us the flexibility of talking about steampunk across various kinds of media. When we speak about "aesthetic", we mean a sensibility that adheres to specific ideas or elements.

Across most steampunk, you'll see the same elements crop up again and again. I share with Mike an agreement with most of his list on what these elements are, with one notable exception:

1) Evocative of an incipient or ongoing industrial revolution (Mike says "neo-Victorian" but I really just dislike that on principle because whenever we say "neo-Victorian" Very Specific Images are conjured which don't do anything for diversity)

2) Technofantasy (fantastic technology, for their age or ours, really. Lavie Tidhar also used the term "magical technology" which would explain a lot about all these mechanical limbs that somehow function really well despite current science just nope-ing the whole concept)

3) An alternate world history (I think Mike said "alternate history" here. I would go with alternate history too, but apparently it is already a well-established genre unto its own and I don't want to step on anybody's toes. Plus, the phrase "world-history" has a much more encompassing feel that really calls attention to how we should consider world-wide, or at least wide-scale, ramifications of the things we choose to change, timeline-wise, not just in settings of our world, but any secondary world settings)

Where did it come from?

The origin of the term "steampunk" is by now quite notorious: it began with three dudes, KW Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock, writing a bunch of spec fic set in a pseudo-Victorian setting. It was considered "gonzo-historical" at the time. The cyberpunk movement was still on a high at the time, and KW jokingly wrote to Locus Mag (and his wife, Geri, saved the clipping because she knew something momentous would come of it) suggesting the term, a a riff of cyberpunk.

The aesthetic, however, has always been with us. Things never really go away; they simply change and are re-iterated. Victorian materiality is what is most easily available to us, since it is one of the more recent "distant" eras to have passed and there is still plenty of stuff that is left over from a hundred years ago. Many of us have grandparents who remember the 19th century, or perhaps they have stories of their own grandparents who definitely lived through the 19th century.

So here we have this term, and it is sneaking across the infant Internet. Somehow it gets picked up by two different sets of people: Makers who attempt to create a certain aesthetic in their works, and fashion lovers, whose love is re-creating what they saw in old photographs. Both sets give it the same kind of modern spin that the literary folks do. The latter group is probably where Jess Nevins' joke about goths discovering brown comes from.

Somehow, they come together, through the magic of the Internet.

What do?

Here it gets tricky, because the language people used to talk about "doing steampunk" tends to vastly vary depending on just what they, uh, do! I'm an academic nerd after all, though, so let me put forward two fancy terms I use to describe how it's done. I think Mike uses them too.

1) Pastiche: is the act of pulling together different elements of different things, creating a whole new thing. It may be cohesive, or it may look like a hodge-podge of stuff slapped together, but the end result is pretty whole.

2) Bricolage: is the fancy term for using available immediate items for different purposes than they were originally intended to be.

Sometimes these two methods overlap, sometimes they don't. Talking about them like this allows me a flexibility in approaching stuff, whatever media it is.

So there you have it, Jha's Steampunk 101! Does it make sense? Does not make sense? Missing something? Addendum addendum?


  1. Hello,

    This was an interesting little introduction to Steampunk and the first time that I have seen one of my favorite words, aesthetic, being applied as a description of the group.

    Would you mind expanding a little on the difference between Pastiche and Bricolage? Maybe give an example or two of what constitutes each category? It sounds like an interesting difference, but I am unfamiliar with the terms.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Lynette,

      I draw my use of the term "aesthetic" from Mike Perschon (who to me is THE original steampunk scholar), whose dissertation you can find here:

      The main difference between them is the method: pastische may or may not involve the act of bricolage. I may be getting them mixed up, but one ends up a cohesive whole, while the other you can see clearly where each element comes from, what's been re-tooled.