Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I Hope It Doesn't Have Gears on the Cover...

Note from Reece: this is a guest post by one of my friends, explaining his position in a running debate between ourselves.

That's how you know a book isn't worth reading; if it's got gears on the cover.

A close friend of mine and I have a running bet on the nature of steampunk. I think the premise of steampunk as a genre is inherently flawed whereas my friend thinks the genre has potential to be good, if done right. It seems like a somewhat unfair bet; If he can provide one example of a good and well written steam punk novel he wins the debate, while I can only be right if from now until the end of time no one ever creates a steampunk masterpiece.

I am fairly confident in my chances of winning.

Steampunk does have some pretty... aesthetics.
The problem with steampunk, as I see it, is that steampunk is inherently an aesthetic medium and not really a genre of fiction. At its heart steampunk is about cool impressive gears spinning inside cool steam powered machines which are operated by pretty ladies in cool corsets and handsome men in cool tophats riding around in cool looking airships flying above a world in serious arrested development. No one really seems to explain why or how steampunk worlds seem to be stuck in Victorian-era fashion and technology but the fact they are so devoted to gas laps and gears is just super cool! And therein lies our problem. Steampunk gives a cool visual feel and not much else.

To be fair I think the steampunk aesthetic works really well in visual mediums like artwork, video games, movies, and book covers, but that's the upper limit of what it can do: provide a cool visual. So steampunk books fall into one of two problems: either they focus on characters and plot -- and rightly so -- but leave the steampunk aspect in the background making the steampunk designation pointless to begin with; or they over-focus on their cool visual which leaves the characters and plot in the dust.

Now let us use the Dune series to explore both problems.
World's first sandpunk novel.
Dune is a fantastic novel that takes place in a desert environment; but would you call it sandpunk? Well no, that would be silly. It's clearly a sci fi book that takes place in a desert world. To identify it as sandpunk because there is a lot of sand in the world of Dune doesn’t make much sense. The book is good because the story is well-written and interesting and not because people think sand is really cool. The author decided to construct a world and write about how events would unfold in the world he constructed, a hallmark of sci fi. Now if he decided that the giant worms in Dune were powered by steam and gears you still wouldn't call it steampunk anymore then you would call Star Trek dilithiumpunk or Starwars forcepunk; you would still call Dune sci fi, but now with steam-powered worms. Possessing steam power doesn't make it a genre unto itself; it means it's either good sci fi that has steam power or it's bad writing but with cool-looking gears.

On the other hand, the flip side of the problem can be shown to be just as silly with the help of Dune. Let's say that because of Dune's popularity people started to actually write sandpunk. They imagined these fantastic worlds powered by giant worms. Ok... now what? You still need a story. If you just describe the different ways giant worms can be used to power your cool sandpunk city then you forgot the most important part of telling a story... the story. Well then, what about castlepunk were people use castles to power other even larger castles that fight super castles? Or how about somethingpunk where you use something technology to something or whatever. See the problem? Your book has to do something more then throw out a cool idea with no real storytelling to back it up.

Sadly, all steampunk, in my opinion, seems to always fall for one of these two traps. On one hand we can have a good sci fi book that could stand on its own without the steampunk element. It may feature a clockwork robot, but the robot could have just as easily been a magic golem without affecting the story in any major way, making the steampunk element unnecessary. On the other hand, you can have a book that just sounds like a couple of teenagers throwing out cool ideas that don’t really necessitate a whole book to answer.

Maybe that is what is really wrong with steampunk: it asks a question that doesn’t need a book to answer. Steampunk wants to ask us: “Wouldn't it be cool if steam technology and gears were used instead of oil, and ladies still wore corsets and men still wore top hats?”

To which we can answer; “Yeah I guess all that stuff would be pretty cool steampunk, but I'm going to go see what sci fi is up to he actually wants to tell me a real story.”

And there you have it; the question steampunk asks and the answer all wrapped up in under 5 sentences without the 300 pages of filler.


Reece said...

So apparently comments have been turned off this entire time.

I think you're right, Reginald, about steampunk being primarily aesthetic, but I think that leaves a hole in your argument about why steampunk must be bad.

If you consider sandpunk, it's going to be crippled and lame because it's all about the aesthetic experience of sand and deserts and mighty moon worms. Not about the story.

But then Dune is a good "sandpunk" book. Not because it's about sand and deserts. It just uses those trappings to tell the story of empire and trade and addiction (I've actually never read Dune, so I guess that's what it's about). So because you admit Dune to be a good book, and yet admit it could be considered the first in a new genre of "sandpunk", you've also admitted there could be a book in steampunk that is good.

But then you rather unfairly tried to stop up the hole you made, by stating that if steampunk were good, it in some sense "doesn't count" because it's good for reasons unrelated to the particular aesthetics of steampunk.

In that sense, talking about genre at all is sort of silly. There's no such thing as a "good fantasy" or a "good sci-fi" or a "god space opera". There's just good stories that use different aesthetic trappings.

Here's where I think the bet needs to go:
A book set in an environment with a Victorian-era feel and aesthetic whose technology is at a level of clockwork, brass, vaccuum tubes and steam engines, that uses those elements to tell a compelling story with realistic and likeable characters who experience some interesting and engaging series of events, and possibly explores ideas relating to technology, society, or philosophy.

To which I say, His Dark Materials.

Bet over.

Unknown said...

You make a point that is not without merit but I'm with Reece...see: "The Difference Engine"...Gibson and Sterling.