Last week, someone asked if Steampunk was dystopian.
Both are sub-genres of speculative fiction. Of course, genres and sub-genres are just labels, and they’re hardly mutually exclusive. You can have an alternate history noir detective story. (Set it in Alaska, and you have Michael Chabon’s YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION.) And, you could have a dystopic Steampunk story. However, in general, the perspectives of the two sub-genres are very different.
Dystopia imagines a far less than ideal future. When writing one, we ask the question: what if things went really wrong? We extrapolate from today and build a future as we’d truly not like to see it become. And, as Beth so aptly pointed out, the world we build acts as an antagonist. The characters fight against the dystopic world around them.
Steampunk re-imagines the past. Its writers ask the question: what if the steam age (mostly the 19th century) had developed the technology we have today? (The term, Steampunk, was coined in the 1980’s as kind of a tongue-in-cheek play on the cyberpunk genre.) The premise is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Charles Babbage designed the first mechanical computer—the Difference Engine--in the 1820’s. Unfortunately, it didn’t work—at least then. One of the best known Steampunk novels—THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling—imagined that Babbage’s computer did work, and it became the cornerstone of technology in the Victorian era. Imagine a steam-powered internet--and Victorian England (Babbage was British, btw) as the Silicon Valley of the 19th century.
Not surprisingly then, Steampunk has a distinctive visual aesthetic. The Victorians would not have encased everything in plastic as we do today. They would’ve built computers out of mahogany and brass, all riveted together. You would have pulled levers, read gauges, spun dials, and watched gears turn. And, let's not forget the punk part of the equation. Like punk rock, Steampunk (or cyberpunk or any other literary punk) has an anti-authoritarian streak.
The aesthetic and attitude of Steampunk appeal to many people--so much so that an entire subculture has grown up around the genre. Afficiandos design Steampunk clothes, toys, art, role playing games, and machines. A museum in Oxford even dedicated an exhibit to Steampunk art:
Steampunk is making inroads in the YA/MG world—thanks to Scott Westerfeld. If you haven’t read LEVIATHAN yet, go do it now. It’s a rousing adventure set in an alternate 1914 Europe. Here, instead of me telling you about it, check out this trailer:
Isn't that one of the best book trailers ever?
If you read Westerfeld’s blog, you’ll see how his readers have embraced the DIY ethic of Steampunk. Fans submit their own art work, and Westerfeld features steam-powered mechanical creations on Walker Wednesday:
So, back to the question. Is Steampunk dystopian? Most of the time: no. But, it can be. At the end of THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, we do get a glimpse of the present day world (at least the 1990’s) in this alternate time line. It’s depicted as a dystopia. Other Steampunk writers who extrapolate that past to the future may end up with a dystopia, too. However, most Steampunk—at least that I’ve read—focuses on the alternate past—the past as we wished it had been—and embraces the brash confidence and optimism of the Victorians. It was an age when Brittania ruled its empire, the Wild West was still wild, and technology and reason could solve anything. In a dystopia, the characters fight against the world—whether it’s an oppressive government or a post-apocalyptic landscape. In Steampunk, the characters (in general) revel in their world, using technology, ingenuity, a bit of whimsy, and attitude to conquer it. Sooner or later, though, the world may catch up to the Steampunks. (World War I, after all, crushed the Victorian / Edwardian optimism and faith in technology.) Or the Steampunks may just kick the world's a*s.
What kind of dystopia could you create out of a Steampunk past? Discuss.
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