thoughts on steampunk

If you’re interested in steampunk, Nader Elhefnawy has a well-thought-out article on it up on the SFWA site.

I particularly like the way he acknowledges the role of nostalgia without automatically dismissing nostalgia as something that must always be inherently bad. Yes, the steampunk vision of the past conveniently overlooks the less-attractive parts of the period, but the flip side of that coin is that it valorizes the attractive, selecting out qualities we may be losing/have lost in this day and age and trying to resurrect them. Plus, Elhefnawy puts the current era in context with the past in a way I found very eye-opening, characterizing this as the post-apocalypse of the Victorians, with WWI as the apocalypse.

Interesting stuff. I recommend reading it.

0 Responses to “thoughts on steampunk”

  1. Anonymous

    Okay that article was about four times longer than it really needed to be.

    Also, although he thinks he’s writing about Steampunk, he’s not. He’s writing about Sci-Fi in a victorian setting.

    I mean he cited The Prestige as a movie with a steampunk setting. Really?!? Were there like a bunch of steam power magical mechanisms in that movie that I missed entirely? It had some gears in the mechanisms the magicians used, which may have been exaggerations of what technology was capable of at the time, and then some weird crazy unexplained stuff that all had electricity as it’s basis.



    There’s a difference.

    That’s not to say it was necessarily a bad article, he just needs to be clear, with readers and himself, as to what it is he’s writing about.


    • Marie Brennan

      Dude, have you seen how the word “steampunk” is applied these days? The electrical stuff in The Prestige definitely counts, as does gear-based stuff (though sometimes you’ll see the word “clockpunk” used for that), as does basically anything that’s a pre-electronic, post-Renaissance bit of technology.

      I don’t disagree with you that it’s a sloppy use of the term, but that isn’t Elhefnawy’s fault. Steampunk has become a sprawling concept — anything from the eighteenth century to World War I, so long as it has handwavy and/or magical tech playing an important role. And heck, even that last bit is sometimes negotiable: just a Victorian setting is enough to get that label slapped on a story, sometimes.

      • alecaustin

        Hrm. You’re completely right about Steampunk being used in a very all-encompassing way these days, but at the same time I think that I’m in agreement that claiming The Prestige as Steampunk is problematic, and not just because of “electricity” vs. “steam” issues.

        While the Steampunk sub-genre has a huge penumbra, and is mostly unified by the time period it references and its aesthetic, I think that it has a bunch of core identifiers which are shared by books as diverse as Moorcock’s The Land Leviathan, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Steven Hunt’s Kingdom Across the Waves, Jay Lake’s Mainspring, and so on and so forth. The Prestige doesn’t have any of those trappings (airships, giant steam or magitech machines, a sense of a strongly alternate vision of the Victorian Era, in our world or another), and in the book version at least, it’s firmly linked to a recognizable vision of the present.

        Discursively, one can argue that the movie is Steampunk because of the aesthetics around Tesla’s machine, and that leads to interesting questions about what sorts of concerns are actually central to Steampunk these days. I am highly suspicious of people who go so far as to label something “Steampunk” because of a Victorian setting, though. Most works of that type are hardly going to be in discourse with books like the ones I’ve listed above (or even books like The Difference Engine) at all, beyond their shared setting.

      • Anonymous

        Yeah well I don’t agree with that wide labeling of steampunk. It’s not like I’m a fan of steampunk either, I could take it or leave it. It just annoys me when something has a very distinct setting/vibe/feel and it just gets too generalized to apply to a ridiculously wide field.

        It’s like anything spec fic set in the Victorian era is labeled steampunk. Disney could make a movie about talking animals in the 1800s and people would call it steampunk because the animals talk so that’s spec fic.


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