Zeppelins, Tesla Coils, and an Argument for Escapism!

James Weber takes us down steampunk lane to investigate the “second artist effect” (with thanks to Charlie Stross)

Goggles

It seems that for a while now, there’s been this party going on which the kids are calling “Steam Punk”. As is my habit, though not for any reason other than ignorance, I’m late to the party. I suppose my first exposure to this genre of Speculative Fiction occurred about a year ago at a Horror convention in Pennsylvania. I was in the dealer’s room with a small press attempting to hawk my wears on potential readers when I noticed a couple of girls in corsets and trench coats. At the booth next to mine, these girls sold hats, scarves, and perhaps some other various items, but everywhere you looked, you saw tiny gears and wrenches. And aged specs of glass juxtaposed against similarly aged glints of metal. Of course, there were also lots of brown leather cords mixed with black lace and other stitching. It was as if someone canvased the set of a Sherlock Holmes movie and scooped up whatever wasn’t bolted to the floor (although the prevalence of nuts and washers suggested that perhaps the items had indeed been bolted somewhere). I took my break and made my way over to the booth, at first pretending to know what it was I was looking at, but obviously not fooling anyone. These girls read me like a book, gave me nothing but the genre name, then politely sent me on my way. For the rest of the Con, Steam Punk was in the back of my mind (perhaps it was just the corsets) but once the Con was over, it rose from my mind like so much hot air.

Ooh Pretty . . . uncomfortable . . .
Ooh Pretty

I attended other Cons, book clubs and discussions. Surfed forums and threads. Always, everyone seemed to know about Steam Punk but nobody seemed to tell. Finally it was recommended that I read Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama. While I genuinely enjoyed this read, I can honestly say I was left more confused than ever. I searched online, and found some reviews of the work, but mostly what I discovered was an endless abyss of articles and blog posts debating the merits of Steam Punk as a genre of Speculative Fiction. Two posts stuck out in my mind. The first, Charles Stross’ The Hard Edge of Empire seemed to discount Steam Punk as a genre which was over saturated with material and suffering from a heavy dose of second artist effect (apparently a term that Stross coined himself; impressive). Valtat writes a rebuttal, In Defense of Steampunkwhich attempts (rather successfully I think) to refute Stross’s arguments. I’ll gloss the articles for you presently:

The Hard Edge of Empire – The time period in which most Steampunk is supposed to take place, isn’t a time we should be romanticizing. The 19th century was a time in which women had little or no rights, starvation and poverty ran rampant alongside bigotry and classism, and rulers were judged fit to rule based on genetics. He also mentions that The Church during this period

Whole Lotta Love?
Whole Lotta Love?

was hardly above burning witches at the stake. Altogether, an accurate portrait of this time period should send readers piercing holes in the sides of their zeppelins and setting their corsets on fire (ok this last sentence is “interpretation”).

In Defense of Steampunk – Yes Steampunk is a look into a not-so-pleasant past but really how far away is our present? The ‘manners’ and ‘genteel society’ of the 19th century has been denounced as hypocrisy which served to cover up the atrocities mentioned above, but has a more respectable or honorable society stepped into it’s place? Perhaps the yearning and nostalgia for a bygone era which had at least the pretense of nobility is preferable to our stark reality which has not offered any solutions to these same problems.

I read both of these articles and it occurs to me what is really being debated here. From a larger perspective, these two posts, give an account of the relative merits of Escapism. Though these posts were both written two years ago, this issue is very timely and will continue to rear its ugly head as time goes on. Does this type of fiction really have a place in our society, or is it simply distracting the masses from finding a solution to their problems? I would assume that Stross’ opinion would indicate we are wasting our time. However, I feel Valtat might argue that at the very least, Steampunk and other types of ‘Escapist’ literature, document the wrongs of a society and maybe . . . just maybe, are a necessary part of imagining a world where these wrongs aren’t reality.

I suppose the only wrinkle here is the timeline. Instead of escaping forward into a future where our problems are solved, we’re escaping into a past in which our problems were (supposedly) worse. I think what we must do now is evaluate what it is we are really escaping that we would run to this past over some other future. Please leave thoughts in the comments section 🙂

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