Steampunk is here to stay. There’s no doubt about it. But as much as I am glad to see my favorite genre of speculative fiction get its due, I am a little disheartened by the lack of something present in today’s incarnation of the genre.
When I look back at the literature that got me interested in this style in the first place, I think of the classics such as Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, Robur the Conqueror, Paris in the 20th Century, Around the World in 80 Days. Or Wells and his classics The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and War of the Worlds.
The one thing that held most if not all of the early Scientific-Romance novels together was a heavy amount of not-so-thinly veiled social and political commentary. Both Verne and Wells constantly called out the corrupt nature of imperialism, and the negative effects of colonial expansion in their works. Not to mention being some of the first authors to address environmentalism, and the dangers of science run amuck. These were prophetic men with something to say and causes to fight for. Even the early works of authors like Jeter, Sterling/Gibson, Blaylock, etc. in the 70s, 80s, and 90s kept true to these ideals. Steampunk was after all, an offshoot of the sociopolitically motivated “Cyberpunk” genre.
However, it seems to be a dying trend with today’s writers, musicians, and artists in the Steampunk style. It doesn’t seem like many people have much to say about the state of our world. Or if they do, they seem to be content on focusing on the more “Gaslamp Fantasy” side of the genre.
I mean, sure I love airships, and submarines, and time machines as much as the next Steampunk fan. But I want more out of my Steampunk than dressing up like an Airship Pirate and pretending I live in the 19th century.
While fiction, music, and other forms of art are the primary way to share a message with the world, in this day and age the internet and its social networking can be just as powerful. Currently it seems as if there are two primary camps in the subculture online. And these two are represented by very different groups. On the one hand you have the members of “Brass Goggles” (The self-proclaimed “Lighter side of Steampunk”), whose members do seem to have an interest in the political and social aspects of Steampunk, but aren’t really allowed to discuss those things because of the forums “no religious/political discussion rule.” Of course I understand why the founders created the rule. It keeps conversations civil for the most part. But I can’t help but feel that it also stifles the creative discourse that can come from such discussions.
Now on the other side of the coin are the people behind Steampunk Magazine. Who actually have a manifesto present right up front in their publication and website. They seem to be a little more extreme about their political ideals as they apply to the Steampunk subculture.
To me, sociopolitical discourse should be something that gets an individual thinking for themselves, and encourages them to take whatever action they feel necessary to change their world. Revolutionary groups tend to coerce individuals into what they should say and think concerning the goals of the organization as a whole. But that is no better than living under a totalitarian state that does the exact same thing less subtlety. I’m not trying to decry the motivations of the Steampunk Magazine crew, as I think they are admirable. But I do have issues with revolutionary groups in general.
Somewhere between these two extremes rests “The Gatehouse,” and their forum the Smoking Lounge. Nick Ottens runs this group, and he seems open to people discussing anything they like as long as they keep it civil. The only problem is that compared to both Brass Goggles and Steampunk Magazine, Nick has a fraction of the members. So naturally there isn’t nearly as much activity on those forums.
Personally, this is something that we are trying to address through our work as Vernian Process. There are things about this world that aren’t common knowledge, and those are things we want more people to know about. We don’t like Imperial glorification, and national pride. We want people to know the history of the governments they so adore. The heinous acts that they have gotten away with over the centuries. The events that were swept under the rug of history so to say. These are important issues to us, and we hope that more of you feel the same. Sure thinking about the reality surrounding the genre we all love and adore can be depressing. But isn’t it better to address the very real issues our founders were so passionate about, then to run around with rose-tinted goggles ignoring all of the dark and horrific issues of the 19th century (issues that remain relevant even today)?
So what say you? Would you like to find more serious issues addressed in your Steampunk media? Or are you content with the more superficial aspects of the genre?
Joshua Pfeiffer is the founder of the Steampunk band Vernian Process, and co-founder of the steampunk-centric record label/collective Gilded Age Records. When he isn’t working on music, he is probably working as middle management in the video game industry.