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Was Steampunk a mistake?

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Welcome back to our blog where I'll entertain you with another rant on one of the many misconceptions surrounding retrofuturism in fiction.

First, we have a Writing Challenge this month. 2000 max. Want to help us expand the multiverse? Check it out, here.

I have stated various times that I am not a fan of using time periods to define the what-ever-punks. Be it Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or what has been used as a descriptor. Some used Atompunk as a descriptor for the Association of Ishtar... Your guess is as good as mine. But I see it as an indication the aesthetic of this series has a wider appeal. So, I'll roll with that.

However, it also points out how poorly defined all these whatever-punk are. So, some have opted for using time periods to separate the various 'punks'. And today I'll explain why that is a terrible idea.

Originally, I wanted this blog to be on why time periods make a poor descriptor for anything, be it for historical subjects or otherwise. And yet, it is how the general public defines the various punk offshoots. I diverted from that topic while writing this blog to why these what-ever-punks have damaged the creative process as a whole. One reason is that Steampunk by many is treated purely as a very particular aesthetic. I have explained in my historical clothing in Steampunk rant why this is bad for Steampunk.

As for historical periods, and how they are used in discussions, are often used to compartmentalize historical subjects, aesthetics, developments, etc. However, there is a major problem with that. You see, let's take the name Middle Ages or Dark Ages. This is the period often used to label the period between the fall of the roman empire in the 4th century and the 15th-century Renaissance.

There is the problem. It describes an era of a 1000 years! As a result, events like the black death,

have become synonymous with the name Middle Ages.

The bright minds that come up with it thought it was fitting because, so their logic goes:

"The Romans were awesome! When they disappeared everything went to shit. And when we started imitating the Romans we were awesome again awesome. Everything between them and us has no value. And, while we at it, let us murder Latin, turning it into a dead language." Despite their knowegde about the Roman Empire was limited to 1ste century Rome.

Anyway, 19th atheists and enlightened 'thinkers' called it a Dark Age because it was very religious. And religion bad, therefore, Dark Age until magnificent 'Us' arrived... And then they would continue to create secular ideologies so murderous and violent it would make Ghenghis Khan and Vlad Dracul tip their hats- Crowns... Whatever.

The point is, that these periods are entirely fictitious. There is no point in time where one development just stops and a new one begins. Medieval castles didn't just disappear because the Renaissance began. Arte Deco towers still make up the skyline of various cities a century after being built. I mention Dover Castle in the Wrench of the Machine which has been upgraded and repurposed for centuries, including the world wars. And yet, when looking at Steampunk aesthetics, where are these vestiges?

Point is that periods are labeled and ranked through the eye of the beholder. And those who do so often have a bias. Then other people adopt this ranking system because they don't know better, either due to peer pressure or the education system. And because history is a record of human behavior, which is highly complex and unpredictable, we pick and choose our historical periods. In the case of the what-ever-Punks, from a very American time frame.

Enough about that.

There is a deep misconception on what the what-ever-Punk actually are. Hell, there is a misconception on what genres are.

Scientific- or Futuristic Speculation in fact started with the so called Romantic Futurists. People like Jules Verne romanticized the future. This tradition was continued by the pulp- and dime novel writers of the early 19th century. About the interbellum period and thereafter, filmmakers embraced the Gernesbackian aesthetic. A combination of wishful futurism and New Age ideas. So you get Psychic aliens racing around in flying sources trying to understand contemporary humanity. Advanced civilizations living underground while riding dinosaurs, and swashbucklers in Space. And when the Space Race started in the wake of WW 2, creators were more and more compelled to explore the potential world-ending conflict through fiction. Both as a study of the human condition, and social criticism.

It is interesting to contrast this to scifi from the USSR around the same era. Where the marvelous STALKER and similar works weren't just veiled critiques of communist society, but also a desire to escape the Iron Curtain. Of course, these Slavic masterpieces wouldn't be known until the curtain fell for the USSR, and were embarrassed, in particular by gaming culture.

Up to the 90s the scifi genre, despite its visual updates, remained true to its pulp origins, focusing one-story episodes with some red thread running through the series as a whole. But in the 2000's streaming happened to turn series into 8-hours movies to keep the consumers in their seats. This killed the High Concept Writing that made series like Star Trek, Brisco County Jr., and even Firefly that memorable. Instead, episodes have to be entirely about the protagonists. Throw in a heap of cultural/political narcissism of the Hollywood elite, and you end up with a plethora of series that nobody watches and get canceled before the first season ends.

Now, this is a very American perspective of things. That's one issue with all the What-ever punks. I told you Dieselpunk is very unlikely to ever develop in Europe in the way Steampunk has. I said that about a decade ago. And it still ain't here. That's because Dieselpunk as an aesthetic is mired in Americana. Take out the Populux, Arte Deco, and the American Dream. Sorry, but nobody would call it Dieselpunk anymore.

And in that description of a what-ever-punk lies my problem. Nothing in there is new! For context, I started with the Steampunk Beginners Guide with the question 'What makes Steampunk unique, and different from what came before?

Steampunk didn't invent anything new. Its aesthetic can be traced back all the way to the 19th century. But it's a unique combination of historical subjects and pop-culture tropes. For me, the 19th century as a setting is irrelevant. The 19th century just happens to be a great setting for the themes Steampunks excels at. Change and entrepreneurship. It glorifies and criticizes the individual creator that seeks to change the world in equal measure, and do so in a world that is often adverse to change. Then there is the technological aesthetic of the era that just looks good with all the moving components, making it relatable. Even a child can understand how gears work just by looking at them. Compare that to a print board, for example.

So, what am I trying to say here? Time periods are fake? The appeals of Dieselpunk and Steampunk are different?

I would go so far to say that Steampunk and all the other Punk are harmful to our perspective of literary history and how the creative process works. That's right. Harmful.

So, how did this tragedy begin?

Cyberpunk was science fiction set in the nearby future, very influenced by the pop culture that came before The advent of new technology, the cold war, and globalism. It's also why Cyberpunk didn't age well, like much of '90s scifi. Writers like Gibson didn't really know how the internet and related technology worked. Neither were their ideas new. If you listen to my audiobook, The Machine Stops! from 1902, they had predicted the internet and its effects on human society. Seriously. It's terrifying how accurate that short story is.

Anyway, these Cyberpunk writers coined the term Steampunk, as it was Cyberpunk in the Past. Ok, good. But then people just started inventing new words that included Punk for whatever reason. The Flintstones became Stonepunk. Conan became Sword and Saddle. Bioshock, Aqua/Oceanpunk. And worst of all, it has added nothing of value, apart from authors making themselves feel special for inventing a new label. And consumers project their favorite label on something they liked. Ergo, all Weird West became Steampunk... More on that another time.

But here is the Harmful part. When you say something is x-punk, there is no more discussion to be had. It kills any and all conversation because we all instinctively know, it is projection. Therefore going against such claims is insulting to that person's feelings.

Apart from not understanding what a genre is, it also treats Steam- or whatever punk as its own thing that exists in a creative void. There was nothing before, or worse, it has always existed. Creative works are rendered devoid of the creator's intent, or what inspired those that made Steampunk what it is today.

Why is Bioshock set underwater? Obviously, because it's Oceanpunk! Not at all because the developers were looking for a place where a city like Rapture could possibly exist.

Flintstones? Obviously, they wanted stone-based technology! It has nothing to do with a modern Stone Age Family inspired by the then-popular tv show The Honeymoons.

It's that omission of pop-culture history that is hurting the development of Steampunk the most. Often, when movements such as these are running low on fumes, it's because creators are making the same thing over and over, out of fear their audience will reject them. Fellow travelers. It's time to return to the source. The Pulps inspired modern pop culture, to begin with. Robert E Howard, Michael Moorcock, Lovecraft, Walter B Gibson.

Ignore the repackaged vampire novel covers that dominate the Steampunk bookshelves today, and check out the books and radio plays of the Shadow, Doc Savage, and Elrick instead. Go watch Fritz Lang, and the Noir classics. These were all creators not yet kneecapped by Ivory Tower corporate machines that are being undermined by their own propaganda and incompetence.


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