The Anxiety of Steampunk

“Steampunk is the anxiety of empire.”

William Gibson, quoting China Mieville

steampunk legoI can’t lie, when I heard about the future existence of Steampunk Lego, my initial reaction was one of unfettered glee. I come from a background of the cyberpunk of Sterling and Gibson, the genre of the disaffected of the near future, a techno-dystopic, hard science fiction that spoke of society and the differences between the technological haves and have-nots. This then directly led to the creation of steampunk in their joint novel The Difference Engine. I loved the ‘what-if’ premise of a society that receives their technological Great Leap Forward early, and hypothesises what that looks like and what repercussions it has. I loved the aesthetics, the brass and the gears and the great engines of industry.

But over time I fell out of love with the genre, for reasons I couldn’t pin down. I began to look askance at the emerging of steampunk fashion while also enjoying the visual aesthetic and the craft involved in it. And yet I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong – at least not until I observed Jess Nevins and Warren Ellis partake in a hashtag game on Twitter, in which this contribution caused some controversy:

Seemingly innocuous, but it started me thinking; started making me realise what the issue was. There was no more ‘punk’ in steampunk. Hell, these days there was barely even any steam, but that’s an irrelevance. It had become affectation, it had become an aesthetic; it had become about middle-class white men, espousing a rose-tinted memory of Victorian ethics, who happened to be wearing top hats and welding goggles. In short, steampunk had stopped punching up and started punching down. We had allowed the genre of technological underclasses and the repressed to become, again in Jess Nevin’s words, “masturbatory techno-fetishism & glorification of imperialism“.

It set me to writing with a rage in my belly, a desire to tell a different story, a steampunk as I thought it should be, a steampunk that asked questions of the premise of the genre: Who was making all these wonderous devices, if not the poor of the workhouses? Where were the women? How was the steam-based technological boom affecting the have-nots? Where in this society were the immigrant communities that thronged the Brick Lane of Victorian London and what role did they play? Exactly how well did a steam automaton function when it was caked with the stinking night soil of an East London alley?

This project was to be called Broken Gears, a steampunk comic, a gaslit dystopia. Sadly it hasn’t yet come to pass; comics is a collaborative medium and can sometimes suffer delays because of that. But I haven’t given up on the project and I still hope it will find new life in whatever guise.

And until then, I’ll still have the dilemma, the anxiety of steampunk; I will cheer Charles Stross’s article on the matter, but also browse steampunk pocket watches on Etsy. I will start planning where to put my inevitable new Steampunk Lego, while also raging about the fact that its ‘protagonist’ is yet again a middle-class gent in a top hat. Presumably his goggles are an optional extra, available for sale separately. I will continue to admire the craft and skill that has gone into the attire of the Steampunk Aesthetes, and continually dream of what more could be done with the genre. If only it was just a little more about punk and a little less about affectation.

By Stephan Burn

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