Saturday, 19 April 2008

Steampunk (2008)

Last weekend, we took a special exemption from our usual schedule to extend an offer made by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer for a pre-order discount on their Steampunk anthology. Having done so, it seemed worthwhile to actually review the volume, so that any interested parties might know if it's worth taking up the offer.

As I noted in that previous post, the anthology has a deplorable name that, unfortunately, cannot be helped. I'm loathe to use it myself, due in no small part to the fact that I weigh in closer to what Jess Nevins, in his article in the anthology, refers to as "second generation steampunk" for whom the genre is not "primarily English, urban, static, or melancholy" and divested of (or never possessing of) "The politics of the punk position". Thank goodness.

Despite these personal reflections, Nevins' article is one of the gems of the anthology. Before diving into the meat of the selections by renowned fiction authors, the Vandermeers enlisted the aid of a trio of critics to provide some historical background. Nevins, author of a series of encyclopedias and annotations for Victorian fiction and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, provides an analysis of Steampunk's roots in 19th century Edisonades. Edisonades were a popular American genre of literature (named after the fact by John Clute) in dime novels that exemplified values of invention, capitalism and expansionism in the North American frontier. Steampunk, Nevins argues, is the counterpoint to this: the gritty, urban fiction of the imperial capital, questioning and punishing invention, capitalism and expansionism.

Rick Klaw follows Nevins' theory piece with a practical survey of where Steampunk has stretched across the pop-culture landscape. He begins with wistful reminisces of Ray Harryhausen films, into the modern Steampunk cyberscape, down through role-playing games, around to television, past anime and back again to the most recent movies. It provides a relatively succinct list of the pinnacles of modern Scientific Romances. Bill Baker brings up the rear with a specific focus on Steampunk in comic books.

After the historical and theoretical articles, the anthology launches into its fine collection of fiction. Represented are such luminaries as Michael Moorcock, Joe R. Lansdale, Paul Di Filippo, James Blaylock and Neal Stephenson. Other names may not be as familiar if one is not a heavy reader of current Science Fiction, such as Mary Gentle, Jay Lake, Ted Chiang, and Rachel E. Pollock. There is an excellent cross-section of material from the past 30 years, though it could certainly have used a biblography at the end recommending further reading, especially for those authors not represented in the anthology. However, as a reader in modern Scientific Romances, the volume is to be recommended.

To take up the Vandermeers' special offer, click on Steampunk Anthology Special Offer


Jess Nevins said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed my contribution.

Honestly, I don't really have a problem with the newer stuff. I just wish it wouldn't be called "steampunk," since there's nothing "punk" about it.

"Scientific Romance" is a *much* better term for it.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that most readers think of steampunk as something very different from what purists think of it as. Therefore, "steampunk" now effectively means something different. As we've discovered in the past, on some things it's not worth fighting with readers about. If we'd called it "Scientific Romance" no one would know what we're talking about, in the wider world. But, this is precisely why we led off with Jess Nevins' essay.

There is a bibliography in the finished book, btw.

Thanks very much for the review and for having extended the offer!

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Cory The Raven said...

I remember the debate before Steampunk's current popularity about whether or not we should actually be calling it Steampunk... Most of us who were interested in it didn't identify ourselves as Punks or Punk-sympathizers, and were interested in Victorian Sci-Fi for entirely different reasons.

That appreciation only deepened after I started researching it and found out things like how Jeter coined the term as a joke, Gibson didn't even want it applied to The Difference Engine, Clute considered the genre to be genial and un-Punk from the very beginning, and died-in-the-steel-wool Cyberpunks considered it a dead genre.

I think the irony of the whole situation is that the Punk part of the equation only became an emphasis when Steampunk became a popular fashion. There's this very strange discourse about how the Punk part of Steampunk is at risk of being lost beneath the fashion trend when they both came along at the same time. It strikes me that the two are actually connected, and that the Punk of Steampunk is the superficial fashion trend (I'd actually argue the same of Punk altogether, but that's another topic). Steampunk became Punk when it became mainstream, marketable and fashionable.

You're right, though, about how that's just what it's called. I suppose I don't mind insofar as it gets readers for my blog, but it sends my hackles up whenever I trace back referral links and find Voyages Extraordinaires listed as a "Steampunk blog". To put the nail in the coffin, I guess, the other day my girlfriend was asked by two separate people on two separate occassions if I was a "Steampunk", based on her description of me. She was forced to clarify that I have a piddling distinction of liking Victorian Sci-Fi, dressing in a Victorian suit and goggles to the club, carrying on a blog about this sort of stuff, but hating the label "Steampunk" and refusing to go by it ^_^

Jess Nevins said...

I'd argue, though, that the punk aesthetic was a part of steampunk for a long while, which is why the genre did deserve the "punk" application. It may not have been a subject of -deliberate- emphasis on the authors' parts, but it was there nonetheless.

Of course, this argument, such as it is, is lost. Regardless of what I think it should be, steampunk now represents something else entirely.

Lori said...

Looking forward to my copy of the book arriving. I have heard of this "Jess Nevins" character, and will no doubt be hanging on his every word. (He's rolling his eyes right now, I know.)

"Scientific Romance", you say? That's a nice description, methinks. I may use that now and again.

Derek "Ruthven" Tatum said...

Yet another book to add to my list. I just received my copy of "The New Weird" yesterday.