Monday, September 13, 2010

Steaming punkin's

"Steampunk is for Goths who discovered brown."
"It's a great trend in costuming , but the book didn't sell that well."
"It was based on a movie that wasn't too successful. The costuming is popular, but it's so over."
"It's based on Victorian upper class. It was an ugly era. We shouldn't glorify it."

Those are just a handful of the ‘nays' I got on Steampunk -- from people who acquire novels - or lead the thought on the subject.

They could of course all be right: But I have never been too good at accepting ‘received wisdom' at face value. Contrarian by nature I take these sort of things as something of a challenge. This is probably incredibly stupid and I'd be a lot be a lot better off accepting things. If publishing believes it is over... they must be right. They know best, right? Heh. It would have been enough to make me want to write a Steampunk book - even if I didn't have a proposal floating around out there already.

Don't Goths read? And don't people read about Goths, even in brown?

I'm a little iffy about the book that didn't sell too well - which book? My own interest in an alternate history that focussed on an age of steam began with Harry Harrison's 1973 ‘A Trans-Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah' (which had coal-fired rocket ships), and Keith Roberts's 1968 ‘Pavane' (which was a depressing heavy treatment of a fascinating idea - where the suppression of the reformation had lead to a Catholic dominance of Britain and the World - and steam was still the major power source). I enjoyed Tim Powers Anuibus Gates - even I wouldn't have called it Steampunk as much as time-travel. Or do they refer to the much later Gibson and Sterling's Difference engine? Or Jay Lake's Mainspring, or Meivelle's Perdido Street Station? I don't know. Some of these probably didn't sell too well, although they did get noticed. (Notice and sales don't actually go hand in hand. It depends who is noticing. Literati critics for example tend to ‘notice' the sort of books which just don't sell.)

However, it is fair to point out that Sir Terry Pratchett's ‘Nation' is de facto Victorian era alternate history and has many of the trappings of Steampunk - and outsold all of these books put together, and just about anything else.

I think the movie reference is probably ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' -- IMO the sub-genre has been totally undermovied for its cinematographic potential. What a surprise. Hollywood likes books that out of copyright, so they can make movies for which they don't pay the author, and then secure the copyright to their work for generations. I had hoped that the recession would send them back to their once counter-cyclical to economic trend roots and change the direction of the industry, but it hasn't happened. Hasn't happened in publishing either. Time was when the industries to be in bad times were cheap mass entertainment (movies and books) or beer (cheap booze) as escapism (especially if it leaves you feeling more cheerful for a while) is popular in tough times. The movie and publishing business have tanked along with upper-middle class goods sales the last 3 times, which should make us scared. Message: we aren't seen as good uplift-your-spirits worth what the product costs any more.

The Victorian upper class one I just had to try and swallow my tongue or I might have had howling roll on the floor laughing fits. It's a very PC answer from a very PC author and editor... Hmm. I guess medieval-styled high fantasy is based on a lovely era... for peasants. We in the editorial upper class should decide what is suitable for the proles to read, eh?

Anyway: all of the reactions got me thinking why Steampunk might - despite their comments - actually still be popular. Rising rather than falling. After all, genres and subgenres wax and wane, and then just one book can stir them to life or even fierce flame again. (I notice Baen are doing a bunch of Slowship books. That was dead as mackerel until some blokes wrote Slow Train to Arcturus.)

The first question was why might this subgenre be popular in first place - because if you can work out what made it tick, you can exploit those directions. And as I was once upon a time trained in logic an debate, let's start by establishing a few premises
1)Steampunk is set in a world (either alternate history or just plain elsewhere-fantasy) where steam power is the most common form of powering things.
2) It's 19th century, usually Victorian in the underlying cultural setting (which affects everything from architecture, fashion, to cultural mores).

So what makes it attractive?
These are my ideas:
1) The cool costuming possibilities (and this too IS important). It's escapist, it's fun.
2) The accessibility of the technology - yeah, there is brass and clockwork and steam and smoke-stacks... but it's big old-fashioned engineering. It's stuff we understand. It's quirky, but plausible. Familiar enough, but different.
3)The 19th century was an expansive, hopeful century (at least for the West - which, I dare remind people - is still the cultural background for a lot of the market for sf and fantasy. We're so busy appealing to markets we don't have and possibly won't get, that there is an inclination to neglect our core audience. They still are the people who buy English language sf and fantasy. People who live in America or Western Europe or Commonwealth countries, not Iran or China... yet). This ties in with the fact that Steampunk (with the exception of some of the more literary new grunge stuff - which garners awards and yet fails to get the sales volume) is less dystopian and dark than cyberpunk (which doesn't seem to be flourishing as well recently).
4)Because it is set in 19th century social and cultural milieu it is de facto less politically correct. A lot still rests in a nest of 19th century culturally acceptable ideas. ‘Manifest destiny' and colonialism -- now a prime evil -- underlies large parts of the genre. This is of course correct for the era, and provide appeal to readers right now (yes, it leaves the bad bits out -which I agree were awful and if you were one of the colonised or a child laborer much worse then), when various aspects of 20th/21st century are rather depressing, and yesteryear seems rather attractive. The same magic that worked for fantasy, which has its strength in comforting escapism even if it is wildly inaccurate and reflects an idealised and sanitised view of the very upper class of medieval society. It's why the pulp sf - with a view of a brave new exciting world full of promise sold well. It's why dystopia and tears sell well in good times, not bad. Yes, it was an ugly era. But it was an era of hope - and there was a courage and grandeur to it that seems absent now - which loops back to costuming.

There is an element of wish-fulfilment about this. No, I don't think the readers all want to return to Victorian sweatshops and gin-sluiceries any more than many of the readers of my journey into living and being self-sufficient on a remote island really all want to do all of that... but there are aspects they yearn for. That they like reading about.

I don't think any of these factors have gone away. I do think the literary/new weird tarnished the attractiveness in the current economic environment, and if I was an acquiring editor, that's not the kind of thing I would buy until the economy was doing extremely well. (but I'm not an acquiring editor, and my opinions on what I'd buy and push appear to be very different to theirs. I'd be asking the hard question - why is publishing - which is normally counter cyclical to economic trends now running in tandem with the trends, while other counter-cyclicals - like beer continue to reflect an inverse?)

However, ultimate long-term success really hinges on pleasing readers once you have passed the gatekeepers: I think if you want to be a success in this sub-genre you're going to have capitalise on what attracted people - and that includes the cultural aspects and quirky costumes and brass gadgetry.

So: what's your take on it? What makes it work, or fail?

17 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, I see Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels as Steampunk.

And the costumes at World Con were really nice - meaning you could wear them down the street and look spiffy.

I think the world needs more spiffy dressers!

Dave Freer said...

And there I see Kenneth Oppel's Airborn as a better example than Gormenghastly (which is what we called the worst house we ever lived in) - totally different point of view! :-)

Ben Godby said...

Gormenghast? Steampunk? I've only read "Gormenghast," but, uh... I'm pretty sure it was just surreal. There were no clockwork golems, no airships, and no boiler-operated dreadnoughts. Case closed! (Then again, from what I've heard of "Titus Alone"... perhaps I've got it all mixed up.)

I think the elements of steampunk, like "new weird," are now at the stage where they're getting riffed on as a permanent aspect of fantasy. I've never read a purely steampunk novel--I don't think I've even read a purely steampunk short story. But I've seen elements of it everywhere, and I think that the ideas about technology and culture it brings to fantasy is really fun and refreshing.

I, for one, would prefer if my computer was boiler-powered. Alas!

-bn

Amanda Green said...

I think the problem with the genre, or sub-genre, is that it has too often become a catch-all. The last half dozen books I've read that were classed as steam punk were anything but. What they mainly were happened to be the author's attack on aspects of our current society -- yes, global warming and expansionism and, gag, the need for a nanny state. Okay, I'll stop there because I don't want to get into politics.

Any way, too often the fun of steampunk is gone. And yes, I think there has been a big MISS in the marketing of it. Steampunk would make a great movie or anime. But too many of the "suits" stare down their noses at anime and manga, ignoring a growing market. Movies are a beast unto themselves and because League of Extraordinary Gentlemen didn't makes buckets of money, no one is rushing to make other movies in the same vein.

And that's a shame. It is, imo, a situation where too many look at the so-called political correctness of the work instead of at the story, which is what really counts.

MataPam said...

I think we're suffering from a combination of the Literary trope of "Must end miserably" added to a tendency in British Mysteries to kill someone you like in the last chapter, generally for no plot purpose, the Green Agenda of Human=Bad, and the Political Correct "We must always be sorry for what our ancestors did, even if some of them were done to. We must regret what we are, and what we accomplish."

I'm sick and tired of it. I was forced to read enough books like that in school, thankyouverymuch.

I'm not going to _write_ them!

How to sell upbeat stories, Steampunk or not, may be a problem, given so many Publishers stuck in the mental mire. Perhaps some trend analysis of ebooks will shake up the situation.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Ben, I never looked at that aspect of Gormenghast. To me it was steampunk (without the steam) because the world view was very Victorian.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave, the movie they refer to is -- I'm blanking on the title, but someone else will know -- a Will Smith movie set in the old west with fantastic machinery.

And here I'm going to dissent from your thought, but only to an extent. You are correct there is POTENTIAL to steampunk. Loads of it.

The problem is gatekeeper perspective. You're ignoring that. Perdito Street Station was taken as the pattern for steampunk. (It was therefore PROBABLY the book being refered to.) And I've "taught" a workshop on steampunk, invited by a lovely bunch of fantasy and romantic fantasy authors who were dipping their toes in that pool, and so I can tell you what the general thrust of "if you wish to be accepted" was for steampunk: For steampunk to sell it had to have "heavy societal significance." And so... it's not selling well, in an era when, frankly, people have had quite enough of "dark" in their everyday life.

Would steam punk sell if done your way, with hopefullness and "uplift"? Probably. I'd say there's a very good chance.

But here we come to the other point on which we disagree. I've tried going against the current and beating that gate down. Again, they're called gatekeepers for a reason. They slam that gate closed and they will NOT open it. No matter how good the book.

Eh.

Dave Freer said...

Ben - that was my take too. I saw it as a depressing fantasy written by an author whose world-view was more Edwardian than Victorian.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda - talk about missing the basic definition - a nanny state Victorian in outlook? And yes, it needs to be boom, smoke steam expansion and exploration.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - it's why books are not selling as they once did.

The problem is that analysis takes statistical savvy - which is not pre-requisite for going into publishing. If you fail to to compare apples with apples and do not correct for distrubution, laydown and promotion -- you COULD conclude it's all doing badly but the misery books (which are the principal recipients of the above) are doing less badly. I hope that e-books, which at least get equal distribution and laydown (but promotion is still skewed) will even it out a bit.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, there seems a desire still in the gatekeeper class to hurt themselves and to kill us in the process. Don't really disagree with you there. Still, I must say I found Oppel's Airborn a cheerful, hopeful book, and likewise Nation (despite it being quite serious for Pratchett) So there are some.

Chris McMahon said...

Hell, Dave. I don't even read steampunk and you made me want to go out and get some!

I do love that era of technology, its quaint and yet accessible, and yet open to possibility. I had not really articulated it before, but I do like that era's sense of open horizons. I loved League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Technology meets Swashbuckling.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Sarah-- the cinematic atrocity to which you refer is "Wild Wild West".

Synova said...

I'm going to read this post carefully but only after I say...

Steampunk was big at our Con this year, and it wasn't the theme of the Con. "42" was the theme.

But... it was big on the panels and big on the costumes and big in the dealer room. On the panels everyone was pretty clear that it was about the visual elements. Gears and corsets and brass and dirigibles.

The discussions included a little bit about the Victorian era, about how there really was so much inventing going on, new and amazing spectacles to see, many of them loud, smelly, and self-propelled. There were, however, not generally corsets worn on the outside, although everyone seemed to approve of the innovation. ;-)

The movie _Sherlock Holmes_ was mentioned as having steampunk elements. _Wild Wild West_. I was trying to remember other movies... maybe _Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow_ and I finally found someone who remembered the name of _The Rocketeer_. Jules Vern, of course. And I think that the TV show with... oh, it's on Hulu, called "Jack of All Trades" has elements of of "magical" science.

In any case... There's at least a little bit of talk of making Steampunk the theme for next year. In which case I may go in costume for the very first time.

(Oh, another data point... my job is at a retail store and there are definitely steampunk worthy boots in the women's shoe section.)

Synova said...

Oh, this reminds me... I talked to a fellow who knew about this, but said it wasn't at all mysterious.

I mentioned my dad being at the Minnesota State Fair demonstrating steam tractors and this guy had a button or shirt or something of a steam locomotive so I thought he might be interested. He said that the group he was with just was finishing up getting a big old locomotive running and ready for a tour around the state of New Mexico. I asked if they had to get a whole new boiler, since it's so important that the boiler be solid. He said no, because before it was parked in the middle of the municipal park in 1950, the government completely refurbished it to perfect working order because it was part of a program of steam locomotive reserves in case of nuclear war.

I forget how many locomotives he said were put in parks after fixing them up so that we could put them to use after civilization ended, but it was a lot. "Hidden" in the middle of cities, on display.

voradams said...

Steampunk is very good in an RPG (Role playing game) setting.

I too loved the idea, from Harrison's "Trans-Atlantic Tunnel HARRAH!", Stirling and Gibsons "Difference Engine", and even the Victorian era scifi like HG Wells and A.C Doyle.

Space 1889 (both a pun on Space 1999 and a rollicking colonial era take on exploration in space) and Castle Falkenstien (Mad King Ludwig, Elves, Sherlock Holmes and Prince Albert v Bismark and the Unseelie court) are both excellent examples of steampunk done right. Both had metastories that made sense, they mad a sense of fun, and more importantly allowed the mix of victorian and modern sensibilities to clash.

The original Leauge of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic is most awesome, butchered by Hollywood. Alan Moore never puts his name to any movie, but the comic had subtle puns (The leader was Mina Harker, a woman), Nemo was an Indian Prince in exile after the mutiny, and inserting other chartacters in passing like Robar, Moriarty and Mycroft Holmes are well executed. The movie musty die...

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sorry for the late post, but I came up with what might be an insight. SteamPunk is not PC because the Victorians are still politically relevant.

High Fantasy is safe because nobody cares about medieval political issues anymore. Who cares if the leader of Christendom is the Holy Roman Emperor (there isn't one) or the Pope (who has about a billion Catholics who mostly don't obey him)? Who cares about the Cathar heresy? Therefore, it is not a problem for the PC masters if you introduce those topics.

SteamPunk, OTOH, is Victorian. A lot of topics of Victorian politics, such as socio-economic classes and colonialism, are still relevant. This makes SteamPunk potentially dangerous - it is more likely to make people think unapproved thoughts.

BTW, how about a SteamPunk novel that includes Karl Marx (or an equivalent character)? That might help it get past the gate keepers, even if you paint him as a well meaning fool.