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The hard edge of empire

I am becoming annoyed by the current glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of and io9.

It's not that I actively dislike steampunk, and indeed I have fond memories of the likes of K. W. Jeter's "Infernal Devices", Tim Powers' "The Anubis Gates", the works of James Blaylock, and other features of the 1980s steampunk scene. I don't have that much to say against the aesthetic and costumery other than, gosh, that must be rather hot and hard to perambulate in. (I will confess to being a big fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius.) It's just that there's too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it's in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We've been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it's poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it's on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it's over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon. (Take it from one whose first novel got the 'S'-word pinned on it — singularity — back when that was hot: if you're lucky, your career will last long enough that you live to regret it.) Harumph, young folks today, get off my lawn ....

But there's a dark side as well. We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).

Contemplating the numerous errors of the zombies'n'zeppelins fad in SF makes me twitch, for reasons that parallel China Mieville's denunciation of The Lord of the Rings (except that I have the attention span of a weasel on crack and am besides too lazy to anatomize the errors of a generation at length in such an essay: personally, I blame the internet). The romanticization of totalitarianism is nothing new (and if you don't recognize the totalitarian urge embedded in the steampunk nostalgia trip, I should like to remind you that "king" is a synonym for "hereditary dictator" and direct you to the merciless skewing Michael Moorcock delivered to imperial hagiography in his Oswald Bastable books). Nevertheless, an affection for the ancien regime is an unconsidered aspect of the background of most steampunk fiction: much like the interstellar autocracies so common in space opera (and again, let me cite Michael Moorcock on Starship Stormtroopers). The Science! in steampunk (which purports to be science fiction, of a kind ... doesn't it?) is questionable at best (Cherie Priest, I'm looking at your gas-induced zombies) and frequently flimsier than even the worst junk that space opera borrows from the props department, because, as it happens, the taproots of steampunk lie prior to the vast expansion in the scientific enterprise that has come to dominate our era. But that's just about forgivable, inasmuch as much modern SF doesn't even like to pretend that sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship, and not a metaphor. That leaves the aesthetic ... which I can't find anything intrinsically wrong with, as long as steampunk is nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown. Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world).

You probably think I'm going a little too far in my blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun. But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

Only none of this stuff is fun, exactly, so I suppose it has to go on the list of "Novels I will not write" ... filed under "too angry".



Great post!


Woah! Straight outta the park!

1-0 to Team Stross. . . the crowd roars.

Thing is, there are surprisingly large numbers of people who find your steampunk dystopia to be (for them) agreeably utopian.


I think the early industrial revolution gets a bad rap. For all of its misery and legion of horrors, it was almost certainly no worse than rural agrarian life. The mortality rates were just as bad, starvation and disease were just as prevalent, and the labor was backbreaking and never ending. At least the IR gave us a step up to breaking that cycle.

I wonder if Marx and Engels ever saw the agrarian side of things? I know visiting Manchester got Engels all fired up to write his first book.

But I don't really like steampunk, either, although zeppelins are cool.


Agree completely. The market follows trends, and angsty teen vampires are running out of - er - steam. I was in Waterstone's in Cambridge (UK) last weekend, and they already have a shelf set aside for 'Steam Punk' (sic). They also had a whole shelf of the bastard spawn of 'Pride & Prejudice & Zombies'. Now there's a joke that was funny the first time, now all the pot-boiler authors are jumping on the bandwagon.


Marx's attitude to the rural changed over the course of his lifetime. His comment (in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) about 'the idiocy of rural life' stemmed from the support the French peasantry gave to Napoleon III, the great betrayer of the 1848 revolution. By the end of his life, however, Marx was writing to Vera Zasulich that the Russian peasant commune might, possibly, be a springboard to a Russian socialism that would be able to avoid the excesses of capitalist development.

Unfortunately for all concerned, that letter wasn't published until long after October 1917.


Not bad. I give it a 8 out of 10. Needs more caps and bold for a 10 out of 10 on the rant scale.


"A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic [...] would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage..."

Actually I'd probably read that...

I thoroughly agree with the sentiments though. I quite regularly have long pointless arguments with my Mother who feels that in many ways the Victorian age represented some sort of romantic high-water point of British culture and seems quite happy to just ignore all the messy child prostitution type stuff.


I'm old enough that for me "steampunk" rhymes with "dystopic", hence the "-punk", emphasizing the unpleasant aspects of 19th-century life and how they could have become much, much worse with the addition of anachronistic technologies.

The subgenre later made a complete 180-degrees turn and became about how "kewl" the era was or could have been. I agree with how presenting the 19th century as a utopia is wrong on so many levels. Fortunately not all steampunk has fallen into this trap: Girl Genius might be light-hearted, but I certainly wouldn't want to live there; and novels such as Ian R. MacLeod's "The Light Ages" and "House of Storms" doesn't eschew the dystopic elements.


I recall an article from the 90s gaming mag "Arcane" (back when "Forgotten Futures", "Luther Arkwright", "Difference Engine", "Anti-Ice" and "Nomad of the Timestreams" were yer lot) that took exactly this grim-and-gritty tack on a steampunk world. It had squalor, exploitation, desperate low-stakes conflict, dirty compromises and moral dilemmas by the bucketload. It was much more interesting a setting than the usual sub-"Peshawar Lancers" tosh.

Shame that the '-punk' part of steampunk didn't take properly; we just got a bunch of recycled Boy's Own 'ripping yarns' instead.

Just a thought on steampunk as conservative consolatory fantasia: "Peshawar Lancers" is, arguably, structurally identical to "LOTR". Exiled kings from the West lord it over 'lesser breeds of men', evil empire - of which we actually see very little - threatens idyll, etc.


Oh, hear, hear!

Alas, that paragraph of what a mundane steampunk story would really be like? Someone will be writing that now. (but not you)

Steampunk strikes me as pretty, but best left to artwork and costume design at this point. There's too much bandwagon jumping, as you said. There are things about it that are fine, and presumably worth exploring. But I keep feeling that someone (a writer) is going backward to research historical aspects of things they can grasp instead of thinking forward into an unknowable future that is tricky to visualize and write about.



I think the early industrial revolution gets a bad rap. For all of its misery and legion of horrors, it was almost certainly no worse than rural agrarian life.

I'm perfectly prepared to accept that agrarianism produced more misery than industrialisation, but I don't think that's a reason to ignore the new miseries created by industrialisation.

A read of Mayhew is always instructive - the sense in "The Difference Engine" of a society only barely holding together under the pressure of technological change is there in the original history, too:

As the most obvious example, I think it's clear that the disruption of existing communities combined with the complete lack of social safety net produced worse outcomes than a settled agrarian society. Consider how many of the street poor Mayhew interviews left a steady job to pursue opportunities in London and were left with nothing when they failed.


I wholeheartedly agree with your problems with Steampunk "science" and some of your resistance to glorifying a complex past, but if Steampunk is, at base, influenced by the Victorian Era, isn't it then also about radical change? In addition to all the negatives you list, the Victorian Era also saw the Slavery Abolition Act, the development of the Suffrage movement, Darwin, H.G. Wells--it was the first era without its own epidemic. Doesn't Steampunk also reflect the massive change of the Victorian period? The erosion of Empire and the beginnings of the modern eras?


Aww, that last sentence disappointed me. After a wonderful rant demonstrating how badly steampunk needed skewering, and me eagerly awaiting "So my next novel will be just that", it was a horrible downer ending.


I agree, and I do have genuine aesthetic problems with Steampunk because modernism makes me happy.


My next novel to see publication (already being edited) is a sequel to "Halting State". The next novel after that (already 55% written) is going to be a Laundry story. If I dropped everything to start work on a socialist-realist denunciation by example, it wouldn't hit the shelves until the middle of 2012.

I'm hoping this will all have blown over by then.


Peter Ackroyd's "Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem" comes close to what you're describing above, although even then it suffers somewhat from historical walk-on syndrome, with various notable figures drifting in and out of the narrative seemingly ad lib.


it was the first era without its own epidemic.

If you don't count the horrendous attrition rate suffered by workers in the factories.

Michael Davitt, for example, a key leader of Irish revolutionary nationalism in that era, got his right arm ripped off at the shoulder by one of the machines in the Lancashire textile factory where he worked as a child labourer.


I'm hoping this will have blown over by then.

Charlie, by 'this' do you mean the present world-crisis, or just the thoughts that have inspired this latest post of yours?


"By the end of his life, however, Marx was writing to Vera Zasulich that the Russian peasant commune might, possibly, be a springboard to a Russian socialism "

Which is an inevitable development if your idea depends on creating a revolution of the protelariat in a country with no protelariat.


Steampunk is to Victorian life as Sword and Sorcery is to medieval life.

In both cases fantasy authors pull out the bits they think are glamorous and use those, while ignoring the reality of life in those situations.

Both of them are far enough from today that we have no first-hand experience with them, and with a sufficiently different level of technology to make an intriguing setting.

Both of them are firmly fantasy, and have little or nothing to do with science or history.

On the one hand, I agree that the wave can and should crest soon, but on the other hand it's nice to have a fantasy setting that isn't solidly medievaloid.

It would be even nicer to have a wide range of fantasy settings. There are a myriad other ways to do pre-industrial or early industrial.


See... all the crappy stuff about real-world "steampunk"; that's precisely the stuff that I think gives the genre so much of its narrative potential. I waxed on about this aspect of the genre in a post on my blog a couple months back. My argument boiled down to breaking steampunk into "steam", i.e. the Victorian era and "punk", i.e. Punk, and my thesis was that the primary theme of a proper steampunk story was one of class conflict between those disaffected and disenfranchised, on one hand, and the conservative, powerful, and moneyed interests of the era. I held up Charles Dickens as the prototype for the perfect steampunk tale, and only throw in Wells and Verne as the side that inspires the "yesterday's tomorrows" vibe that steampunk often strives for.

But I, personally, don't read that version of steampunk that is about victorian-era debutantes doing their debutante thing. I crave real conflict and theme and meaning in my fiction. And, properly speaking, that era is rife with the potential for real conflict.


On the other hand, there WAS a lot of cheap gin. Can't go wrong with gin!


Oh, but there was a proletariat in Russia - it was small, but it was perfectly formed.


JohnW - one of the key differences is that, for the first time, money elevated the elite far above the downtrodden masses.

Oh sure, previously money meant one could live in moderate comfort, but you were just as likely to get sick, and if you got sick and submitted yourself to the will of the doctors, you were just as likely to die (sometimes more so, early doctors also being morticians quite often spread lethal diseases to patients who had otherwise non life threatening ailments).

With the advent of the industrial revolution, for the first time we had technological and medical advances available on a scale never before seen, and instead of using them to raise the lifestyles of the poorest amongst us, they were used to further enrich those at the very top.

No longer was a lord's livelihood dependent on the skills of the men who worked his land - with machinery and basic training he could literally work men to death and then simply replace them with no more difficulty than a damaged cog. For me, this is the real tragedy of the age.


now my head is somewhat clearer, thats why we hate it when they say remember the good ol days, its easy to embrace the manufactured past, always use to read a lot of hard sci-fi, never could understand all of it but for some reason the it always felt better.


what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?

China Miéville's Bas-Lag books?


I love the entire idea and aesthetic of Steampunk, but you are right that it is being over saturated. Too many mediocre works and the whole genre will suffer.

Personally, I think that Steampunk belongs with fantasy with a few exceptions. There is some room in SF, mainly as AH or some form of time travel introduced anachronism. But as a whole, in order to get steampunk to work you need fantastic elements.

I don't think that's a bad thing. Really, fantasy has been suffering for a number of years on an over reliance on quasi-medieval worlds or secret history modern settings. Fantasy should explore other settings, and the 19th century is a great one. One of my favorite computer RPGs is "Arcanum", which features classic fantasy races like elves and orcs in a 19th century setting. And it does it well too -- the elves are natural aristocrats, and the orcs have become the proletariat working class oppressed and living in terrible conditions.


Michael Swanwick's the Iron Dragon's Daughter, does a lot of creative mixing of fantasy with 19th century tropes like child labour et cetera.


It isn't in novel form, but there's a new work of fiction coming up that uses a fairly steampunk setting to meditate on American exceptionalism. Namely the computer game Bioshock: Infinite.

The setup involves a private detective trying to rescue someone from a city in the air called Columbia that's rife with eugenics and imperialist propaganda. The series had previously taken on an Ayn Randian and then a collectivist nemesis.

That said, I do think the first Bioshock suffers from its genre. It's a first person shooter and as in many games of that type the vast majority of other 'people' in the world are homicidal maniacs that you're likely to end up killing one way or another. I haven't played the second and I'm not sure to what extent Bioshock infinite will get around that problem. It's entirely doable, see Deus Ex, but it rather changes the nature of the game.


I'm tempted to say that steampunk has gone downhill ever since Harry Harrison wrote "A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah" (Also know as "Tunnel through the Depths") but that novel came out long before the term steampunk was coined.

Also, there was nothing realy "punky" about Harrison's novel.

That's why I prefer the more broader term "gaslamp fantasy" which Kaja and Phil Fpglio propose.


I do think the monty pythons would have had some damn jolly fun with steampunk. Ministry of funny walks meets zeppelin police, etc.


this post says a lot of what i could never quite vocalize myself and such was my delight i went out and bought one of your books to "vote with my wallet" so to speak


China Miéville's Bas-Lag books?
Exactly what I was going to say. And I read them before most of the steampunk stuff I've sort of enjoyed recently.


For what it's worth, it seems to me that Pullman's young adult books --- the ones starting with The Ruby in the Smoke, in particular --- come close to presenting the

steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously

that you talk about in your essay.

I have been listening to them as audio books with children and they do present much of what you talk about --- especially where the rights of women are concerned --- although toned down for their intended readers. By which I mean that though we see the oppression going on in the setting, and it is critical to the plotting, the main characters are substantially freed from it.


One day I'll write a similar denunciation of the Regency period in England, which included secret police provocateurs and cavalry charges with swords against peaceful demonstrators (Peterloo).


a) yeah, the Bas-Lag trilogy as well. It's really cool and it's OMG please I never want to be in a place like this at the same time.

b) as an Elder Goth, I like Steampunk as a fashion-movement. Allows for nicer costumes amongst the older ones of us. Plus, my wife looks hot in a corset.


Awesome post. This is the problem with nostalgia for such periods. The good old days were only good for a small percentage of people, and a living hell for most everyone else.

As for disturbing trends in SF, is there an end in sight to the invasion of the paranormal romance in the SF/FA section of the bookstore? It's getting hard to find a stretch of 10 books in a row that doesn't include some goth chick showing off her tramp stamp, or increasingly, some goth fabio's ripped torso on the cover. Compared to this, I haven't noticed the Steam Punk so much. Unless you're including anything with a victorian aesthetic, which I prefer to call "gaslight punk".


Agreed. His follow up "the Dragons of Babel" was also brilliant.


Steampunk is undeniably a craze right now. And, like all crazes, it needs its haters as much as its adoring followers.


Ah yes, I was going to say much the same, only later and with less style.

(also, The City and the City is great, but not steampunky in any way)


You can add "space war" to the ranks of increasing crap on the SF shelves. The good stuff seems to be getting thinner on the ground these days. But given Charlie's previous posts on the economics of publishing, I'm not surprised at what we see on the shelves.


The biggest problem I have with steampunk is that I've actually studied (not to mention, as an aircraft maintenance officer back in my misspent early adult years, confronted the consequences of) thermodynamics... and steam power ain't gonna cut it; the Carnot cycle, plus some calculations easily done on a napkin in a pub, demonstrate pretty conclusively why the smallest effective steam power is between a large farm tractor and a small locomotive. Nobody ever asks where all that refined aluminium came from without use of electric furnaces. Then there's the issue of heat exchange, time-to-steam, seals, valves, disposal of ash, etc. whenever anything that's "steampunk" actually involves "steam."

I guess, for me, that's the difference between science fiction and fantasy: In science fiction, it's not just the invasive upper-class characters who have intricately planned-out geneologies; it's the things of everyday (and extraordinary) life.

If anything, steampunk is a neobaroque esthetic, or even personally portable rococo (as most rococo was in architecture or rather permanent, heavy pieces of art... or chamber music, for that matter); and in that sense, it is a matter of style, and not substance. That's not to say that it cannot be good fun; it is only to say that over here in speculative fiction land, we usually call work that is based on style and not substance "literary fiction" with a Snidely Whiplashesque sneer...


Isn't ANY adventure story in ANY genre told from the point of view of the cream? The Odyssee is about the adventures of the King, not about the guys at the rows that get eaten by the monsters. Sir H. Rider Haggard did tell the story of the White Hunter, not the story of the Black Servant Falling Into The Spiked Trap. Jules Verne wrote about Gentlemen Innovators, not about their washing women. E.E. Doc Smith wrote about Upper Class Americans becoming the rulers of the Universe. Star Trek is about the officers, not about the privates that have to polish the lavatories. In the same vein, Steampunk is typically centered on the Guy (or Gal) that commands the Zeppelin. The guy in the bowels getting blisters from shoveling coal into the robots is mentioned in passing at best. His story is dull and depressing, after all.


I can't and won't defend Priest's zombie gas, but Boneshaker absolutely does not sugarcoat any part of the Victorian Era. The protagonists are a single mother / outcast and her friends-with-criminals boy, and the main villian is exactly the sort of rich super-prick that got Marx in an uproar. Blighted Seattle is libertarian, and it clearly sucks to live there.

I think Priest's book plays up the "punk" aspects of steam-punk.


Ah, the Victorian industrial era, with such quaint laws as the Master and Servant Act, which applied to industrial contract laborers. You can tell how that went down just from its name. (Although I am not altogether sure that being forced to walk a treadmill for months for breach of contract -- i.e. quitting, organizing, etc. -- was physically worse than, say, working in a Welsh coal mine under 1860 conditions. I've asked.)

Anyhow. I'd personally say The Difference Engine was the first act of conscious steampunk. Jeter, Blaylock, and Powers were operating from a different set of assumptions, and if memory serves, they were all in fact hoping to be published in the same shared world series before that project went kaput, and reworked their ideas for separate publication.

Finally, zombies are interestingly polysemous. Suppressed fears of contagion, of mindlessness, of ethnic minorities, even of mass political movements: there's something there for a lot of different types of people. I personally think they're as boring as hell, but what makes them so currently successful in fiction is the number of different roles they can play in the imagination of the reader or viewer.


What killed steampunk for me was when I tried to get a bunch of the local steampunk aficionados to show up to a local antique steam and gas engine show. The concept of actually learning something about the technology behind the corsets, and perhaps even running a 16-ton, 12 horsepower steam traction action was just anathema, too out of there for them.


People watch Gangs of New York, or Oliver Twist, or Jack the Ripper stories and get nostalgic?

I'm trying to conceive of a way to steampunk Gangs of New York and make it into a more interesting story. I'm coming up empty.

Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is easy to steampunk.


I am only just now reading Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's "From Hell" and all I can say is it does NOT give me any romantic notions of the Victorian age! As an aside, Charlie... I am also a little over half way through the Merchant Princes series (enjoying it immensely) and it would seem that New London more than slightly resembles the book you will never write about the ugliness of such a time period (if slightly skewed history-wise).


I am sincerely sorry that the trappings of steampunk stories interferes with your suspension of disbelief. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to back to playing my 1950’s inspired post-apocalyptic video game where I get to shoot a rocket full of zombies into space.


As many others here have more or less commented, steampunk is more or less a fashion movement that got some incidental stories published alongside it. Or rather, that's what it has become. I wholeheartedly agree with the over-the-top-marketing might as well rename itself It's far too transparently commercial, and most of it is predictably second-rate.

On the other hand, I do agree somewhat with Phiala @19: steampunk is fantasy, not SF. Not just in its ahistorical settings and tropes, but in its wistful yearning for a non-existent simpler time (one which can be wholly apprehended; out with the nasty complexity of real social and physical environments; an effort which nearly always turns Marxist).

Fantasy tells us what we wish for. SF tells us what we can hope for--or rightly fear. Steampunk is in the former camp. Annoying when overdone, never to be taken seriously, but mostly harmless.


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is now clear: Write the ultimate parody of steampunk as your (a?) next novel. Shred it to pieces, ridicule it, and bring out all the fun! I'd give the dragon some more gold for this.


Anyone putting together the 'Steampunk chimneysweepers' reading list ought to add Joan Aiken's Is to the pile. Not her best, but an interesting take on the Willoughby Chase world.

Space:1889 managed to note the warts'n'all elements of the nineteenth century as well, up to the point of having genocidal Belgians on Mars.


PS - Charlie, make sure you check out Anterp's central railway station while you are there. Look for the opera house - that's it.


A scientist named David Wardle coined the term "external rumen" for what earthworms and other soil organisms do. Unlike cows, a lot of their digestion goes on outside their bodies, and as they burrow through the mix of dead plant matter and their own excreta, they process it over and over until it turns into something different: soil.

That sort of thing is going on in my worm bin right now.

I'd suggest that the SFF field in general operates an external rumen of the literary kind. Problem is, when you bin up part of it and call it Steampunk, it gets to be as homogeneous as my worm bin. See, the problem my worms face is that I'm the one introducing the fresh material, and they're just turning it into product for my garden.

And the worms in my bin are multiplying. A bunch of them tried to escape with the last rain storm, and died on the pavement by the bin. I'm still scraping that off and throwing their corpses back into the bin. I don't think there's any literary analogy for this sad event, but I could be wrong.


I think it boils down to this: if people actually believed right down to their little beating hearts that right now was the best time to have ever lived, it would be a month of Lemming Sundays. (And it's not like your High Frontier Redux gives them much hope for future improvement.)


Oh Charlie. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Dear God, I'm damn near gasping with pleasure. It needed to be said, and I'm so glad you said it.


I think Steampunk's popular because New Weird required too much thought... it's easy to replicate it though, as Stross points out.

But the best part of this article is the bitch-slapping of Tor/io9 as constantly foisting Steampunk upon us. I have yet to meet any Steampunk fans in real life, which makes me think it's a major-city, hipsters-only thing.


I kept thinking about how a Laundry book might do in Steampunk era. What could Bob do with a Babbage machine?

Would you call Wild Wild West (the movie with Will Smith), Steampunk?


My general feeling is, as other have mentioned, that SteamPunk (especially as it's shown these days) is more Fantasy literature in the near past rather than actual Science Fiction, and given all of the 'technology' in Boneshaker it's hard to imagine what else you could call it.

In another look, it's almost Girl Genius Fanfiction, what with the gas being similar to the wasps in one way and the use of madtech.

That said, this reminded me when I was reading it of and it's points about how the Victorian era was a libertarian trainwreck for most people.


What video game is that?


Just after reading this post I happened to come across Nisi Shawl's post about the "cotton gin punk" novel she's in the middle of now, "a novel glorifying boilers and springs and rivets and dials, set on the location of one of the worst human rights atrocities in recorded history."

I want to read her book when it comes out.


@56 Yes, WWW was trying to be steampunk.

And if the TV show Castle can do an episode involving steampunks, then it means that either (a) it's hit the mainstream, (b) Nathan Fillion is a nerd (well, yes), or (c) the writers are nerds also.

I'm torn. I like the aesthetic (but agree with Our Hosts' many points) overall. But it was a lot easier to skip the supernatural/paranormal-bodice-rippers (which, I swear, were half of the new releases) merely by looking at the covers. (Oh, this one has a hot chick with a spear and bared midriff, with a were-schnauzer in the back. Obviously a new and stunning addition to the genre) It's going to be harder for me to do the same with Steampunk, if only because I like the aesthetic.

And I agree with most people, the best stuff out there is probably the Bas Lag stuff, if only because it managed to mix New Weird, Slipsteam, Steampunk & 50 other genre-du-jours together and make something completely remarkable.


Another thank you for this.

I've been thinking the same things for a while. But, can't help noticing that you don't mention BoingBoing adding to it, mostly coming from Cory. How many "Leather Steampunk Fetish Masks" do we need to see?

Much like Cyberpunk, the early stuff is the best. Once you start seeing "The Steampnk Sensation!" on the cover you know it's past its prime.


Old news...:snore:. Amongst the Goth/Industrial scene here(SF), "Steam Punk" was a brief idea, about mmmmmmm... 8 years ago. If you are hearing about it now, it's from cute little "KinderGoths" that emulating what they saw, back when they were minors.

If anything, it's big in LA now, where all bad trends go to die.


The way the phrase "Victorian values" gets bandied around (often by right-wing politicians or the Daily Mail) is something that has always struck me as a little odd considering that it was only during Victoria's reign that the age of consent was increased from twelve, child labour was widespread, and if people didn't have the means to support themselves they had little choice but to go and live in the workhouse. Not really something we want to be emulating today...

Also, people tend to focus on what life was like for the upper classes, while ignoring the desperate poverty lower down the scale. It's very easy to make an era sound attractive by paying little attention to the lives of working-class people.

However, I believe it's worth comparing steampunk with the work of authors from the time such as H G Wells and Jules Verne, since they are clearly the inspiration for much of this sub-genre. While it has been some time since I read anything by either, if I recall most of their characters tended to be at least reasonably well-off - after all, even now, no-one can afford a personal space programme, yet Verne managed it. Also, in the context of books by these early SF authors, you have to allow for a certain amount of escapism - if people had wanted gritty realism, then they had the choice of reading Charles Dicken.

So, in terms of emulating the style of this early SF, I think it probably makes sense, however steampunk as a genre is still a little ridiculous, except in cases where it pays only lip service to the idea, such as Terminal City by Alastair Reynolds.


Fabulously quotable write-up, thank you!

I have to say, my first thought was, "I want to read this book!" I'd preorder the whole series, actually - and a few extra copies to send to my free-market zealot friends.

If "Glasshouse" is any indication, anger only appears to improve your writing.


I'll give Cory a pass because he doesn't write the stuff, he just likes it as an aesthetic for parties and computer keyboards and stuff.


Dude, San Francisco is always full of itself. I originally come from Leeds, where Goth was old hat by 1985. (Leeds is known for local bands like, oh, The Sisters of Mercy. You might have heard of them?) Here in Edinburgh there's been an intermittent steampunk scene for some years now. But you'll note I'm mostly irritated by the literary side of things ...


H'm. Be interesting to see what constitutes "Victorian Values" by sampling different times along that 64-year reign. Good material for a reductio ad absurdam

Also, any mention of "Victorian values" always brings to my mind Liz Lochhead's addendum - "and Dickensian standards of health!"


Only recently did I realize that Karl Marx and Charles Dickens lived in London at the same time. Hell, they could have met.

Duh, they were writing about the same situation.

And yet we Americans have such warm sappy feelings for Dickens and such cold ones for Marx...

The next time I hear someone mystified by what motivated Marx, I'm going to yell 'Boy for sale!'


it was the first era without its own epidemic.

--Oh? And what would you call "Bronze John"? I will grant that the Victorian Age did see those who actually cared about drains, pumps and whatnot; but it took the death of Prince Albert for the aristocracy to take all that rot seriously ("Sanitas, Sanitas, Omnium Sanitatum. You go, Dizzy!). And let's pretend the Crimean War didn't happen, either. The Mutiny sets up its own set of problems with a side of Colonialism. I adore my Kipling, too, and think that a cultural bias against suttee is just fine, but let's not pretend John Company was there for the natives' benefit.


The steampunk stuff isn't and never has been my genre, so that part of the rant doesn't touch me, but "paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve", or as I call it, "fang porn", does. It's what has put me off of vampire fiction.

(Hmmm...the strikeouts didn't make it into Preview...clearly FAIL on my part. But I did include them.)


Fallout: New Vegas. 360, Playstation, and PC. To be fair, they were ghouls, not zombies. Zombies was just funnier. It's a first person sandbox with tons of story. It is a sequeal to the also excellent Fallout 3.


I'm surprised by people talking about "defending" the zombie gas in "Boneshaker." Is all zombie fiction/film immediately written off because of bad science? I guess it wouldn't be the first time I've missed a memo.


Fair enough. I like the casemods and keyboards too, and have a fondness for manual typewriters--as objects.

For the most part it's the steampunk cosplay that killed it for me (followed by the glut of books). It always reminds me of an early 90s episode of the Oprah Winfrey show about Goths. She talked to one pudgy kid with his face painted white with black lipstick and motorcycle jacket, saying how they were being 'Victorian', and me thinking No Your Not! Fortunately, I was never much into goth, prefer gray to black, but I still like Bauhaus and Siouxsie (and the occasional early Sisters of Mercy).


There has been some good stuff coming out of the new SteamPunk "wave". Karl Schroeder is a very deep and cerebral sci-fi writer, but for those reasons his work didn't have a mass market. Then he wrote the Virga series("Sun of Suns" is the first one) because he wanted to do something that's steam-punk and involving Air-Ship pirates(because it sells), but also in a plausible hard SF setting.

It's smashing good fun and what made me discover him in the first place(by getting the whole complete e-book of "Sun of Suns" via a Tor mailing list, don't diss them too much.)Now I've just finished reading "Permanence".


To Charles at #66

Lets see, The Sisters Of Mercy, Andrew Eldricth, Wayne Hussey, Gary Marx and Craig Adams? Nope, never heard of them.... Or even seen em live in '85, '90 etc etc etc.

Leeds is a great place, been there loads of times when I was in my 20s, though that was not yesterday. Last time was a couple of years ago, when my wife and I went to Beyond The Veil (a goth fest in Leeds). And myself I would happily go back there again, the city is cool the people are friendly and welcoming and of course no-one looked down their nose at me because I am from Glasgow (a rather regular occurance in London)

Plus The Sisters is at least a cool band to claim from your home town. Coming from Clydebank means I have only got Wet Wet Wet, which is far from cool and is in fact rather embarrassing. So all I can say is VIVA LEEDS!!!


Glad to see I'm not the only one steamed up. I've just started deleting any book-related subscriptions with the word "Steampunk" in the title, including today's Tor mailout.


Having read a few of Cherie Priest's "Clockwork Century" books, it's my understanding that her Weird West includes magic. So I take her books as fantasy, not SciFi. In fact, I take most Steampunk as fantasy and rather light reading at that.

Also, if you you've read any of her Clockwork Century, you'll see the society she paints includes a fair amount to say about ugliness of society at the time.


One that comes to mind he did write is a short story called Clockwork Fagin but i suppose it could still be pass since he doesn't avoid the horrors of victorian child labour and the hideous injuries. It's rather a good bit of YA i thought; they murder their master and build a clockwork automaton to replace him.

Great article though. Yeah the aesthetic is fun but it doesn't do much for me, i'm sure most people can separate out the fantasy from the realism. I'd hope so anyway.

Think i'll throw into the mix Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gents series as something which combines the two.


I hate people who don't link...


SF seems generally uncomfortable with loss, disintegration, and unrewarded suffering, compared to other written fiction. I am drawn to stories that buck this trend, like Blindsight, Galactic North, and A Colder War. Half of this predilection is my need for contrast: tales of successful heroism don't shine unless set against a dark background. If I read too many stories in a row with upbeat endings the entire meta-world of storytelling starts to look like a Discworld where million-to-one gambits usually succeed; funny, but it imperils my suspension of disbelief for the whole genre.

The other half of my predilection is more personal. There are no credible utopias left. I don't think that global happiness is just one super-gadget or workers' revolt around the corner. I'm tired of stories that imply or lecture that it is. I'm also weary of stories that just sidestep suffering and tell how secure and successful people climb even higher. IMO a compelling tale should keep me up late reading but never make me wish I was in the protagonist's shoes.

Mainstream "literary" fiction doesn't seem to have this problem, but if rec.arts.sf.written is any guide there is a vocal minority of readers who hate mundane or (for lack of a more specific term) socially critical SF. Fiction in pseudo-Victorian settings where the upper class belongs where it is and cholera never makes an appearance seems like just another facet of it.

*Which I also enjoy, in the hands of a skilled writer.


Sigh...Cherie is writing about ZOMBIES, fer criminey's sake. Zombie science is pretty much all scientifically unsound, and nothing so far has really approached plausibility.
And most modern steampunk is alternate history, which automatically makes it fantasy, even if there is the existance of some accurate science. As for glorifying the period - I haven't read all the steam punk in the current wave, but Boneshaker doesn't exactly make living in the 19th century sound like peaches and cream. Julian Comstock? I have no idea. Don't care either cause it's not on my reading list.


Bravo! Very good points here. I'm personally really sick of the add-on of -punk to everything in science fiction. It's a ridiculous label, and that's before one gets to the annoyances of Steampunk.

For my part, I enjoyed Boneshaker. Fun, light reading, but yeah, looking back at this era isn't something that's really being done well.


That all being said, I'd love to see someone like Bacigalupi, with his style of fiction and outlook on the world, take on the steampunk craze.


While you could write Dickensian Steampunk, I think a more effective (if difficult) subversion of the subgenre would be to give the aristo protagonists authentic period attitudes. You'd need a delicate touch to make the 'orribleness of these clearly visible without alienating the audience, but it would subvert like nobody's business.

Alternately, a more (ironically) 'traditional' steampunk story with the protags having acceptable to moderns attitudes (for some unlikely reason) and force them to deal with actual traditional values from the period. Oh, wait, you already wrote that one for a different fantasy subgenre. My bad.

Recently I stumbled across the observation that the values of "traditional values" many conservatives seem to be harkening after these days appears to correspond most closely to the 1970s. Propose dragging social change back before then and a lot of them balk. The attitudes of the historical 1870s beyond the pale.


But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?

Also, I have to ask, would anyone even read it? I suppose there is a small audience of people who can't get over the historical inequities of the world and want to punish everyone for them, and maybe a few distopian fans, but for the most part, people read for pleasure...Would that be a pleasurable read?


There are lovely parody elements in Greg Broadmore's Dr Grordbort work. Not sure what sort of *punk it counts as.

89: 70: Speaking of those sparkly vampires in lurve...

Here's the breakdown of the "Teen Fiction" in Barnes & Noble stores.

25% "Teen Paranormal Romance" (your sparkly vampires) 25% "Teen Fantasy & Adventure" (your sword & sorcery, & James Patterson wish fulfillment teens can save the world if they're born with wings) 50% "Teen Fiction" (catty bitches being mean to each other and suicide stories)

Those are actually the signs they have up, by the way. Not "Teen SF" or "Teen Romance," but "Teen Paranormal Romance."

Not sure when teen fiction got broken apart from juvenile fiction and regular fiction, but the stuff sells like candy.

Who are we to argue with the marketplace?


Did you catch the September Locus? Moorcock had a piece in there that trashed modern Steampunk as well - which he calls 'Steam Opera', or 'Steam sans Punk'.



Nobody ever asks where all that refined aluminium came from without use of electric furnaces.

The first hydroelectric aluminium smelter opened in 1896, which isn't that much of a stretch.

Which reminds me - what always struck me about steampunk is that a lot of actual Victorian scientific romances involved what - to them - was the fantastical power source of the future, namely electricity. This dates right back to 1869; Verne's Nautilus in "20,000 Leagues" was powered by a (very vaguely described) electrical power source.

I think our contemporary steampunk stories with their steam-powered visions would seem quite quaint to a Victorian reader of scientific romances.


" it was the first era without its own epidemic. "

Well, it depends on how tightly you define the era of course but if you'll accept slightly before Queen Victoria and onward through her reign ... how does Cholera sound to you? ...

"1831 - Summer News reaches Sunderland that a cholera epidemic from India has reached Baltic ports suchs as Danzig and Hamburg and Riga. As these trade with British ports such as Sunderland, cholera is seen as a threat to eastern England, although no-one knows exactly how it spreads. A Board of Health is set up in June and William Reid Clanny, the eminent senior physician of the Sunderland Infirmary, is invited to head the Board's medical department.

Clanny immediately calls a meeting of the town's medical personnel. The other key figure present is James Butler Kell, a humble army doctor stationed in the town who, although of a lower status than his medical colleagues, is the only one with actual experience of the disease, having suppressed an outbreak of cholera in Mauritius by implementing a strict quarantine. " .. here for a time line that goes on to add " Cholera spreads across the country and 32,000 die in Britain, the result of a global pandemic which kills millions. Although cholera fatalities never approach the levels of TB or dysentery, the disease is particularly terrifying to the British because of its novelty, rapid onset and gruesome symptoms The disease returns three times - in the pandemics of the late 1840s, mid 50s and mid 60s - but never again reaches epidemic proportions in Britain. "


Here are the top 10 trade paperbacks according to the NY Times:

1 THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, by Stieg Larsson. (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $14.95.) A hacker and a journalist investigate the disappearance of a Swedish heiress. 2 THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, by Stieg Larsson. (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $15.95.) A Swedish hacker becomes a murder suspect. 3 UNLOCKED, by Karen Kingsbury. (Zondervan, $14.99.) Bullied at school, an autistic 18-year-old is befriended by a classmate with problems of her own. 4 LITTLE BEE, by Chris Cleave. (Simon & Schuster, $14.) The lives of a British woman and a Nigerian girl collide. 5 CUTTING FOR STONE, by Abraham Verghese. (Vintage, $15.95.) Twin brothers, conjoined and then separated, grow up amid the political turmoil of Ethiopia. 6 HALF BROKE HORSES, by Jeannette Walls. (Scribner, $15.) A re-creation of the life of the author’s grandmother — a mustang breaker, schoolteacher, ranch wife and mother of two — in the Southwest. 7 THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, by Garth Stein. (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99.) An insightful Lab-terrier mix helps his owner, a struggling race car driver. 8 SARAH’S KEY, by Tatiana de Rosnay. (St. Martin’s Griffin, $13.95.) A contemporary American journalist investigates the roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942. 9 NEVER LET ME GO, by Kazuo Ishiguro. (Vintage International, $15.) At a school in the English countryside, clones are trained for a terrible destiny. 10 THE ALCHEMIST, by Paulo Coelho. (HarperOne, $14.99.) A Spanish shepherd boy goes to Egypt in search of treasure.

More than half of these books are quite dark. Several are critical of current events or recent history. A Tale of Two Cities is dark, critical, political and has outsold every English novel before or since. Reading for pleasure is far from synonymous with reading only sweetness, just like the pleasures of food are not synonymous with buckets of donuts.


While there is surely a lot of crap Steampunk around, I don't think it is fair to accuse it of idealizing a past that was actually quite brutal. Most of the Steampunk I've read (which I admit is a limited amount...I'm not a huge fan) deliberately calls back to the works of Verne and Wells, who were both harsh critics of the society of the time.

You certainly don't see works that are so unblinkingly admiring of 19th century culture as the average high fantasy is of medieval times.

It seems to me that the attractions of Steampunk have nothing to do with the culture of the time. Instead, it's partly about a certain aesthetic that is the antithesis of modern casual dress and a world made of brushed steel and concrete. It's for people who like the look and feel of wood and brass, dials and physical switches.

The other thing that I think attracts people to Steampunk is that it hearkens back to a time when people could fix machines with wrenches and hammers. It's not the political structure of the 19th century that attracts. It's that it was a time when a guy in a garage could be a world-changing adventure. People aren't looking towards Victoria and Disreali, they are looking towards Edison and Bell. I certainly wouldn't want to have lived 150 years ago, but in this world where machines are black boxes that are tossed the minute they break, the idea of living in a world where you can actually tinker and create something new has its attractions.


i was going to say, matt, if charlie writes his, it'll be two books. and two books is almost a sub-genre. sub-sub-genre? something.


I haven't read much in the genre, except for The Difference Engine, and it certainly didn't seem utopian to me; aside from the great-game, cloak and dagger stuff, you also had an appropriately squalid episode with a prostitute and a horrific smog attack in London. I think that the real problem is that the aesthetic is sort of worn out at this point; nobody really cares if you glue old brass gears to your goggles anymore, or spray copper-toned paint onto a squirt gun, and by the time someone had gotten around to making action figures of steampunk-style Star Wars characters, it was pretty much inevitable that someone would have eventually.


There are certainly those who aestheticize the nineteenth century-so that there is a steampunk which is purely about design-but it also doesn't do to dismiss the social and political side of things. Some, like Michael Moorcock in the Bastable novels (or Paul di Filippo in his Steampunk Trilogy), do take a critical approach to that past, but-and while it may not necessarily be the case that we're seeing a lot of promotion of the 19th century in the genre-there are an awful lot of people advocating a Victorian politics or a Victorian economics today. Indeed, it might be argued that such feelings have played a powerful role in the conservative resurgence from the '70s on. (I'll leave it at that since I already made my case at length in my own piece on steampunk last year, which you can find here:


Matt (59) mentioned my post about the Belgian Congo steampunk novel I'm writing (14,500 words and counting). Here's the link where I talk about that and other works of cotton gin punk:

Folks, there's a movement.

Charlie, I respect and admire your work, and I agree lots with lots of what you say. I just seem to have decided on a different response.

And Michael Swanwick is going to want to have my book's babies.


I wander if in 150 years there will be a late 20th century/early 21st punk. I wander what our own times would look like to someone in the future romanticizing our era. Hey, maybe they will romanticize our early internet phone connection as cool technology.


Mid to late 1970s London and New York: the period and places to use. One could call it "Punkpunk" .


A possibly relevant thought:

In Moorcock's proto-Steampunk The Warlord of the Air the good guys, the anti-imperialists under General Shaw of Democratic Dawn City, are trying to not only defeat the Empires but also break through into a recognisably twentieth-century modernity - heavier-than-air flight, nuclear power, Chinese food, etc.


Frankly while I love "Girl Genius" and enjoyed "The Difference Engine" as well as "Atheric Mechanics" by Ellis, I really have had a visceral hatred of Steampunk ever since it degenerated into hipster idiots wearing hop hats garnished with gears and goggles.

On the other hand I'd really kill to see a well thought out Steampunk "Acellerando" with a bit of "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" mixed in. By that, I mean positing as per "The Difference Engine" that Babbage's difference engine did succeed early and beyond expectations and triggered a Moore's Law computer industry (CNC's bootstrapping ever finer gears etc. with research into fluidic and electronic tech at the readiness level of modern quantum computing) coinciding with the Industrial Revolution and massively increasing the social and political dislocation to the level of late Edo Japan on the verge of the Meji Restoration. I'd cast Edward Bellamy as the hero attempting to implement "Looking Backwards" with a much much messier conflict than he anticipates.


It is no coincidence that the Foglios wrote some of the highest-quality pornography---"erotica" if you absolutely must---well before they started on the estimable Girl Genius.

Even without any leather masks' involvement (thanks, James@61 super, I can't stand boingboing long enough to have seen those), it comes down to fetichism...and, like sentimentality (which someone once called the storm-trooper's substitute for emotion) it can only survive in the absence of real concern for details. (This is similar to how porn dominates early new mædia: it keeps defects from mattering as much by turning off the critical faculties of [enough of] the audience by force majeure erotique.)

It's not hopeless: I will agree with the reference to The Iron Dragon's Daughter super, and also mention that the American television series Mad Men often is a good guide to the worst of its setting (early '60s New York city, mostly) even as it fetichises it.

It's a lot less dangerous than fetichising our Founding Fathers and the Constitution God evidently told them to write....


Charlie, I link this post in my LJ/FB/Twitter and ended up replying to friends of mine that were of the, "OMG don't make fun of our steampunk," persuasion.

In the process of replying to them it occurred to me that one reason you may object to the over-exposure of steampunk is that if the over-exposure kills off the sub-genre, it won't stay around long enough to develop a "dark/gritty" facet. Am I incorrect in thinking this?

As an avid fan of Girl Genius I just hope that, should the steampunk bubble pop, it won't take down my favorite creation of Phil & Kaja Folio.


Hi, Nisi! That's fine by me! There's plenty of room for different responses. All I ask is that some thought goes into them.


Is The Anubis Gates really steampunk? Timepunk, perhaps, but there's not much actual anachronistic tech in there (mostly anachronistic magic).


Steampunk as it is currently being disseminated, is a "look" more than a mileau. If it required any real adherence to a particular time/place (Victorian or otherwise), then "Girl Genius" could not be called Steampunk.

"what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?"

Haven't quite met one - I expect they're as rare as fantasy novels which use truly medieval conditions.

However, although I don't think anyone would call them Steampunk, they may well fall into that category and are the closest I can think to showing that those weren't pleasant times and that's Joan Aiken's "Dido" books. "Cold Shoulder Road" especially springs to mind. I'd call them more "Dickensian fantasy" than Steampunk but they are remarkable. [The first book in the series is probably the weakest.]


"let me cite Michael Moorcock on Starship Stormtroopers"

Rather spewy rant, there. And while it feels like there's some merit to it, his political lumping of Asimov in with Heinlein and Van Vogt is rather odd and inaccurate. He also blames Tolkien for romanticizing the hobbit peasants and their hand mills -- well, no, they had a water mill, like actual medieval times. (Then, under Saruman, they had a nastier mill.)

Heinlein's not very leftist -- but he did write Beyond This Horizon. Lovecraft had a lot of issues, but his advanced alien races were socialists. (So was a Robert Howard advanced and later decadent race.)


I'm not too familiar with "Girl Genius", but I'll add a vote for "The Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage" for fun steampunk web-comic.


From my limited reading in the genre, I think it's a mistake to call Steampunk SF -- I think much if not most of it is outright fantasy. Now, fantasy too has an obligation to do sensible, coherent world building, and there is not enough of that in the Steampunk I've read either, but when you start critiquing zombies for scientific implausibility, I think you've possibly mistaken the genre intentions of the work. If you want more Dickensian Steampunk, though, I would recommend Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air except that it's such a dire read that I can't recommend it at all. But it's got workhouses and starving orphans and enslaved minorities and dire working conditions all right.


Actually I Like Singularity stuff. I was hoping you might write some more. This alternate reality horror is kind of boring..


I just read 40 some comments to see if someone else would say this. Thanks for doing it. I've got two and a half degrees in history and a lot of my research overlapped with the end of this period. I've found the world that Priest has created in Boneshaker and Clementine to be thoroughly plausible if you accept the basic technological conceits of the genre. It is a dirty, violent, brutish world that is not focused on the elite and the privileged. It's certainly not a world I would want to live in.

a horrific smog attack in London

That would have been The Great Stink. It was pretty much as Gibson and Sterling described it, except not steampunk. The smell was so bad that everyone who could afford it fled: Parliament dissolved for the summer, and when it reconvened began the construction of London's sewers.


Absolutely spot on. What I found interesting was the visceral hate-filled reactions of the libtardarians of those days to the books. These days Ideological Correctness requires that we praise the Robber Barons, trash the Socialists and Trade Unionists and long for the days when children could make a penny a day giving rim jobs to the Aristocrats.


Charlie, you're still an optimist.


Wait.... Zombies? Really? That's unexpected.

I haven't read any steampunk (Though I'm a Tim Powers fan, so now I have to check out Anubis Gate) but I always just figured it was sort of a "Hey, if we knew then what we know now, we could do some damn cool stuff with the technology of that time!" I guess I was wrong, and now have a valid reason not to delve deeper into the genre.

So Charlie, any thoughts on other sub-genres like Horror/Bizarro Fiction/Slash Fiction/Splatterpunk

(construing horror to be a subset of Sci-Fi or fantasy, or else it's Thriller. Subjective valuations, of course)


I will give Steampunk its due. It motivated me to sit down and make my Actually Useful Interchangeable Steampunk Goggles (welding lenses, loupe, adjustable sunglasses, aperture, telescope, safety).


It may be my lack of sleep but it looks like from Over Here that what you're declaring, Charlie is the Mundane Steampunk Manifesto.


"took the taproot history of the period seriously"

I don't think that's a fair criticism. After all, we don't slam all realistic fiction that doesn't engage the awful realities of our own time. We don't object if realistic fiction does not show the half of the world that lives in poverty.

I have more to say, but the margin of this book is too small... (More seriously, I have to get back to work.)


Dude. Just say you're sick of seeing Steampunk all over the place and be done with it. This speculative nonsense you've overcooked and served straight-faced is far more embarrassing than any of what it condemns.

Steam-punk is right up there with any other mass-market genre on my list of Shit That Kills Me. I'm with you in that. But looking glass: You totally went through it and it's mock worthy.

One of the greatest graces of a curmudgeon might be to suffer the great youthful unwashed their untimely indulgence in what feels new and edgy to them. Don't condemn the novice and don't destroy their toys. What a dick, Dad. This grace costs you nothing more than moving past old tropes you're admittedly over and it affords the newly acquainted or and stagnating enamored a distraction from finding a bigger nerd than themselves in the room (you and me) to pick on.

Steampunk is more of an aesthetic potential than it is a monolithic principle of style and ethics. I know you get that.

But you're grandstanding. Great. Graduate, then. Take down Ursula K. Leguin next. Don't stop 'til there's nothing but religion and durgs left as devices of hope and distraction.

I hope you don't hand out fucking toothpaste and toothbrushes on Halloween, too.


Dude. It's FICTION. Just lie down til the feeling goes away.


A friend of a friend sold jewelry and extras -- gloves, hats, etc. -- to the clothing people for that episode of Castle.


Here, here.


It's a very entertaining read but I think the nature of Steampunk is slightly misunderstood here. Steampunk is, to the best of my knowledge, not supposed to be historical science fiction. It is instead a romantic fantasy setting set against the background of a hybrid-mechanomagical industrial revolution.

Some authors probably don't understand this either, but it should be clear that the evil of the times you so eloquently describe is regularly edited out and replaced with the less depressing staples of fantasy villainy (such as zombies or scheming overlords). And yeah, the science: there is none. It's all Jules Verne-grade alternate reality or above.


HPL's intellectual development is important. By the end of his life, he was deeply embarrassed by the extreme conservative positions he'd held earlier on in life. He was moving more towards SF in his later work as his horror of the Other attenuated.

(REH was out ahead of Lovecraft in the realization that fascism was bad news, but he never quite got over all of the racial baggage he had as a Texan of the 20s and 30s).


the Mundane Steampunk Manifesto

which means that the Infernokrusher Steampunk Manifesto shall appear soon.


Sounds like we need a steampunk version of The Wire.


So between "...the attention span of a weasel on crack..." and "...steampunk is nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown." I find myself wondering (between lolz) when our host is giving us the great sf comedy - going the whole hog, rather than the dalliances we normally see... :)


THANK YOU! Steampunk, vampires, and zombies--keep them.

SF readers (and writers, but I understand, they get hungry) are supposed to be better than the bandwagon.


I guess the best consensus definition of Steampunk is, "well, I know it when I see it. Some of the time."

I'd say part of the genre is retrofuturism, the future of the past. 20th Century zeppelins (if not heavier than air flyers) made out of Victorian materials.

Let's throw out some other material to see what people think:

Are either of the following Steampunk? --Terry Pratchett's Ankh Morpork stories, especially the last few? We've got telecommunications, industrial revolution, new industry, zombies (lawyers and cops), vampires (old money and cops)and werewolves (psychos and cops), etc. etc. etc. on, erm, yes, the Discworld. That's Steampunk, right?

--Or how about Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters fantasies, set in Victorian through Edwardian England. Magic! And horseless carriages! And brass fittings to keep the elementals happy! Steampunk?

So can we talk about what makes these two series of highly successful fantasies not steampunk? Are they too popular? Are the authors too old? Or too mainstream? Or does including a knight just kill the scene for the hipsters?(/sarcasm)


Sorry if someone already pointed this out, but I think that what Stross might be saying is that there is not enough punk in steampunk.


A most interesting read however there seems to me to be one small phrase which struck me as odd. You seemed to be referring to the era of Dickens as "libertarian minarchist state". Would it not be more accurate to call that era the "mercantilist state" era? Perhaps my knowledge of British history is weak but I seem to recall that being the era of the government passing laws for the benefit of the wealthy particularly wealthy land owners. Was not this the era of the Corn Laws? I seem to recall that one of the key persons in getting the Corn Laws repealed was Cobden. I have seen Cobden sited as one of the early influences on the development of the Libertarian movement. It seems to me that from colonialism to merchantilism the Britain of the 1830s, 1840s, etc was not libertarian. This is not to say that nothing libertarian happened in that era; the Slavery Abolition Act was adopted in the 1830s which was certainly a step in a libertarian direction. And since I am in the USA I feel compelled to point out that it was more the 30 years later before slavery was made illegal in the USA.


I only got as far a #11, but ... The "Victorians" realised that their world could be improved, and wasn't perfect - you seem to forget this. As for the status of women, the nadir in Britain was 1832-1870. Before 1832, a property-holding woman was allowed to vote (Not many qualified, it is true), but women were specifically disenfranchised with the so-called "great Reform Act (!) 1870 was the first Married Women's Property Act. Given the speech on English women being given too much freedom in "Die Entfürung aus dem Serail" of 1781 - I think you may have overstated your case, in that aspect, at least.

Changing the subject completely .... Here is an announcement of FUTURE COLONISATION ... Interesting, huh?


Well here are thoughts off the top of my head that might explain the continuing appeal of Steampunk:

The Steampunk age was the high point of Western dominance of this planet. That was an age when the European stood astride the world as its unchallenged master, confident in the supremacy of his civilization. As the modern West declines amidst self-hatred, immigrant invasions, cultural deconstruction, etc. Steampunk is a form of nostalgia for a lost golden age.

As you suggest, this is part of a larger intellectual “revolt against the modern world” which Julius Evola, J. R. R. Tolkien so many others led in the 1930’s and 40’s as a reaction to the socialist destruction of traditional culture – a revolt which accelerates today in the face of our ever more sterile and totalitarian PC culture.

I would suggest that the financial, political, environmental and spiritual crises of our time constitute a challenge to modernity even greater than the one which began in the 1930’s and culminated in world war. The future simply looks increasingly bleak to many of us, the science fiction of Clarke and Heinlein read like pure fantasy, so we look backwards and try to grab ahold of anything that seems sane and empowering from our mythological past. Science fiction was a product of the Enlightenment, and if that fails (as appears increasingly likely), SF will fade back into obscurity, its dusty classics to become perhaps the province of an obscure guild of wizards who still remember when mankind dreamed of sailing amongst the stars.


Second thoughts .... Look up how many British railway Chief Mechanical Engineers (or equivalent title) died in harness, often just dropping dead - and these people, though they were employees, were at the top of the pay-scales. So someone like James Lambie would have been paid £1500-2000 a year, in the late 1880's - a LOT of money then. Warm feelings for Dickens and harsh ones for Marx - well, yes. Dickens sought REFORM, by exposing the system. Marx, as Charlie says, wanted to destroy it completely, with a fantasy-land model that, as we now know, cannot possibly ever work. But like the other religions, and because its' followers have a "holy truth" to obey, kill as many innocent bystanders as they can. Someone mentioned "Peterloo" - acknowledged, at the time, as a monstrous cock-up, very much along the lines of the murder of Jean de Menezes - and, then as now, with the authorities looking frantically for excuses for their killing blunder. In some respects, nothing changes.


"..what happens when goths discover brown.". Utterly, utterly brilliant turn of phrase.

Still smirking WaveyDavey


Wow, Sisters of Mercy - haven't listened to Floodlands in years. Happy memories. And I would concur Goth starting to become old hat about 1985.

Though I still think steampunk monitors and keyboards are really pretty, and that the steam engines (pumps, mill engines etc.) in Armley industrial museum are stunning. Now that you live abroad, have you seen some of the amazing stuff in the Glasgow transport museum? Man, those boats make my model-building soul shrivel up in envy. Disclaimer: also from Leeds. WaveyDavey


If you want a dark Dickensian take on steampunk, Stephen Hunt's Jackelian novels hit the mark (The Court of the Air, Secrets of the Fire Sea etc).

They're fantasy with a 19th century society rather than true 'Ohhh, a walk-on-part for Disraeli' steampunk, and are good fun reads, perhaps because/despite of that (pick your side).

It was the success of these books in the UK that sparked off the curent wave of steampunk, so he's to blame if anyone is.

The first post in their current steampunk week made the point that steampunk isn't true Victoriana with slave labour and bad healthcare, but is a blacklash against our current troubles (see ).

I am guessing that Charlie didn't read this post first, as it makes a lot of the points he underlined for him - and maybe he would have gone a bit easier on Tor if he had?


A steampunk version of the Wire?

So, er, nothing much going on for nine-tenths of the time, surrounded by pseuds, and then revealing a drug trade orchestrated through a steam powered RSS reader?


Brilliant it may be but Jess Nevins said it first.


Damm it now I have the urge to watch Steamboy ( again, and I don't own a copy argggggg. Apart from that a solid argument on the surplus of steam. Just remember that if one publisher is releasing a particular style and it looks like it will go down well, then the others will try and get in the boat, throwing out authors and books until one of them hits the mark. An example of this is Anne Rice and all her vampiric following authors wouldn't have gotten printed if Fred Saberhagen hadn't gotten a little book about Dracular and Sherlock Holmes published.


Nope, the singularity stuff was a phase I went through about 10-15 years ago. Nor was it ever a major thread in my writing; the title "Singularity Sky" was pinned on the book because "Festival of Fools" was too close to a work Ace already had in print and it was seen as likely to confuse book buyers.


Funny you should mention religion and drugs -- I'm taking a whack at religion in the current novel in progress.

(With zombies too, natch.)


there is not enough punk in steampunk.

Yes, exactly.


Other problems with steampunk: They badly, badly need to get their industrial history right. All the stuff they like - Airships, Babbage etc - is 2nd Industrial Revolution. Electricity, gas, turbines, telegraphy, telephony, germs, chemicals. So you need to be in Germany to be at the cutting edge. Not Victorian London - what was in London anyway? all the clever stuff was way up north - we were already falling behind. You want Wilhelmine Berlin - brash hypermodernity, cutting-edge technology, and seriously fucked up politics. (Fascist-minded generals who drop dead dancing in drag. That's got to be somethingpunk, right?)

If you want an alternate British future you need to roll back to the 1840s - dark satanic mills, railways, steamships - or forward to the 30s industrial revival (radar, aeroengines, plastics, A-road moderne, socialists).


No, we don't know that "Marx's fantasy land" can't ever work. I assume you're taking the late and unlamented USSR as an exhaustive experiment? That's just plain wrong.

Besides, focussing on Marx's prescription -- which in its first formulation was rather vague and aspirational -- is a mistake. Marx was an economist and an historian, and his diagnosis of the ills of industrial capitalism still stands as a landmark of both fields.

Hmm. Again: there's a fun counter-factual novel somewhere in which Gavrillo Princip bungles his shots, World War One doesn't kick off in Serbia in 1914, and Britain lurches into a recession followed by Red Revolution in 1918 or thereabouts ...


Romanticization of totalitarianism? That's backwards. Romanticism directly brought into existence modern totalitarianism.

Bertrand Russell: "Tigers are more beautiful than sheep, but we prefer them behind bars. The typical romantic removes the bars and enjoys the magnificent leaps with which the tiger annihilates the sheep. He exhorts men to imagine themselves tigers, and when he succeeds the results are not wholly pleasant."

Passionate tigers make great fiction. Speaking of which, this is much of the appeal of anime. For example, Full Metal Alchemist -- there's your German steampunk.


Well you can fuss all you like but it has a FB fan page with more people on it then i09 , or really any of the Sci-Fic stuff around.

See over 50 thousand and growing by hundreds daily Between that one and another that is over 100 thousand people.

So like it or not it is just going to get bigger and more well known or liked then most other things .

So I think what you are going to have to do is tell your self to "Suck up and deal with it"


You're the one who prepended "modern" to "totalitarianism".

Monarchism, I maintain, was no less totalitarian than the dictatorships that followed it.


Shorter Kelly: "eat shit, a trillion flies can't be wrong."

I don't like your attitude. Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.


To all the folks asking Charlie et al to 'lighten up, francis' on this subject: lighten up, francis.

Yes, people will write what they will, times will change and we will get old. Hell, I remember when I used to think of Charlie Stross as that cool, sensible guy who wrote articles for the British computer mags I sometimes got.

And yes, the "kids" (a little patronising whoever's using the term, ironically or seriously) will go for new and different "toys" (see prev.) and they will leave them lying on our lawns.

But does that mean we shouldn't say something if it matters to us? "Dude, it's just an essay." For some of us, SF (and F) is a way to explore ideas. Fiction as thought-experiment has its weaknesses, not least among them that its dramatic tools can be too effective in making a case, and in a case like that, a sharp essay can be just the cleaning tool that we need to cut through the crud we've inadvertently created. When that happens, I'll thank the Dudesters to lighten up on us; we're just doing our thing, right?

FWIW: I for one would be thrilled to read some mundane steampunk, for a change, and will be keeping an eye out for Nisi Shawl's Belgian Congo novel. That is, assuming it can get in before the coming wave of Optimist SF crests & breaks...


I'd argue that there's already a Belgian Congo steampunk novel.

It's called Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and it was first published in instalments in Blackwood's Magazine in 1897.


What's all the stuff about airships? They were not part of the Victorian era or Industrial Revolution, and they were certainly never powered by STEAM! Airships were a 20th-century internal combustion phenomenon (see for the history). And what's the fascination with gears? During the industrial revolution power was transmitted with leather drive belts, and gears are mostly associated with a later period of technology.


Joseph Conrad did not write a steampunk novel. Steampunk is a modern trend that looks back to the age of early industialisation and views it from our modern era, so in that way Verne, Wells and Conrad wrote modern novels in their own time. Steam punk also tends to extrapolate the early steam technology beyond the conclusion it naturally reached, as in the case of the railways when diesel and electric trains came in.

Personally I like the occasional steampunk novel. I very much enjoyed China Mieville's Bas Lag books, I found them to be a refreshing change from the space opera I normally read. However there has become an excess of the same genre now. A lot of it not up to the grade of the main exponents. The same has also been noted of the Vampire Romance novels of late. The law of deminishing returns seems to have been ignored I am afraid.

For the Victorian age, I find it an interesting period of history. A time of great invention and change in the world, socially and politically. Plus for myself I love the clothes, I find the style of the period to be very cool. Perhaps that is the old goth in me. What I have been wearing for the last 25 years or so seems to have become a fashion statement rather then what it was for me. Just something I rather liked and thought was very stylish.


Whilst I see many of your points, I am an absolute fan of the steampunk movement, for want of a far better word. I'm also a (strictly, strictly amateur) historian, so I'm well aware of just how horrendous a time it could be - to me, that's part of what interests me. I didn't read 1984 because Aistrip 1 sounded like a jolly nice place to live. The conflict, turmoil, squalour, and above it all, these monied distant aristocrats swirling their brandy, but with a fantastical twist is what makes it compelling, but not attractive. I like steampunk style but I don't romanticise it, I simply think it's an interesting setting. I also don't think it's necessary to take the bad with the good. People can like steampunk for its sense of adventure, its overblown flamboyant nature and its general hamminess without intrinsically wanting poorhouses and slavery. To imply otherwise is a little dishonest, but I'm not sure that's what you're saying anyway.

On a purely practical level, the saturation of steampunk has been an absolute blessing for me - you see, subculture movements that haven't hit a kind of critical mass tend to be prohibitively expensive - and I am poor of the poorest order. The more popular it becomes the more affordable it is for me to indulge my aesthetic tastes - if that means we end up with a steampunk twilight then so be it. I'm willing to put up with it.

To end on an agreement however, Girl Genius is wonderful.


Mannikin by Paul Evanby (in Interzone #229) it's a pretty bleak colonial steampunk story.


"there's a fun counter-factual novel somewhere in which Gavrillo Princip bungles his shots"

Reading the actual accounts of how the shooting happened, I think it's fairly obvious that we're living in the alternate timeline that someone engineered to happen...

Reversing after a wrong turn they just happen to drive past the very deli the conspirators were at consoling themselves at having failed to kill him?? Really?? We're expected to believe THAT happened the first time round?


steampunk but with a grim black humour edge, reminded me of this discussion


I think steampunk literature may be science fiction's valedictory.

&, as usual these days, another drive-by.


Joseph Conrad did not write a steampunk novel.

Well, that's me told!

MY point is that a 'steampunk goes Congo' novel would have to work hard if it wanted to expose the horrors of that regime (or its present days successors) as effectively as Conrad did.

Maybe Nisi could put a thinly-disguised Roger Casement in there?


BTW, no Gavrilo Princip in August 1914 means Ulster vs. The Rest civil war in Ireland tout suite. One to remember if you ever write that particular alt-history.


Also, 'sci-fic'? I've seen that abbreviation, but not often, and it's pretty damn ugly. What would Vance say, I find myself wondering...


I think Moorcock's style of "political" critique of Tolkien is more fairly applied to Steampunk. One of the reasons why Moorcock's sounds frothy and ungainly in his attacks on The Old Took is that The Lord of the Rings really has no basis in our reality and no one with their head screwed even partially on would think of using LOTR as an executable manifesto. Middle Earth is clearly not our world and never could be. Going there is no worse than any other day dream. And there is no Revolution that can get you from here to the Shire and Rivendale. No forseeable process that can create magical elf overlords. (Well, there is the Culture/Polity, but no one thinks Banks is a crypto-fascist with cod AI's with naff names, fetishizing lone heroes who tame savages with their superior technology and civilizing them with their hegemonic, morally uplifting ideology, but secretly doing it for the kicks of medieval/early Modern larping with real life sock puppets. No one nice anyway. Nor would anyone in General Circumstances suggest that the Algebraist was secretly Regency Gaspunk.) Considering his feelings about the Late Upleasantness of 1066, I would not be shocked if Tolkien had few fetishes about your current Royals. Moorcock telling me that in order to be his kind of respectable, my fantasies have to be about anarcho-socialist communes with a sort of revolving presidency...are about as welcome as some other kind of Puritan telling me my erotic daydreams have to be about sensible procreative-only intercourse bookended by long talks about our feelings of mutual respect and our relationship to Righteous Authority.

Steampunk on the other hand has a definable, if mostly risible, connection to our world and it's just possible that its vision could connect with some laughable, if unpleasant, political movements of our time. Steampunk might be close up enough to tangible, recent horrors to be in bad taste and to have some reflection on our subconscious relationship to current politics. On the other hand, I doubt if the people enjoying said fantasies are the same people who would re-enact modern version of Victorian labor relations, etc. I don't think those people read at all.


Isn't steampunk at least three different genres? And are all of them part of the baby that is put out with the bathwater in this steamy rant?

At least, I'd say there are different aspects to be found in different stories, all could be categorized as "steampunk":

  • Victorian values (cf. Stephenson's neo-Victorians in A Young Ladys Primer), reflected also in parts of space opera, i.e. Sterling's Schismatrix, some of the cyberpunkish space opera work of Swanwick, ...

  • hands-on-technology, i.e. the state of things before the micro-revolution of the 1970s, i.e. the Difference Engine, the zeppelins, gauges, ... - some kind of technology you could "make" something with without a computer

  • a really strongly stratified society, i.e. our gracious host's New London, or Reynolds take at steampunk in his Terminal book

Is all of this in the same way problematic, or is the problem really, ahem, capitalist steampunk or not rather something like genre drift, commercialisation, sugar-cotton versions of the past, Disneyfication, ...?

My last confrontation with steampunk was indeed on the Tor server - "Zeppelin City" by Swanwick & Gunn. IIRC, it did not only feature zeppelins and low-tech, but also a kind of revolution of the opressed working class ... and it was quite readable.


There is another aspect of the Steampunk fad that dismays me; it seems to me to be symptomatic of a general loss of nerve in the SF genre, a turning away from a future that looks increasingly bleak and scary to find solace in a romanticized Victorian Age that never was.

For all of the horrors of the Victorian Age that our host has so well enumerated, it was a time that had witnessed great scientific and technological advances (and, to be fair, was conscious of at least some of its social inequities) and so looked to the coming century (the one just past for us) with high hopes, anticipating that it would be an age of even greater wonders. It is no accident that SF as a literary genre was born in the 'Scientific Romances' of Victorian and Edwardian age writers like Verne, Wells, and Rosny.

Perhaps the popularity of Steampunk arise in part out of a hope that these literary excursions into Victoriana will recapture that sense of hopefully looking to better tomorrows that seems to be lost to us in this young new century.


''? That site appears to think that airships started with Zeppelin.

While the IC-engined Zeppelin was possibly the zenith of the airship as a transportation device, to think that they were the first airships is like assuming that the Queen Mary was the first transatlantic ship. Like much of technology, there was a long history leading up to that point, starting from the Montgolfier balloon of the 1780s. With the hydrogen balloon also starting about then, it was only a matter of time before someone would want to try to move against the wind.

And so yes, there were airships sailing the skies before Victoria died. And yes, steam power was used. In 1852.


i want to see either :- sparkly vampires meet Bob howard and pals or the laundry finds hogwarts

the steampunk thing seems to be based on the whole rose-tinted glasses principle, the further away from now - the nicer it is sort of a thing. an example is the fantasy novels- all very medieval, excepting the open sewers, and plagues, and starvation etc.


"... It's in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect."

I'm afraid that already happened long ago. Sometime shortly after the release of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film.

While you're in papal-pronouncement mode, Charlie, can you issue an official denunciation of any word with the suffix "-punk" that is not also preceded by the prefix "-cyber?"

William Gibson bemoans the premature harvesting of artistic movements for marketing purposes, yet the generation inspired by his books are "-punking" things into cliches (clockpunk, atompunk, etc. ad nauseam) just as quick as can be.

Ezra Pound, in order of quality, defined six types of writers. 1) Inventors 2) Masters, who can use what inventors make just as well 3) Diluters 4) Good writers without salient qualities 5) Writers of belles-lettres 6) The starters of crazes

I know SF isn't always striving for literary immortality, and that's one of the things I love about it, but it still has those six types, no?


Nisi Shawl appears to be living in an alternate timeline:

the related fact that the machinery steampunk focuses on had primarily been maintained by nonwhites.

Well, I reckon a steampunk novel where the Industrial Revolution broke out first in Mumbai rather than Manchester would indeed be interesting. But it would be a novel with an alternate timeline.


Also, if you want a guide to steampunk reality, China!


Gosh durn it I came to the conversation late!

I'd like to know if there's a particular novel set our host off, or if he just sees how this is trending, which I think he's dead right about.

It's like this panel at Capclave 2010 on whether Steampunk is here to stay, and is the answer is a resounding no. When the trend peaks it's time to sell.


I think Steve up at 94 summed it up well: steampunk at present isn't about the realities of the era(s), it's about the aesthetic and the (presumed) setting. It's hard to make a fashion statement a literary genre, but that isn't stopping a lot of folks.

However, the bigger stumbling block, IMO, is that it has become too self-derivative (as others have already said). When you get to 2nd and 3rd generation works, there are things that are taken for granted that just wouldn't have flown when you were starting out. Death rays? Genetic splicing with newts? Zombies? It goes not only over the top, it runs down the side of the pot and gets stuck on the burners.

What I'd love to see is a return to a more realistic steam ethic, where a percussion-cap revolver is still the choice of 99.99% of the people/adventurers/heroes/villains out there; where a buggy or a train were STILL the fastest & most reliable way to travel; and where, yes, social mobility was an almost unheard of phenomenon. When everyone has access to a steam-powered-electro-gyroscopic-fork gun (yay, Girl Genius! :), an education and a magic wrench, then everyone is special, and the specialness gets cloying. In other words, I'm looking not only for an acknowledgement that all was not spiffy and tea-and-crumpets and genius-y, but also a return (or just a recognition) of the adventure and wonder that inspired so many people in the first place. It may or may not be heavy on the social commentary, but the genuine sense of wonder that this sub-genre is capable of is being buried under layers of leather and brass and pick-your-over-the-top add-ons.

Right now, everyone is tripping over themselves to put a new twist on the beast, when what I think it really needs is to be stripped of a lot of the bullshit and return to good, simple story telling. As a genre, it's not any more over-the-top than SF or fantasy or vampires have been at times; but it's gotten too self-derivative, and that's where I think it is falling down the worst.


Perhaps it has been mentioned but my observation of steampunk is that I often wonder if any of those writers ever bothered to read E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class.

I've not looked at it since grad school but if I were going to write a steampunk novel, Thompson is where I'd start.

Respects, S. F. Murphy One of the Undesireables on the Outer Marches


Your comments on Steampunk have a much broader application, one too little noted. Life in general, by the standards of today, was hellish for all but the upper classes in most countries. (And still is today, in less developed parts of the world.) Most historical novels, going back for two-hundred years, romanticize the times they depict to make them seem attractive. (Dickens was a sometimes notable exception.) But if historical writers had written realistically instead of romantically (in the literary sense, not romance and sex), they would have produced books few would read. People in general want romance, not realism.


Stross is seeming to describe China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books — full of oppression and opprobium. Perdido Street Station pretty much defined the genre of fantasy steampunk — and one of its central themes was a lower worker caste who were physically violated in ways much more horrifying than zombification — so I don’t see how wailing on lesser authors who followed the master with pabulum is very fair.


Stross is seeming to describe China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books

Dude, this is my blog. Around here I answer to "Charlie". And you really need to check your homophones (in that last sentence) ...


Charlie @ 148 Wrong, I'm afraid. Marx's prescription was based on mid-Victorian developed Europe, and ASSUMING NOTHING ELSE CHANGED ... It did. We got the beginnings of the welfare state in Germany, and then Britian, employers started to recognise trades-unions, and more and more SKILLED workers were needed, and they had to be paid reasonably, and relatively well-treated. Which collapses ALL his assumptions about a revolution, or an ideal state.

I'm sorry to say, that you seem to have fallen into a very common trap, usually committed by rabid left-wingers, which I know you are not.... Still denouncing yesterday's villians, being afraid of "the monarchy" (which in this country has had influence, but no real executive power since 1689/90) Whereas we should be afraid of today's villains: multinational corporations, faceless guvmint executives, the usual bumbling over peole's bodies (like De Menezes) and the resurgence of real, killing and torturing religion(s) ....

Gotta go - we'll return to this, because there are other, both good and bad, aspects that need teasing out , plus some interesting technological sidelines ....


Is this just not a sub-genre in the the throes of evolution?

"Steampunk" was almost a throwaway term and the "type" books for the genre aren't what people today would recognise as Steampunk.

It needed these second artists to codify the genre conventions/tropes that the next wave can then subvert and/or use for their own ends to tell different stories. The second artist phase might have been a little awkward and off-putting for some (and the lack of politics is a bit of a missed opportunity), but it set in place the foundations for stories that may indeed address your concerns, as well as using it for as a mirror for more modern problems, so much of which are rooted in the Victorian era (neo-imperialism, globalisation and environmental degradation).

So I've not given up hope, yet.


Personally, I thought China committed all the crimes he condemned Tolkien for. Except his ideal isn't the courageous knight or simple villager, but the committed agitprop author and the mad scientist. His good guys are as immutably good, and his bad guys as immutably bad as the ones in Tolkien.

Simply put, China Miéville is just as guilty as Tolkien when it comes to nostalgia. It's just that he longs for the ideal times of The Revolution, which are just as long gone and nonexistent.


Another treatise on the evils of colonialism. Because we haven't seen enough of those, and we all know the world is simple Good and Evil. Or black and white, as you seem to put it.


Okay, your starter for 2 euro-cents: try and describe the good side of colonialism, from the viewpoint of the colonized.

Here's a hint: we will be watching your response for signs of racist apologia, and we will mock them. Mercilessly.


There is no good side, just as there is no evil side. But one thing I'm very, very tired of is the constant need to keep criticizing a system that ended a long time ago. More over, the need to criticize that system, and not the complete mess that some ex-colonial countries are today. To me, that seems borderline racist in itself.


Pretty sure Babbage wasn't in Germany, nor Isambard Brunel, and it's kind of stretching it to define Cambridge as 'up in the north', isn't it, when it's only 60 miles north of London?


I am here -- both where I physically am, and in an existential sense -- because of colonialism.

So, long term, the good side is that it resulted in me. I admit to some bias on this, however.


The system isn't over, that's the problem. "ex-colonial" is relative. You know Haiti is still paying back compound interest on the fees Napoleon demanded from the rebel slave state for buying itself out of slavery?

This isn't the time and place for that discussion (especially as I'm about to head off for the weekend) but there's a lot more where that came from -- folks today who benefit from dubious past arrangements and declaring that because their inherited wealth was gained generations ago, its source no longer matters.


Agreed, but Stross is more of a hardass/awesomeass about science being believeable-ish. We're used to suspending disbelief a bit.

Anyway, I find gas-induced zombism far more probable than viral zombism we usually see in movies -- a virus that does obvious damage so quickly would be easy to contain.


Agreed that quite a lot of the current 'steampunk' avalanche is unoriginal dross, much as with the earlier (yet still ongoing, albeit transitioning largely to romance and YA labeling) 'urban fantasy' (oh, for the days of Emma Bull and Charles de Lint) subgenre.

Not agreed, however, that there aren't a fair number of nuggets of literary gold in there still (in both subgenres, actually), or that all the current steampunk efforts are trying to whitewash the horrible social deficits of the referenced times; there actually seems to be a good deal of self-reflection, at least within the fan community if not always within what's published, on this latter point.

I also suspect that the steampunk label may have more 'legs' and more future permutations than you're thinking, despite what seems like an absolute glut at the moment, given that some of the current popular 'urban fantasy' series, such as Carrie Vaughn's, almost didn't get started because the authors thought the whole subgenre was due to burn out five to six years ago.

On the issue of not romanticizing the era, others have already defended Ms. Priest adequately; on the charge of inaccurate zombie science, however, I think she has two strong defenses:

1) It doesn't seem like the narrative is really claiming any greater scientific verisimilitude for its genre trappings, despite ostensibly being technological, than Powers was claiming for time gates in the Anubis Gates.

2) Gas-induced zombies doesn't really seem any less plausible than zombies produced through doing complicated sums in one's head or on a souped-up PDA.


In relation to the post I was responding to, I wasn't specifically thinking of Haiti.

But, like I said, what irks me is that there is no (or very little) moral outrage when local dictators go far beyond the acts of the one-time colonial overlords, while the latter get flak to this day. I am a person with colonial roots, which means my famility still has ties with the ex-colonies. Not because they are "folks today who benefit from dubious past arrangements" but because they grew up there, and it is just as much home to them as to the people who's parents were born there. Because of this, I hear many more stories than the vast majority of the people here. And lately, I've begun more and more to question why this is, when I still have to hear many people insult my past while, when I ask them what they know of the current state of things, I only receive vapid stares.


Isn't ANY adventure story in ANY genre told from the point of view of the cream? The Odyssee is about the adventures of the King, not about the guys at the rows that get eaten by the monsters.

And The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,/i> is about the semi-literate scion of an illiterate, drunken lout who only escapes being on the bottom rung of the social ladder by the presence of actual slaves.


There is a book on just this topic, by two people whom you know. (Clears throat.) They probably should have asked you for a blurb.


I might be the Other Party in this discussion, but may I ask you for the title?


Not to say that former colonial territories aren't perfectly capable of their own homegrown horrors (although how much of these horrors' roots lie in the colonial period is always a good question to ask), but give me leave to doubt that certain countries (not just Haiti, but also the DRC comes to mind) will ever 'go far beyond the acts of the one-time colonial overlords'.


Attempting the writing prompt... /Good point of colonialism from the viewpoint of the colonized/:

  • if you were an oppressed person under the original government or culture of the colonized area, you might be elevated by the colonizers to a higher status level

  • if you were a part of an elite in the original governance of the colonized area, you might find your consciousness raised as to the plight of the people who were mistreated before by you as you are now being mistreated by the colonizers

  • the colonized people might unite from a previously factionalized ineffective leadership to one united against the colonizers, there's a term for this that I can't remember... oh yes. Xanatos Gambit.

  • the colonized people might selectively adopt some of the more appealing aspects of the colonizing culture that end up making their lives better in some way

  • a wide swath of colonized groups who were previously unable to widely communicate with each other might establish improvements via becoming trading partners and sharing information by gaining a common language: that of the colonizers that is inflicted on them

  • the colonizers might have more advanced technology in some area such as architectural techniques or health care that they choose to share with the colonized, getting more of them vaccinated or building with arches, things like that

ok... I guess that is all I can think of. Sorry if it included too much prejudice or racism or whatever, I did do my best :)


"Monarchism, I maintain, was no less totalitarian than the dictatorships that followed it."

As an exemplar look at the British Civil War .. King Charles the First obsessed with his Divine Right of Kings followed by a military dictatorship followed by .. do we Never learn ? ..another bloody King and all of 'em rampantly totalitarian.

In todays 'Independent ' there's an interesting piece on that hero of The People, Winston Churchill ..

"... Then as an MP he demanded a rolling programme of more conquests, based on his belief that "the Aryan stock is bound to triumph". There seems to have been an odd cognitive dissonance in his view of the "natives". In some of his private correspondence, he appears to really believe they are helpless children who will "willingly, naturally, gratefully include themselves within the golden circle of an ancient crown".

But when they defied this script, Churchill demanded they be crushed with extreme force. As Colonial Secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tan thugs on Ireland's Catholic civilians, and when the Kurds rebelled against British rule, he said: "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes...[It] would spread a lively terror." ... "


Well, there is a reason I specify it's not all of them. Some are doing quite well, like Namibia (which also happens to be the only ex-German colony). Many Asian countries that were colonies are also steaming along quite happily.

Of course, moral judgement is always hard in these cases, but that's exactly why I hold this particular opinion. As far as the roots of current injustice lying in colonial rule, I don't subscribe to that. Like we both know, many countries are doing well, which you might attribute to colonialism, too, following that logic.


Fascinating discussion.

I can't get rid of a nagging feeling that the first Steampunk I encountered was "The Wombles"... although of course Tobermory would never have used anything so polluting as a steam engine.

All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? - Brought peace? - Oh, peace. Shut up!


As an aside Tolkien's foreword to my old battered copy of LOTR had the source of his much quoted hate for allegory, I also seem to remember he went into a brief description of what the book would be like if it had been an allegory, I forget most of it but basically the Hobbits would have been fucked, is what he said.


On the Airships in 1800s subthread, I'd like to second the request that people look at the actual history, which has human powered airships in the mid-1700s and steam powered airships flying in 1852.

Human flight goes back further than the Wrights and Count Zepplin. Far further back. Balloon observers were a major if poorly remembered feature of the US Civil War, and that happened after the first practical powered airships were flying, though they were not yet weaponized. Machineguns, modern bombs, and radios were needed for the latter to be practical.

The size and payload of 1800s airships left something to be desired, lacking sufficient aluminum. But they flew.

On the colonialism thread - Colonialism wasn't even good for the colonizing countries, by modern economic analysis... It took a while to figure that out, but we know better now.


I rather like steampunk, or at least good steampunk, but I would never accuse it of being sci-fi. With a few exceptions (e.g. The Difference Engine) it's fantasy through and through, replacing magic wands and mithril with brass and Tesla coils.


And I should add that there's nothing wrong with that. :)


Hey--coming late to this. This isn't meant as a defense, but I think you might not be reading in the right areas, because it seems to me there's certainly a strong strain of political/socially aware Steampunk, especially in short fiction but also some novels--and that conversations similar to this over the past couple of years have fed into that. Along with the escapist stuff. And it's getting more interesting because of sites like Beyond Victoriana and SteamPunk Magazine, which would share your view. There's also a difference ideologically between "neo-Victorian" and "Steampunk", as you know. I totally agree there's an over-emphasis on it re certain sites, though, possibly because it's become pervasive across several types of media.

It's fascinating to see this discussion in the context of not writing the stuff but having researched it the past couple of years. Personally, I'm so burned out on Steampunk from over-reading that I'm happily devouring a bunch of Europa and Dalkey Archive translations at the moment as an antidote. That said, lots of readers are still in the throes of first discovery.




Diskworld isn't our world and steampunk is based here.


A couple days ago the WashPost had "vile" instead of "vial."

except that I have the attention span of a weasel on crack

Given the pharmacodynamic similarities of cocaine to methylphenidate, that's a somewhat ambiguous statement, even though crack smoking is of course in a different pharmacokinetic league than good ol' oral Vin Mariani...

I for one am more or less of the Cleesian political school concerning colonial empires[1], with a revised Idleian theory of social stratification[2]. Oh, and there is the added unsavoury detail that some people even like the bleak details of social history[3]. The problem is, with colonial history you have the guys insisting on the positive aspects of colonization here[4], and there you have some of the new elites[5] writing their own low-brow version of Tolkienesque fantasy[6]. So I'd take some of the stories about pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial times with a grain of salt (see: narrative, historical), but then, there are some well-attested atrocities not that much part of the public opinion, like Belgian Congo.

About the "guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins", sorry to sidetrack this discussion about the failings of a genre, but Zeppelins being the big, rather slow structure they are, I somehow doubt their tactical value. Even though anti-aircraft guns don't seem to be an option for any aspiring insurgents, but using quite cheap unguided solid fuel rockets, along with some incendiary warhead like thermite or napalm do. Plus the British learned the military use of missiles by some unfortunate incidents with Tippu Sultan, so somebody using them in the Raj and neighbouring territories is a definite possibility; luring said Zeppelins into suitable terrain, getting them into range and using multiple launchers simultanuosly should yield some successes; of course, the strategical results will be mixed, see reprisal actions, Hague Conventions is so 1899. But historically reprisal actions in asymmetrical warfare often lead to heightened support for the insurgents, along with some, er, ethically justified terror in the countryside by said insurgents. Oh, and let's not forget that the Indians have Captain Nemo on their disposal, if we use the version retroconned from the Polish szlachta.

And then, who's to say the Imperialist powers are all playing by the rules? Imagine the British Empire and Russia still playing the Great Game in Central Asia with the locals restless for various reasons, from ruthless oppression to religious freedom, always an issue when said religious freedom entailed Christian converts on friendly terms with the colonial power or members of some backward castes getting funny ideas; who's to say the Okhrana is not to fund some local offshot Mahdists, giving one Nikolai Kibalchich ample oppurtunities to sublimate his revolutionary urgings and see some of his designs in action with plausible deniability, with Quing China acting as a proxy; of course, the following invasion of the North Western by the Russians and the following troubles are in no way related to current events, hell no.

[1] If that sounds too positive about the colonial powers, don't forget the Romans sacking the old aqueducts, sanitation and irrigation playing into them having to build new ones.

[2] Well, there is a larger upper class, so there are more people without shit on them.

[3] Though that leaves some room for karmic revenge, like the guy fantasizing abou his right to sodomize his female slaves in Ancient Greece; nice thing is, the same stance was also held concerning male slaves, and there were even specialized bordels for this, see Phaedo of Elis[3a]. [3a] And then with the WM and Owomoyela, you had some of the NPD[3b] fantasizing about black africans in the Kaiser's colonies not being able to become Germans; looks like they never read § 33 of the Reichs- und Staatsangehoerigkeitsgesetz of 1913, stating German citizenship can be given to indigenous in the colonies. [3b] But then, using Kaiserlich law with this bunch was always a fantasy; according to StGB of 1871, there is § 127, 'Bildung bewaffneter Haufen', creation of armed heaps, or $ 82, agitation to treason.

[4] Even giving peasant boy like Saloth Sar an education and subsequent political career

[5] We will not delve about the history of said elite under colonial rule; let's just say that weighting some insignificant loss of power against outsourcing oppression is a hard choice indeed.

[6] To repeat my mantra, don't get me started on Hindutva; but then, Christian theologicians arguing about Neo Hinduists misinterpreting their heritage is funny, too...

like Namibia (which also happens to be the only ex-German colony)

Err, no.


for a more complete list, even though some of the more unofficial projects, like this one:

Concerning the German colonies, you should differentiate between myth and fact; OTOH, many Germans think "we were the good guys, they like us still", and then there is the biography of the likes of Carl Peters with all the juicy details no colonial exploitation movie can do without: native concubines, extralegal executions, positions even unpopular at this time. Plus we were previous ownersof this peaceful place called Ruanda, before the French got it.

But then, German colonial policy was more something of a 'Torschlußpanik' and an idea of some fringe groups then an official matter, AFAIK.

On a related note, another German colony was Qingdao, with one of the results being the foundation of a brewery; having seen a bottle of Tsingtao beer in an Asia shop today, I'd like some of our beer lovers comment on this stuff; add this to positive or negative sides of colonialism.


The "lesser breeds" were the Germans. Reread your Kipling.


Zepplins are big targets anywhere bullets or rockets can reach them (5,000 ft AGL or below, roughly).

But for tactical use, one can lower a pod on a cable, down near the ground, and keep the airship up in safe altitudes.

This was actually used to lower spotters for bombing missions below cloud banks, according to accounts I've read. Bigger pod, more people, machineguns, rifle-resistant or proof armor, fewer or no bombs on the mothership...


The museum in Bath had an interesting exhibit on the Bessemer process and corsets. You needed steel to replace whalebone gussets if you wanted really tight lacing and the really kinky stuff.


The real thing about Jules Verne especially is that his steampunk was about improving the way people lived. Sure, they had individual adventures, but they were part of a progressive technology that has rebuilt the world. We worry about obesity more than we worry about famine. We worry about paying for our children's education than getting them through all those potentially fatal childhood diseases. We worry about too many cheap tee shirts, not clothing the poor. We worry about our weapons destroying not just our enemies but ourselves.

The 19th century had two great struggles. One was towards industrialization, and the other was in sharing its benefits. There was major reform in England in the 1840s, and standards were improving by the 1850s. The Queen, much reduced in power, started officially recognizing centenarians in the 1950s. It wasn't just National Health that created them.

One attraction of steampunk is the ability to capture some of that feeling of science and technology as being progressive. We lost a lot of that in the 1970s as we started accepting the down sides of our brave new world. The thing is, science and technology are still progressive. We still can make the world a better place. Maybe I'm just deluded, but I'd like to believe that.


LotR was an allegory about England and WWII. Even the geography fits.


First -- wonderful post. Quite a fun discussion, too.

I thought the present western world is nicer because of: 1) GDP/capita. The old world couldn't afford to e.g. educate its population. 2) The present world needs to educate the population, for productivity. 3) An open, capitalist economy works much better than any known alternatives. And doesn't work without personal freedom.

There are still some alternatives around. Unless those countries get money for free (oil) they are, if the language is excused, piles of manure.

It is good business for the leaders of countries to liberalize; even if you can't steal everything produced in a country, you still get richer. (The main reason to do the traditional model, is if the junta fear e.g. ending up in a court in Hague. Say, Zimbabwe and Burma.)

Oil is the remaining alternative. With too much of a country's export income from natural resources, it won't become a democracy. It is just too lucrative for the leaders to opress the population, make some trouble (to get external enemies so criticism is treason) and steal the oil income. (Google "resource curse".)

Most trouble makers in the world are oil exporting countries. That is hardly a coincidence.

My personal 1984-ish nightmare is if a computerized society can be organized economically efficiently, without personal freedom.

Considering Charlies' post a while back about "100 million people are needed to build our technological civilization" -- that just can't be centrally planned, especially with the speed of development. But if economic freedom could work with political opression? Shudder... I'm a bit nervous about China.

(Hope this was readable, need sleep...)


Ah, forgot the ending... tired.

The same 1-3 points should be true for a steam punk society. (E,g, computers didn't get industrial uses until a few decades ago.)

Also, there would not be any oil countries in the same way, which would make for smaller conflicts. Other natural resources might substitute, but hardly with the same difference between the cost of pumping up oil in Saudi Arabia and the price?

So a steam punk world there might be conflicts over resources, but there shouldn't be the same mechanism as oil has in creating really rich dictators with an interest in making trouble.


Tsingtao is the only Chinese beer that you can obtain in Hong Kong, and I would assume it's the least-worst; too many other beers from the PRC have labels with the words '100% formaldehyde free' to give you much faith in their brewing abilities. To be fair, beer (in a European sense) hasn't even been something the Chinese have been interested in.

It's also cheap, but most expats drink other stuff (Philippine-brewed San Miguel, or imported Dutch/German lager); Tsingtao is just one more utilitarian fizzy lager.

Now if the Germans had built a brewery producing stout or IPA I'd be happy (just after vanishing in a cloud of anachronistic contradiction). Although if you read the brewery sections of Tim Clissold's Mr China, perhaps not...


It's worth pointing out that at the time of writing, the scifi group on FaceBook ( ) has 8429 members while the steampunk group - - has slightly more at 8769 members.

Nearly neck and neck.

The kids these days, they just want to wear brown to annoy their elders.


On a related note, another German colony was Qingdao, with one of the results being the foundation of a brewery; having seen a bottle of Tsingtao beer in an Asia shop today, I'd like some of our beer lovers comment on this stuff; add this to positive or negative sides of colonialism.

Tsingtao is a guilty pleasure of mine and the only beer with rice in it that I like. The rice is, admittedly, paddy rice, and not the polished sugar bombs used in American "lager" so it gives a bit of flavour. It's basically a perfectly creditable lager with a twist. There's also a dark version, but that's pretty rare.

The Germans also taught the Japanese how to brew, and the long-term effects of that have been stunning.


"LotR was an allegory about England and WWII. Even the geography fits."

At the risk of annoying Our Host, who has issued warnings in previous threads about too much LOTR, no, it wasn't, and JRRT said so (and said that if it had been meant as an allegory, the Ring would have been used).


Tight lacing seems to have been a fetish thing in the 19th century, too, not the norm. It was seized on by reformers to illustrate the "dangers" of corsetry in general. The majority of women just used them to provide a bit of shaping.


I'll give C19th Germany guns, germs, (though not steel: Firth > Krupp), and chemicals, but not telegraphy. The UK controlled international comms until 1945.

For the best baroque tech, I prefer an Austro-Hungarian setting, which makes quite a lot of sense when we remember who was going to invent the a-bomb.

I tried, once, to write up a feature on 1840s aircraft for a magazine pitch that the late great Alan Lothian was putting together in the 1990s. I am Not An Aircraft Engineer, but I convinced myself that the technology was present to do some version of flight. Rockets were needed as the prime mover.

ObWhatever: Elon Musk as the C21st's Henri Giffard. Make a fortune as a clever guy in new tech, then spend it trying to kickstart newer tech.


Where does Moorcock say that the only respectable fiction must be about communes? In Starship Stormtroopers he argued the opposite: that fiction which is about monarchs and courts (which, after all, most of his was at that point) needn't necessarily be monarchist.


Possibly the only time ever that Charlie Stross and John Ringo are in violent agreement - see the bottom of for Mr Ringo's most excellent rant.

An extract:

Ringo maintains that steampunk is part of a generalized movement in American and European culture away from hard realities and science and towards fantasy and wish fulfillment. One of the biggest aspects of steampunk fantasy is the use of airships. “Airships are a stone bitch to drive in anything but the most placid air conditions. The slightest wind and they are all over the sky. The skill level to drive them, even under the best conditions, far and away exceeds heavier-than-air flight and the maintenance on them is truly atrocious,” he points out. “When I see steampunk depictions of airships in ‘formation’ (you know, the way airplanes and helicopters fly all the time) I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Any such formation is a Hindenburg disaster times a hundred waiting to happen. And don’t even get me started on the mechanics of trying to DOCK two airships in flight!” He also has issues with the steampunk movement itself, which he describes as elitist. “Steampunkers like to say that ‘everyone dressed properly to fly in the old days.’ By which they mean that men wore suits and women wore dresses. Know why? Because it was enormously expensive to fly a zeppelin, and only the ‘suits’ could afford it!”

I was thinking of replacing the "steam" - Siemenspunk.


Okay, your starter for 2 euro-cents: try and describe the good side of colonialism, from the viewpoint of the colonized.

Gladly. Here's a man who grew up under the brutal heel of the boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads, etc, etc.

"I saw elderly men of my own country, Somaliland, a former British colony, proudly adorning swords, medals and other royal mementoes awarded to them during British rule. Even today the surviving elders still hold dearly their royal memorabilia and flash them around with pride on special occasions. ...It is no wonder, therefore, that the queen is set on a pedestal by people in search of heroes. She symbolizes the last badge of Britishness for a nation in identity crisis due to globalization and mass migration. She also stands as the last memory of good times for millions of Africans living in Commonwealth countries that haven’t reaped but misery from their independence. They recall their old days under the British crown with sweet memories."

You could also refer to the arrival of British troops under Op PALLISER, who were greeted with delight by locals who thought that it meant British rule was coming back.

So, in short, the good side of colonialism from the point of view of the colonised was this: at least it meant you didn't have to live in modern Somalia or 1990s Sierra Leone.

Admittedly, this is a fairly low bar to clear.

On the other point, you're not saying anything new by pointing out that the Victorian period wasn't very nice. Steampunk has included this from its origins - the Difference Engine, the Anubis Gates, etc. It's never been something that the genre's shied away from.

But that doesn't mean that the 19th century was a Crapsack World. Look on the other side: at the start of the century, slavery was established across the world, with only a few exceptions (metropolitan France and Britain). By the end, it had been almost completely eradicated. Think of the improvement in women's rights from 1837 to 1901. The improvement in quality of life, in political culture, in science. (Compare it to the 20th century. Or the 18th...)


Arguing for historical accuracy in steampunk is rather like arguing for scientific accuracy in Star Wars. The whole point is to be completely and utterly fantastic, and to resemble actual science and history as little as possible.


"Somaliland, a former British colony, proudly adorning swords, medals and other royal mementoes awarded to them during British rule. "

Indirect Rule 101: 1. Find a chief (if no chief, make someone chief) 2. Give them a sword 3. Tell them that they are in charge and can expect a degree of back-up provided that they (a) keep their lot in a modicum of order, (b) don't oppose the Empire, and (c) ante up a certain amount of taxes and/or labour on a regular basis.

I can see how Lugard's ideal might have serious appeal for the sword-wielders. Others in the deal, not so much.


Well, the reached ceiling seems to have been something like 7.600 metres, reached by LZ101 in 1917; airplanes from the start of the 20th had a lower ceiling. That was one of the reasons for building the pod, the zepellin being high and safe, and possily invisible because of clouds, and the guys in the pod able to see the target.

Well, this being speculative fiction, there is nothing against some wonder drug tweaking some opsin into the near infrared range, enabling better cloud penetration.

Zeppelins being quite a no-no with current AA technology is clear, problem is, with the technology of the end-19th century, things may look different; I'm not aware of the range of era guns, but sharing an appartment with an afficionado of the Imperial German Marine, there seem to have been some problem with zeppelin countermeasures in the first days of WWI; later, flak and aircrafts seem to have been quite effective, the main advantage of the zeppelin being, as alread said, their ceiling.

About weaponization of the pods, well, the range of the Congreve rockets was '2 miles', with the subsequent Hale rockets reaching about '4.000 yards', so even adding a 1.000 metres cable with a basket doesn't seem that much of an advantage; given the fact this security tower in the air is not the aerodynamic lightweigt of the original design, the length of the cables might be a little bit less.

The original pod design was used in the bombing of cities, but suitable targets for bombardment in the colonies are either the bigger villages in punitive raids or fortresses; the first are a mixed bag with popular reaction in colonies and at home, hell, sometimes the trade-off between Christian Überbau and actual modes of production cuts both ways, especially if not the whole bourgeois class likes the effects of colonie;, concerning the second choice or military targets in general, our insurgents can easily go underground, so this leaves incidiary weapons or poison gas; incidiary bombs are best dropped from the bulk of the Zeppelin, so we still need to get low, and poison gases at this time are mainly phosgen, cyanide or chlorine, deadly, but not that lethal and effective; the lethal nerve agents are a much later addition. Of curse, you can always use later technologies, but then, you can't change the technology level too much.

Using guns might get us into problems, if you can target a single soldiers, with under 1.000 metres difference, said soldier can target the much bigger Zeppelin behind you; laying a smoke screen might be an option, but then, targeting early rockets is not an exact science, so it's only the general direction that matters.

And then, any loss of a Raj Zeppelin is bound to be bad publicity; imagine some guys with early shouldered rocket launchers, ululating on top of some Hindenburgesque scene; with other powers envying you and some indomaniac romantics, you know where aryans live, all it takes is one photograph...


Sorry to interrupt, but most of the notorious ideologies of the 20th century had their roots in the 19th century; for starters, just look up the Dreyfus affair, and no, that's not in Germany...


Well, seems like German colonial rule in Asia had some positive effects then, if not for the colonized, then for some beer drinkers. ;)

The 'Rightous Fists of Harmony'[1] might have thoght different.

BTW, wiki says even Max Weber endorsed the idea of German colonies, but then, Marx was a part-time antisemite...

On a related note, there may be some things of interest when visiting DortCon next year.

Concerning the Japanese, that's another ineresting point; in the beginning, they avoided the fate of being colonized, some years later, they were colonisers themselves.

BTW, I'm not that sure if 'colonialism' is the right term for this phenomenon in the 19th century; but then, 'imperialism' seems to imply me loosing the rest of my hair and growing a really nice goatee, even though the term is not necessarily leninist, or is it?

[1] Now that's a name crying for a sexploitation movie. Though other examples of historical, err, erotica, like Salieri's "Promessi Sposi", don't stick too close to the original...


'I can see how Lugard's ideal might have serious appeal for the sword-wielders. Others in the deal, not so much.' (Chris Williams) The sword-wielders are already there before a Lugard comes, busy raiding their neighbours for slaves and booty.


Not all of them. And they all lacked air support. Precarious business, sword-wielding.


I can't but think that part of the appeal of the Victorian era to steampunkers was that the Victorians Did Stuff. Among the horrors of the Victorian age was that no-one gave a stuff about health and safety and environmental impact, but that also meant they went out and built stuff, lots of it, and quickly (and whilst smoking huge cigars). There wasn't any business regulation to speak of either and the railway barons and other industrialists make our current banking elite look like amateurs in terms of fortunes made (usually theirs) and lost (usually their investors').

Contrast that with today, where we no longer have commercial supersonic flight because we just couldn't make it pay, and a 3.5 mile railway extension over mostly existing but disused track will probably not happen because it's budgeted at a whopping £170 million.

Of course, all we see as a legacy is the actual infrastructure, and not the lives, environments and humble fortunes sacrificed to make it, so I'm not advocating a return to days of reckless disregard for human safety or fiscal sanity, but I do see where the appeal could lie to those who want more of a "Let's Just Do It" attitude.

I want to see ... laundry finds hogwarts

This. This! THIS!

Even if just a short story blog entry, like John Scalzi's When the Yogurt Took Over. Please?


Second artist syndrome? Try something closer to fourth or fifth.

Jules Verne and H.G Wells were writing "steampunk" back when it was just speculative fiction and what was to become sf; and riffing off sources which predate their own work. Authors in the first wave of what we might call steampunk (and for the record - I hate that marketing term with a passion) like Powers and others, picked up broken bits of this legacy but made most of their novels out of whole cloth - or at least as much as SFF ever is; the truth being that the combination of magic, horror, technology, myth, and gothic romance has never died out and never likely will.

Those in the current waves of steamspec - these fourth and latter generations, are now looking backwards as opposed to forwards and I think that might be some of the problem we see here - if one exists, which I'm not sure that it does.

Because, how much does it really matter?

There is always a tendency to fetishize the past, especially a period as turbulent as the 19th century; to pave over the social inequalities and focus on the bright shinny brass buttons and not the cholera and the workhouse stiffs. But you could say that equally about 99% of todays SFF. How many writers really tackle problems like international banking, deforestation, racism, global poverty, war, and continuing social and economic inequality? - damn few. Even those novels, nominally set in the present, use most of this as mere window dressing for their stories. And perhaps that's for the best. Only the most masterful of authors can enact real change with their written word - and most readers of the lesser aren't looking to be lectured.

In the steamheads defense, I can imagine a lot believe they are subverting tropes: with openly gay characters, spunky females and protagonists of colour. We don't tsk, tsk every last fantasy novel that fails to deliver a rousing denouncement of the feudal system of twelfth century Western Europe - nor do we focus obsessively on the consequences of the Renaissance's contribution to navigation and hence the colonization of vast swarths of the globe by white, Christian, gun-totting Europeans. Wars of Religion anyone? Perhaps the 19th century's many problems and injustices just feel more fresh, but I think that's a mistake. We haven't changed that much since the days of ancient Rome socially, not nearly as much anyway, as we'd like to think.

I suspect this is more just the scene hitting a saturation point - temporarily. Fantasy is slowly moving its timeline up towards the present. But the present is always a moving target, so there are always those who will be writing novels set in a previous period, seen through the fish-eyed lens of fetishizing antiquity.

First likely comes romanticism of the period, and only later does true grit and more in-depth deconstruction show up. It's taken a long time for example to do so in books still mired down in the plague ridden mud and mounted equestrian killers (i.e. knights) of the "Middle Ages." We may yet see darker, increased social realism in the steamspec novels yet to come if we give it time to mature. No need to throw rocks at the poor bastards yet or punch holes in their dirigibles.

Good luck,



That reminds me of Dutch missionaries landing in New Guinea. There, they met the Marind-Anim, who venerated them as ancestor spirits. Of course, they did so because the Marind-Anim are brown-skinned, while the missionaries were the exact opposite. Reversal is a powerful component of many shamanistic societies (for a Western example: Widdershins). Apparently one of the missionaries eventually answered nature's call in some bushes, and because the result didn't smell like roses, the Marind-Anim then knew them to be just human.

And contrary to what you might expect, they weren't eaten at that point, even though the Marind-Anim were headhunters. That's a habit the missionaries did away with, convincing them they could just as well hunt for symbolic objects, rather than chop some dude's head off. Turned out it was better for everyone.


Couldn't agree with you more. Fiction that's COMPLETELY divorced from truth is meaningless.


you can get zombies from watching TV,, Ive seen it.... they dont groan 'brainssss', its 'make me a cup of teaaaaaa'


Was it "a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state" or was it "dominated by authoritarian psychopaths"? You can't have both.

This post is also discussed on Samizdata, where it is pointed out that the thing about the 19th century is not how bad it all was, but how rapidly it improved.


Unnerving as it sounds Zeppelin crew looked forward to duty on the dangling pod - it was the only place on the vessel that you were allowed to smoke.


Honestly, and I say this not as a fan or even defender of SteamPunk, but I think you miss the point.

Purely escapist writing (and SF has long and strong escapist roots) is about disappearing into a world that is much better and more exciting than your world. In the Campbell days, that world was the future, but since the 60s we've been very skeptical of the idea that the future will be better and more exciting than the present. So instead we turn to the past. In sword-and-sorcery, the past is a romanticized version of medieval times, with all the bad things taken out of the period (which was, after all, much worse than even the Victorian). SteamPunk is the same thing just in a different period. If you don't understand that, then you don't understand SteamPunk. Because a book that looked honestly at the period wouldn't be escapist at all.

This isn't to insult escapist writing per se or to say that escapist writing can have no value. But your criticism, while entertaining, makes about as much sense as complaining that there are no hanging tumors or ethnic pogroms in Tolkein. That's just not what you go to Tolkein for.

And the Singularity is just as much of an escapist fantasy as Tolkein or SteamPunk, just with people, like the Campbellians before them, wanting to believe that this particular wonderful fantasyland is actually on the horizon.

The question you have to ask yourself whenever you read something that's pure fun, or even mostly fun, is what fantasy (lower-case) is being offered by this secondary world, and why is/isn't it appealing to me.


OK, but the problem here is the history fallout. To a first approximation, the public do not learn about history through the work of historians, but through consuming a variety of works of fiction. We (for most important values of 'we') don't understand the French Revolution via the work of Richard Cobb but via the relevant 'Carry On' film.

So if there's plausibly fake 'Victorian' era attaching itself to a genre, then it's likely to pollute our understanding of the epoch.

Of course, it's possible (perhaps even reasonable) that nobody need give a toss about that.


Charlie @187:

Haiti finished paying France for its independence in 1947: (This is itself an outrage)

Are they still paying some related amount?


A couple of comments in reply...

Don't confuse trajectory range with maximum altitude attainable; they are not the same.

Also - unguided artillery rockets, particularly pre-mid-20th century ones - are not point target weapons, they're area effect barrage weapons. They do not go in a straight line; you can't line up a launcher on a zeppelin and hit it. You might line up 100 launchers on a zeppelins (within altitute range) and hit it. It's fairly unlikely you'd hit a small hanging observation or even weapons pod a mile in the air.


@Chris - Then you have to ask yourself the question of what is actually expected of a fiction writer. Is their job to educate or to entertain? I think most people who read for pleasure would believe the latter and, while I won't say that realism or education has no place in fiction, it isn't the primary goal of the art form.


I'm just about to write a blog for Ay-leen that touches on some of the issues raised here, so I'll just make one point. I hope what I'm doing with Muslim Steampunk is less painting the landscape painter's painting, and more wondering wouldn't it be a grand idea to lay on my back and paint the night sky. The merging of sci-fi, sci-fan, steam fetishism, allohistory, and adventure presents imaginative possibilities a-plenty, IMHO, as long as we look through the steampunk goggles and not at them.


I think you've articulated why Steampunk doesn't do much for me. I've got no problems with it as an aesthetic: brown, with shiny.

My problem is that there is no place for someone with my ethnic background in a steampunk millieu. Because if the essence of steampunk is the cream of Victorian England, non-whites are excluded by default, even demonized. This is not my playground.


Colonialism: I'm still against suttee. Call me silly, but there it is.

And I don't want a walk on part for Disraeli, I want him running the whole thing (possibly under a nom de guerre). As a survivor of the six volume Moneypenny & Buckle biography (which made my prof change the rules about page length and how many books to report on), I can babble rather a lot about him. And I think his father would have made a truly spiffy spy during the Napoleonic Wars (who doesn't show off their latest bright shiny toys to a military historian?).

Off to lunch!


@JLee - I agree, the job of the fiction writer is to write fiction. And the job of the critic is point out if the fiction genre is pernicious (say, Fu Manchu, etc).

But I'm neither a ficion writer nor a critic. I'm a professional historian. Which probably means that I need to declare an interest...


I am not sure what "Empire" has got to do with anything - after all (contrary to what is often taught) the Empire made up a very small part of British 18th and 19th century economic activty. The domestic economy was vastly more important. And even in terms of overseas trade - India was one market among many (often not the most important place for exports) and the African colonis and so on (again contrary to what is often taught) were of no real economic importance.

As for living standards in 18th or 19th century compared to now.

Errr yes they were lower - it was a different tech level (I would have expected science fiction people to understand the importance of tech).

If you campare Britain to more government dominated placed AT THE TIME - then British living standards were not lower, they were higher.

If people want to do some interesting science fiction have a think about the following.

Victorian Britain but with MODERN TECHNOLOGY - do you really think that living standards would be lower than ours?

And modern Britain with VICTORIAN TECHNOLOGY - what do you think would happen?

Actually, if modern levels of taxation and regulation, were tried (at Victorian tech levels) there would be total collapse.

And if the Victorians had had modern technology - their living standards would soon have been vastly HIGHER than ours are.


Against SUTTEE ? !! Oh Un-natural Woman that does not recognize a Woman's natural DEVOTION to to Her Lord and Master !

The British Overlords had quite a Struggle with their Male conscience on this one .. naturally the Male Romantic Vision would be that a woman would much rather Die ..Romantically, and without Screaming too much .. rather than live on without Her Lord and Master ! And Yet ..theres the underlying 'would one want ones Mem Sabib to perish in this way and if it is a bad Idea for ones One then ...? '

You get that sort of moral dilemma when dealing with ones Subjects. Consider the Cult .. hard to understand old chap BUT IT IS their religion AFTER ALL ..

" Terrorists, Murderers, and...Thugs Over the past three years I have heard the term “Thugs” used countless times in American politics, especially by our leaders:

Like Bush here:

The world changed on a terrible September morning. And since that day we have changed the world. Before September the 11th, Afghanistan served as the home base of al-Qaida, which trained and deployed thousands of killers to set up terror cells around the world, including our country. Today, Afghanistan is a rising democracy. (Applause.) Afghanistan is an ally in the war against these thugs. (Applause.) Many young girls now go to school in Afghanistan for the first time. (Applause.) Afghanistan is becoming free, and America and the world are safer for it. (Applause.) or here: " ....

Captain Harry Lewis had a bit of a problem with this view of the Rulers of the Empire ...

Here for Sc-iffy connections ...

" The initiative of suppression was due largely to the efforts of the civil servant William Sleeman, who started an extensive campaign involving profiling and intelligence. A police organisation known as the 'Thuggee and Dacoity Department' was established within the Government of India, with William Sleeman appointed Superintendent of the department in 1835. Thousands of men were either put in prison, executed, or expelled from British India.[3] The campaign was heavily based on informants recruited from captured Thugs who were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. By the 1870s, the Thug cult was extinct, but it led to the promulgation of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Although it was repealed upon independence of India, the concept of 'criminal tribes' and 'criminal castes' is still prevalent in India.[9][10] The Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID). "

The Technique of the Rummel as executed by one man is pretty well described in one of Peter O' Donnell's ' Modesty Blaise ' novels but in the Real World it was probably more of a team effort with each member of The Team assigned a specific role in any given murder .. er, religious exercise that is.

Anyway it was pretty comprehensively Put Down by good old William Sleeman who was much opposed to this particular form of religious diversity and respect for the same.

Think that this sort of thing vanished Long Long Ago? Google Albino human sacrifice ..

You will like this one Charlie ...

Oddly enough I'm not a ' radical atheist ' but am more of the 'what the Hell we will find out soon enough anyway ist '

Though I still Wonder at your lack of Feminine Devotion to you Lords and Masters Jean!


I'm in agreement about how much rubbish is being touted as 'steampunk', but ranting is easy. Can you be a little clearer about the salve you seek to soothe your anger? Have you thought it through that far? I do think you've taken your "blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun" way too far. You leave no room for redemption by those who welcome this genre as a way to stand back from history or futurism and say something about humanity that is timeless.


Yep, the North used balloons in the First Battle of Bull Run. (In the first map, see the red circle around Manassas Junction? I live about four blocks diagonally from that junction. Yes, there's dead people under my condo.)


You do realize that Cory has "A Clockwork Fagin" (or is it "The Clockwork Fagin"), a steampunk story for an upcoming collection, written well within steampunk sub-genre lines, right? He podcasted the story a while back even though the collection isn't out yet.


I'm not sure I follow your reasoning here. If today is the best time to have ever lived, and this has been true for much of the last two hundred years, it is not unreasonable to expect things to continue to get better. Hardly a depressing thought.


Hope that doesn't get too annoying to you or the rest on this blog...

Don't confuse trajectory range with maximum altitude attainable; they are not the same.

I know, and I should have written about this, but lacking suitable equations, I couldn't get the exact altitudes. But assuming maximum range with a launch angle of somewhere around 45°, I think the quotient of altitude divided by range, in a first approximation, is somewhere in the range of 0.5 to 0.25. This still leaves us with 500 to 2,000 metres, maybe even a little bit more with no horizontal component when firing straight into the air; also of note is the fact both Congreve and Hale rockets used black powder as a propellant, with cordite-type smokeless powder in use since the middle of the 19th century; specific impulse with gunpowder is about one third of the one of cordite, and even if the actual use of cordite in rockets was much later, well, necessity drives invention, and even though even in the 1950s anti-aircraft missiles like the Genie used nuclear warheads lacking effective targeting, shooting at Zeppelins is another matter. So let's say our rockets have a maximum altitude of about 3,000 metres. That's only a first approximation.

The 08/15 machine guns of the early 20th century had a range of about 2,000 metres, and using a number of 1,000 metres for the ropes of the spy basket, we get a distance of about 3,000 metres maximum between target and Zeppelin; most of the time, the distance would have been smaller, so yes, I think the effective range of the Zeppelin and Apsara blimp killer overlap. Note that the operational weight of one 08/15, calculated as one ca.70 kg MG and two ca. 65 kg operators, is about 200 kg. To be operational against multiple launchers, it's best to have more than one MG in the basket. I think metal armor is too heavy, but then, there is early ballistic vest technology at this time; the payload of a Zeppelin at the start of WWI was around 10 tons, at the end of the war, it was about 50 tons; nevertheless, we shouldn't get too heavy.

I agree with your opinion about the accuracy of early rockets, but as already said, that'd be about ten or more people targeting the Zeppelin, maybe even hundreds of insurgents shooting at once; and then, one launcher could fire multiple rockets simultaneously. Also, as mentioned, I'd fit the thing with a nice thermite warhead, which, together with an explosive charge, means ca. 1500°C hot metal fragments flying around in a room with big balloons of hydrogen. So maybe a direct hit is not necessary.

It's a war of attrition; one anti-personal Zeppelin is quite expensive, it needs experienced troops, and it is very visible. One Djinn blimp killing rocket is quite easy to build, training a few grunts is much easier than training some Luftschiffers, and you can hide them in the terrain. Shot a salvo of rockets, hide and change positions quickly, lest machine gun fire strafing into the general direction of the rockets hit you; maybe you get killed, it's unlikely, but even then, it doesn't matter, reprisals for this attack on a Zeppelin are going to orphan dozens of children, angry to avenge their parents. But even while the machine guns are cooling down, there are other grunts firing their rockets. It's asymmetric warfare, and I'm not that sure who's going to win. For the grunts in the field, it's may be a more enjoyable form of suicide, but then, Zeppelins are notorious for their demands on infrastructure, and effective control of the countrside may be limited to a few miles outside one hangar.

To improve efficacy, one could even implement a primitive rangefinder with mirrors; enter the range into a clockwork mechanism connected by wire to the rockets, but the staff into the ground, fire the rockets and leave the area; when the roll of wire reaches the pre-dialed length, the clockwork snaps, the wire pulls a trigger, and the warhead explodes. And even slow chunks of molten iron are bad news for burnable materials. Experimental counterfactual history, anyone?


There's an Japanese anime where a street foodstall has a sign outside reading (according to the translators) "Our alcoholic drinks probably contain no nitroglycerin".


"The "lesser breeds" were the Germans. Reread your Kipling."

You've been reading Eric Blair, haven't you? Actually Kipling reserved his greatest detestation at the time Recessional was written (1897) for the Russians and their allies the French. The Germans didn't register on his compass as they weren't stirring up trouble in the North West Frontier (see Kim for an example of who the Great Game was being played against).

Blair's labelling of Kipling's reference to "lesser breeds without the Law" was in an analysis after two World Wars where the French and later the Russians had been our gallant allies against the foul Boche. In 1897 the British Meditteranian fleet was there to keep the French fleet in Marseilles bottled up and unable to mess with the Empire's trade and possessions in the Middle East, India and North Africa. As for Kipling's opinion of the Czarist Russians, read "The Man Who Was" (1907) sometime.


Well, on a related note, given some European customs concerning remarriage of widows at the same time and the nice effects of ostracism in closed communities, socially sanctioned suicide seems preferable...

But then, the current Medieval/Renaissance craze amazes me all the time. I mean, come on, if they really want this, even if diluted to subthreshold levels, why don't they join the Roman Catholic Church[1] in all its g(l)ory?

[1] Note: As a cultural catholic I'm aware of the fact Medieval christianity has some differences to post tridentine and post vaticanum catholicism. And now leave me alone, vile heretics.


Oh, superstitious bandits in a time of social unrest and changing authorities. That's of course a phenomenon totally unheard of any European or American societies...


@ 255 "Lesser breeds without the Law" was a DIRECT reference to Kaiser Wilhelm's speech(es) concerning international law, and its' limits, and how to treat captured enemies etc, during/after the Boxer rebellion. Wilhel stated that there was a "Higher Law" which eneabled their troops to ignore all the rules (rather like Gitmo, in fact). Kipling was rithly contemptouous of this nonsense, and AT THE TIME OF WRITING, everyone would have know what he meant.

On the more general themes. People have already dragged the examples of Thuggee and Suttee out ... And in several places, the Brits were not interested in taking over, until something really horrible happened, and they felt obliges to step in and stop it: Gold Coast/Ghana, Uganda and upper Burma are all examples of this, where the local ruler started doing truly revolting torturing/killing things in public. Ugand is a particularly poignant example, given what happened after the Brits left .... Ditto Nigeria, where al,most all thaty country's vast wealth has been stolen by successive generals. But still not as bad as Congo ..... Contrariwise: South Africa, where the Boers took over in 1948(?) and it all went downhill. Compare the attitudes of "Brits" and Boers to brown-skinned people in the novels of H. Rider Haggard - the Brits regard them as children to be "looked after", but still as people, as for the boers ... well, you've killed that one, get another kaffir.

Steam-powered airflight was not only possible, it was done: look up George Cayley. He built a working steam-powered aircraft, which flew successfully, but landed badly, breaking the leg of the pilot (one of Cayley's employees). Cayley paid for the man's medical repair, and abandoned the flight experiments, bacause he didn't think it fair/too risky. Method? Paraffin (kerosene) fuelled, small, high-pressure boiler, with very carefully made copper-tubing. Cayley understood the weight-penalty problem, and also the need for a high power/weight ratio.

The staem-powered turbine, developed into the gas turbine, our main source of power-generation RIGHT NOW, was a classic Victorian invention. Thank you, Charles Parsons.


The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich.

Hasn't China Mieville already written this novel? (Perdido Street Station and its sequels)


It's always struck me as quite odd how leftists a) gain satisfaction for relentlessly pillorying our antecedents whilst at the same time b) proclaiming to all and sundry how one must be so understanding and appreciative of 'diversity' and c) asserting that there's some sort of moral equivalence between 20th-/21st-century totalitarianism and monarchical regimes of previous periods.

Marxism-Leninsm and its various offshoots served as the ideological underpinnings for the most pervasive and large-scale murderous dictatorial regimes the world has ever known; there's simply no basis for comparing Victoria's Britain with the USSR, or Mao's China (or today's China, for that matter). And whilst there are manifold injustices which take place in any era, including our own, there are also marvels and postive aspects to be found in most eras, as well.

In fact, there are some things which tend to stand out as being better or more desirable in a given era than in subsequent eras.

But anyone who is capable of asserting with a straight face that there's not much in the way of differences between London in 1888 and Moscow in 1952, or Beijing in 1967, or Rangoon or Pyongyang or even Moscow again in 2010, simply isn't being intellectually honest or is allowing enthusiasm for his leftist secular religious mania to overcome his better judgement.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that Rome under an Augustine, a Vespasian, or a Marcus Aurelius, or a Berlin under Wilhelm II was far preferable to present-day Havana under Castro or Hanoi under the CPV (and, yes, I've been to Hanoi and to Saigon several times quite recently, thanks).


Why can't you have authoritarian psychopaths in a libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) order?

It sounds like an ideal place for them.


But anyone who is capable of asserting with a straight face that there's not much in the way of differences between London in 1888 and Moscow in 1952, or Beijing in 1967, or Rangoon or Pyongyang or even Moscow again in 2010, simply isn't being intellectually honest or is allowing enthusiasm for his leftist secular religious mania to overcome his better judgement.>>>>

'Mummy, mummy look - that man is made of straw'.

'I know darling, just ignore him.'


262 But the man isn't made of straw!

The thing that bothers me at present is the way a lot of "the left" are proclaiming the purity of the islamic revolutions. Horribly reminiscent of the Nazi-Soviet pact... In the same way that I deliberately drew a parallel between Shrub's USA and Kaiserine Germany, with us (the Brits) playing the part of Austria-Hungary under Tony B. Liar.


"isn't being intellectually honest or is allowing enthusiasm for his leftist secular religious mania to overcome his better judgement"

Is it my imagination, but have we had more than the usual number of head up the arse, I'm not here to read the original blog post and comment on its subject, I'm here to parade my ignorance, drive by ranters than normal?

FFS people, the original topic was the decline of the steampunk genre because of a glut of stories which are all steam and no punk. And we've ended up with an epidemic of Godwin's Law. All it needs now is a grammar nazi to tell me I shouldn't have started that last sentence with a conjunction and we're done.


Well, G Tingey was right about where Marx went wrong. Otherwise, there've been a number of variously misleading, incorret or tendentious generalisations upthread, which I've not got time to correct (too much like the day job).

But may I recommend the Open University course 'Empire: 1492-1975' to anyone who wants to find out more about it? Six hundred quid for UKnians this year, but hurry up because the cost's about to rocket following the ConDems' plans to privatise the teaching of history in the UK.

Well, G Tingey _was_ right about where Marx went wrong.

Sorry if I repeat what Charlie has already said, but could you please elaborate about the facts where Marx went wrong. That's not because I think he was right, but because I can't stand intellectual laziness trying to look smart, and this Charlie is something of an easy target those days.

For starters, you could look at: a) Marx the human being (not really that intellectual challenging, but then, always entertaining, believe me) b) Marx the philosopher (another victim of this 19th century German pothead Hegel, BTW also one of the sources of Fukuyama and like) c) Marx the economist

Denying Capitalism has any failure modes gets you a failing grade, otherwise you have to explain why on the free market of ideas this ol' lemon called 'real existing socialism' still shows up. Explanations of this give an extra grade.

And about contemporary 'leftists', come on, the best part in the Manifesto is the bit with the character assasination of contemporaries. Always fun to read.

BTW, in a first approximation, EVERY political movement has failed. Otherwise we wouldn't argue... ;)


To a first approximation, Marx predicted that the growth of capitalism would progressively emmisserate the proletariat the advanced capitalist countries. He failed to predict the arrival of social democracy, building societies (US: savings and loan), occupational pensions, high-wage (fordist) production, etc. He got a lot of things right, mind, but because he got this biggie wrong, a whole bunch of other stuff he predicted, including proletarian revolutions in advanced capitalist countries, didn't happen.


I have never read Marx. I Am Not An Economist. But reading 267 above one thing strikes me: Perhaps Marx didn't factor in the effect that he, Marx, would have on the system. That is, the effect that the existence of an alternative type of economy - however grim - would have on capitalism. Didn't the existence of a competitor system mean that the Western capitalist economies had to ameliorate things somewhat for their populations? Ever since the Soviet Union fell, those measures - pensions, social security, higher wages - seem to have been under constant assault.


You demonstrated general knowledge about Marx's work in the context of the social question and passed the text, though a deeper discussion of the subsequent development of British society in relation to Marx's analysis is beyond of the scope of this test[1][2]. ;)

Problem is, poor Charlie gets it all the time these days, even from people claiming he was wrong because he failed to see people need their work to realize themselves, err[3]. Well, at least according to one of my teachers, but that guy was a special case anyway[4].

[1] Tomorrow, we're gonna analyse the general election of 2008 in Italy according to the semiotic framework of "Più forte, ragazzi!", 1973, with a special emphasis on Northern Italy (Ternece Hill) vs. the South (Bud Spence). Stay tuned.

[2] Read: I'm not that much of a history buff to follow it.

[3] But then, I think 'Entfremdung' is overvalued.

[4] The hours of him explaining how he'd have cracked on Baader-Meinhof if not for this liberal amateur pussy Horst Herold[5]...

[5] For non-Germans: substituting Herold for J. E. Hoover gets if not the facts, then at least the general feeling...

The thing that bothers me at present is the way a lot of "the left" are proclaiming the purity of the islamic revolutions.

To give the old devil what's the devil's due:

"For the rest, so little do they conceal the reactionary character of their criticism that their chief accusation against the bourgeois amounts to this, that under the bourgeois régime a class is being developed which is destined to cut up root and branch the old order of society.

What they upbraid the bourgeoisie with is not so much that it creates a proletariat as that it creates a revolutionary proletariat.

In political practice, therefore, they join in all coercive measures against the working class; and in ordinary life, despite their high-falutin phrases, they stoop to pick up the golden apples dropped from the tree of industry, and to barter truth, love, and honour, for traffic in wool, beetroot-sugar, and potato spirits.

As the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord, so has Clerical Socialism with Feudal Socialism.

Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat."

Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848

What to do with those counterrevolutionaries, Comrade?



Suffice it to say that proclaiming any development a Xanathos Gambit is a little bit premature most of the time...


My problem is that there is no place for someone with my ethnic background in a steampunk millieu. Because if the essence of steampunk is the cream of Victorian England, non-whites are excluded by default, even demonized. This is not my playground.

Not sure that this is really justifiable. Remember what colour (for example) Captain Nemo was.


John Aubrey's Brief Lives covers an engineer who supposedly had plans to build the Thames & Severn Canal but couldn't implement them because of "the Civill Warres". Given the role of the canals in the Industrial Revolution, there's an interesting question right there. Of course, Aubrey was his own unreliable narrator.


Dude, I just wanna say I am that young kid in the sandbox having way to much fun with steampunk because of my friends. But that totally makes so much sense! Isn't it so funny how kids my age and up just love to talk about this kinda stuff (everything in your last paragraph) and trust me, most teens find it soooo cool and totally fasinating. But you brought up a good point that made me think, could any single one of them survive in a time period like that? And I don't think so. I'm currently writing a Zombie/slightly steampunk novel and I'm trying not to glorify any of it. Not that there isn't any glory in surviving such a time, but while its still going on... Imagine who freaking depressing it would be. To sleep with a gun and know your parents killed each other or in one of my characters cases, killed themselves in your kitchen and abandoned you to death. i agree with you completely, but I'm still going to write it because I think its still slightly amazing to imagine someone surviving such a place. A place that I would just kill myself in. Anyways, yeah. -Hope and thirteen year old girl :)


oops, I meant '-Hope, a thirteen year old girl :)' haha kk bubye <3


Nemo is an exceptional character, even unique? He's an outsider (possibly the outsider) in the Jules Verne novel. And even then, his origins are aristocratic.

You can have persons of colour in steampunk, but it is not the default.


(Dortmund breweries)

I was in Dortmund earlier this year, and there are plenty of better brews than that! I particularly enjoyed the Bergmann beers, especially the dark ones.


And of course, I have never said that "capitalism" is perfect..... Just that Marxism is a complete bust, as is any sort of theocracy (and most "communist" states ARE theocracies, anyway - oops)

Meanwhile, historically, even in the USA, as far back as 1902 there were serious moves to restrict the unfettered bullying of individuals by corporations and businesses. What regulations you put in place, and how well and fairly they are enforced is a GOVERNMENTAL problem, and applies equally well to left and right-based syatems. It seems to be very difficut to do properly, whatever your nation-state or overt political leanings.

Incidentally, I misremebered some of the information on Cayley in my earlier posts - you'll need to do your own research - sorry!

Rome under an Augustine, a Vespasian, or a Marcus Aurelius, or a Berlin under Wilhelm II was far preferable to present-day Havana under Castro

Those places would have a hard time providing free 21st century health care... :)


Pretty good, except you equate the 19th Century with libertarianism - which is one of the great fallacies.

Its not an example of left or right libertarianism. Otherwise why would the libertarians and proto-libertarians of the age have opposed the state of affairs, or why would many modern day libertarians attack the state of the 19th Century as authority and privilege ridden...


I doubt whether steampunk will get very far in TV or film, however. TV and film producers can appeal to the fans of the aesthetic by adapting classics or even (vide Downton Abbey) creating original costume dramas, while also being attractive to a wider audience and, unlike any kind of SF/Fantasy genre fiction, scoring brownie points for "quality drama".


Why so serious? Steampunk is FUN. You know, FUN. There's room for fun everywhere. Everyone knows that steampunk is unrealistic, both technologically and socially. Let us have our historical high fantasy in peace man


Nemo is a man so bitter about the world (and his status in it) that he introduces himself as "no-one".


That, or he had a classical education and read the Odyssey...


Oh noes! it's made the Sunday Comics


I like the metaphor that steampunk generates in my mind.

Given what we know now, how early could certain discoveries been accidentally have been made with the technology at hand? Lasers? Buckyballs? LSD? In the Victorian or Edwardian era?

This is the kind of what if that mundane steampunk (riffing off of mundane space opera) could be made of.

Not that I have that much time to be aware of what's actually happening.

[Apologies in advance if this has already been brought up. I love popping in and reading bits of Charlie's blog, but I can't keep up-to-date on all text of all threads, due to working on TFT-n-stuff].


Actually, totalitarianism is denouncing entire literary (or, I suppose, in this case, sub-literary) genres on the basis of ideology. Why not just replace your entire post with a simple, positive assertion; "Steampunk is objectively a facist literature"? Since you seem to have ambitions of being the Zhdanov of sci-fi, you should adopt an appropriate prose style.


"In fact, I'll go so far as to say that Rome under an Augustine, a Vespasian, or a Marcus Aurelius, or a Berlin under Wilhelm II was far preferable to present-day Havana under Castro or Hanoi under the CPV (and, yes, I've been to Hanoi and to Saigon several times quite recently, thanks)."

Suggest you revisit the subject of slavery in the Rome.


The science explaining LASERs is contained in Einstein's 1917 paper on how radiation interacts with matter so LASERs could not have appeared earlier. I recall that LSD was discovered by accident so maybe it could have appeared earlier. Possibly Buckyballs could have been discovered a few decades earlier than their 1985 discovery. Buckyballs do appear naturally in soot so it would be a question of when the equipment that could detect it first appeared.

"I was in Dortmund earlier this year, and there are plenty of better brews than that!"

I can imagine, but than, this was more of a reminder that Dortmund is/was quite a beer town, which explains one of the buildings of said brewery being one of the landmarks.

OTOH, seems like those guys make Hansa too, and even if the stuff tastes awful, I have fond memories of it, err, fond lack of memories, er, let's just say the park space of my wasted youth's summer evenings wasn't called 'Hansa meadows' for nothing, err..


"Goths discover brown." Yow! That is so... unarguable :-)

But for me it's more than just that - I'm a decade or so older than Charlie, and one of the aesthetic influences of my youth was hippies discovering Victorian clothing, particularly the American Wild West version of Victoriana. And the Disney versions of Jules Verne were around when I was a kid, and Sherlock Holmes was still Basil Rathbone. Watching younger people discovering Victoriana and doing cool new stuff with it themselves is fun.

And also, I live in Silicon Valley, and there's a Zeppelin parked across the highway from where I live, and it's often flying around when I'm on my way to work. (Obvious XKCD reference.) And yeah, Abney Park were its first public passengers...


Well, Morphine was first extracted in the 1804, which was one of the first relatively pure bioactives; most of the other alkaloids followed in the first half of the 19th century; concerning the modification of said molecules, diacetylmorphine and acetylsalicylic acid, or heroin and aspirin, were both synthesized in the early second half of the 19th century, but they were only commercialized by Bayer in the 1890s. Concerning the first synthesis of an alkaloid, that was coniine, of Socrates fame, in 1886. About the viability of their use by the Victorians, well, Morphine was Sertürmer, a German, the synthesis of coniine was a German, and heroin and aspirin were synthesized by many, but final use was by Bayer, so this leads us to a certain German presence and thus again to Siemenspunk. But then, the first synthetic dye was Mauveine by Perkin in 1856, and he was searching for a bioactive, namely a synthetic quinine; note BTW the synthesis of quinine is quite medchem hardcore and was only achieved in the middle of the 20th century. But then, Mauveine looks not that much like something recreational, more akin to the phenothiazines and like, and even they were only studied in the middle of the 20th century, see H1 antagonists and antipsychotics. With H1 antagonists, we also get some of the early opioids like methadone and like, but that's again middle of the 20th century.

Concerning neurotransmitters, well, the catecholamines were studied in the late 19th century, with synthesis of adrenaline in 1904; concerning psychedelics, that's important, because some of them are quite similar to noradrenaline, see mescaline and MDA. Serotonin, the main target of all psychedelics, see 5-Ht2a, wasn't isolated till 1948, and even then, only in the blood. It wasn't till much later we learned it's a neurotransmitter, and much later till SSRIs and like.

Going not from the general state of medchem and neurochemistry, but from therapeutic uses of related agents, concerning ergot, well, the stuff was in use with multiple indications, but ergotoxine was isolated in 1904 and ergotamine of antimigraine fame in 1918, so any structural modifications are bound to happen only after this.

So, in a way, LSD in the 19th century is a bit early; but then, when you look at the literature, drug use in Victorian times is not that unheard of; leaving opium dens aside, not only Sherlock Holmes was harbouring some private cocaine use, and Wells even describes some transhumanism stuff in "The New Accelerator", but then, that's 1901, so it's again a little late.

And then, it's not necessarily because they couldn't synthesize strong bioactives; the first synthesis of amphetamine was 1887, MDA was synthesized in 1910, and MDMA of Extasy fame was first synthesized in 1912, while looking for a haemostatic; these are quite potent drugs, but somehow their effects were not registered till much later.

Concerning if you really want to do some Victorian goa parties, well, peyote was described by Louis Lewin

and the isolation of mescaline was in 1897. Synthesis of the latter was only in 1919, but then, one could change that.

An interesting side note concerns parkinsonism; AFAIK the cure of the day were the anticholinergics, with Lewin figuring in some trials of a MAO inhibitor in the 20s; parkinsonism was firstz described in 1818, and interestingly, Mucuna beans contain L-Dopa, the preferred treatment today, and the are used as an antiparkinsoian agent in Inda; thing is, without an decarboxylase inhibitor, there is bound to be peripheral dopamine; maybe one could easily get an earlier use of Mucuna, with a little kickstart of pharmacology.

BTW, for a nice history of the pharmacotherapy of PD, see:


I'm from Chicago, of The Jungle, the Haymarket Bombing, and the Industrial Workers of the World . . .

And I'm near tears of joy at someone else pairing Dickens and Marx, the two indispensable writers for understanding the Nineteenth Century Industrial Revolution.

And for the past couple of days, I've been going ever more slowly, ever more having to force myself, trying to read Boneshaker. It feels like it was written backwards. Put the cool props in place, intersperse with set pieces, and then invent connections; rather than start with premise(s) and work them through. There isn't even a pretense of political economy. It's rare for me to deliberately put a book aside and not finish it, but this may be the one this year.

One thing I loved about "cyberpunk" was that it put the working class back into science fiction. There's been less and less and much too little for too long. And this is one of the key omissions of steam"punk".

Charlie, may you live to 120 (and not regret it!).


Well, I don't know a lot about steampunk, but I do remember thinking that China Mieville's critique of The Lord of the Rings was the most beside-the-point article I had read in decades.


MDMA was first synthesised in 1912? Cool. I don't know what you could do with Wilhelmine eckies as a plot point, but I suspect it would be a lot of fun.


"You want Wilhelmine Berlin - brash hypermodernity, cutting-edge technology, and seriously fucked up politics."

We got that, though, didn't we? By way of an aspiring artist from Vienna...


I have a vision of Kekule (he of benzene) on acid, visualizing buckyballs, then inventing some kind of discharge chamber to create them, and accidentally stumbling upon a CO2 laser (to be sure, without the QM needed to invent it from first principles). All around 1850 or so.


As you well know Charlie, Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything is shit obviously also applies to steampunk. Using steampunk as a target here strikes me as kicking a puppy because it's the runt of the litter. Most literature, including much of fantasy and science fiction, ignores the social ills of a society. Not everyone wants to read a Frank McCort rift with a genre twist. Publishers are putting out steampunk, and zombie mashups books, because they are selling. Publishers staying solvent also works to readers' advantage, whatever you like to read.


As already mentioned, MDMA was used as an intermediate in the synthesis of hydrastinine, not as itself; but then, given the interest in adrenaline analogues at the time, why shouldn't anybody notice the similarities, do some tests, notice a lack of effect and up the dosage to the heroic dose of 100 mg, though that smells of Darwin award territory; come on, Jugendstil was trippy enough on itself...

But then, given the known cultural repercussions of plain amphetamine, why not use that and let the Dada guys go all the way to beat generation on benzedrine?


Zombies? I seem to remember that zombies were made by burying people alive, thereby giving them (those of them that survived...) just about enough of brain damage to make them a very docile labour force.

Should do nicely to set up an industrial operation around that, shouldn't it? Sending criminals and other unworthies to the plotters field (ahem...), secretly catching all the native millions outside the border trying to get in, sending them there too.

There must be somebody with an industrial bent already having steampunked that idea out there somewhere?


What's your opinion on the Borgs of Star Trek fame? Aren't those guys just a little steampunkian? Or, how much needs to be done to them to work them into steam punk canon?


That you could write, "I should like to remind you that king is a synonym for hereditary dictator," shows such a lack of political understanding that it throws your whole essay in doubt. Since the fact that they are not synonyms was a major cause of the restoration, it shows you to be a historical ignorant as well. But your parody recolection of the 19th century, the second most civilized century after the 20th, had already done that. I don't read steampunk, but given your review, I'll have to start.


As already mentioned, mescaline was known and had some cultural impact, see Crowley, an it also leads to visual hallucinations.

BTW, DNA was discovered in 1869, so maybe somebody gets into PCR territory.

Concerning the CO2 laser, given the hype with electron beams at the time, see x-rays and like, why not an electron beam or a free electron laswr?

That you could write, "I should like to remind you that king is a synonym for hereditary dictator," shows such a lack of political understanding that it throws your whole essay in doubt.

Err, a) you fail rhetoric hyperbole forever.

b) looking at

one is faced with these alternatives:

a: a person granted absolute emergency power; especially: one appointed by the senate of ancient Rome

b: one holding complete autocratic control

c: one ruling absolutely and often oppressively

Using a narrow definition, even those nice homicidal regimes of the 20th century[1] were no dictatorships, for all of them depended on an inner circle[2]. OTOH, one could include not just some debatable 'benevolent dictators', but also Charles de Gaulle in 1968.

And any widening of the definition is bound to include any person in an official position not 100% democratically elected, like any monarch, even a mere representative; hell, even the pope is more democratically sanctioned than the Windsors, though of course he has more power.

OTOH, this finally shows that 20thCHR give even dictatorships a bad name...

[1] Names omitted to circumvent Godwin. [2] Looking of the intrigues of e.g. Göring and Himmler or Stalin's cronies exposes any lamentators about inefficient liberal democratic parties for the superficial quacks they are.


Err, to use a german usenet term and do the Ingrid, that was not 1968 but 1958...

"De Gaulle had accepted Coty's proposal under the precondition that a new constitution would be introduced creating a powerful presidency in which a sole executive, the first of which was to be himself, ruled for seven-year periods. Another condition was that he be granted extraordinary powers for a period of six months."

Leaving the objectivity of wikipedia aside, that's not that much different from e.g. Pilsudski in 1926.


a) Even given the wacky and unpleasant side-effects of Imperial Germany, that postcard painter fanclub was a beast of its owen[1]. Note, Stauffenberg and like were not necessarily liberal democrats[2].

b) Having had the questionable pleasure of crossing from tech-support into SEO territory recently[3], I think this Schicklgruber guy wouldn't be a postcard painter today but a self styled web designer...

[1] "National socialism is that political movement that gave the Prussian sword to Austrian foolishness." -August Maria Knoll [2] See for an elaboration. [3] Management insisted. And for all my sins, it was reluctant to give me the address of our web designer, "Can't you do this on you own?", hell yes, but questioning management about our provider would have been karmic penance for them. And I need this job, at least to buy the books of our gracious host...


(Just back from a weekend in Antwerp ...)

Rolf: I am Not a fan of Star Drek.


If you read Francis Wheen's excellent (and often both very funny and very moving) biography of Marx, you will see that he describes CAPITAL as the greatest Victorian novel, full of excellent images and metaphors and jam-packed with passionate denunciations of the Victorian industrial society he otherwise celebrated as the indispensible precondition for socialism. Marx was a great creative write, amongst other things.


That reminds me of the low-budget steampunk movie Perfect Creature. It's grounded in the idea that medieval alchemists discovered DNA and genetic modification, unleashing a torrent of souped-up diseases on humanity in the process. Also, the clergy consists solely of vampires.


The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears this is true.


Well, the necessary tech level for genetic modification is difficult to gauge, OTOH, it's ridiculously easy in some ways, but then, you need x-ray cristallography and like. But there was an 17 years lag between Griffiths(1927) and Avery(1944), so things were definitely not going that fast; maybe you need something like an atomic bomb to get the brains disinterested in physics and going to molecular biology...

My main reason to bring this up was that even if Mullis was not necessarily trippin', he might definitely have been in flashback territory when visualizing PCR...

But then, this guy makes a good mad scientist...


On a related note, looking into the genre of sandal punk, has anybody tried to pass a script of Drake/Flint's Belisarius series to Ridley Scott lately?


I distinguish between Moorcock as an author and as a critic. As the former, he has his moments. As the latter he is lazy and often bizarrely and inappropriately ad hominem. Which is why I am always puzzled by perfectly cromulent people citing him as an authority, often without doing anything other than saying "This" and walking away. At the very least, he demands some extra work to defend.

If your fiction is about courts and kings, it is either a) monarchist; b) anti-monarchist or c) neutral/uninvolved (i.e. at the very least monarchy is an acceptable milieu, not worthy of confrontation, dissection, etc.) If it is anti-monarchist, then it should have something to say about what should be in its place. I do not think that has ever been Moorcock's stong suit. He is either inconsistent. (How much different is Tanelorn from Rivendale when it comes to "let's just go to sleep" oblivion/consolation?) Or absent. Or just laughable. (See his take on the ending of Stars My Destination or his reasons for finding Harlan Ellison acceptable.)

Moorcock implies you are either a) fascist; b) cool or c) crypto-fascist. I would say he is either crypto, by his own terms, or d) empty. But on the occasions where he manages to write a good story, I might read it without worrying about what that says about the state of my political conscience.


Have you read Elric? Elric isn't monarchist or anti-monarchist, more like "this world is so evil it looks like an actually good joke, only a very evil one".


I'm sorry. I really don't understand all of this angst and analysis over "steampunk". It's just science fiction for crying out loud; emphasis on the word FICTION. Are vampires and werewolves real? How about fairies, elves and witches and the paranormal world they inhabit? No, of course not, yet this genre is read by many and enjoyed immensely. This really seems to me to be much ado about nothing.


If you don't get it then either you didn't read my essay (but just bounced in here to shit all over the place ritually) or you're in need of some consciousness-raising. I recommend Chomsky, specifically "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media" (unsurprisingly, on the subject of propaganda and the manufacture of consent -- bear in mind that fiction is a branch of the mass media and no more exempt from use as an agitprop tool than any other form dominated by hegemonic publishing cartels).

Shorter version: Josef Goebbels funded, filmed and distributed "Der Jude Suss" as high-budget popular mass entertainment for the Third Reich ... but it was also a propaganda vehicle insofar as his film version embodied certain assumptions about the way the world works, and he hoped that the audience would internalize and carry with them the same viewpoint. If you buy into vampires and the whole holy-water-and-crucifixes thing, you've taken a step down the road to Christian fundamentalist eschatology (by attributing those ritual objects with power); if you like fantasy with kings and princesses and so on, you're buying into the myth of the Just Monarch and the divine right of kings hereditary dictators. Steampunk, similarly, builds on the trappings of an era that comes with certain baggage attached.


I agree with Mr. Stross, but I must say I have my own reason to be upset with steampunk's development.

Steampunk should be a setting. This is my story, "X", and this just happens to be the setting where it takes place, "Y".

When the scenery replaces the actors no matter what you are performing, it will be stiff and awful--the same for fiction.


Let's see FTL travel realier than gas induced zombies. FTL drive original to Singularity Sky, what about Lensmen by EE Smith. FTL is main point of Singularity Sky, like gas induced zombies was main point of Boneshaker. Maybe just a fantasy trope to move story along. Now thats original thinking. Stross you write fantasy, get over yourself.


Stross you write fantasy, get over yourself.

In what way does pointing at my perceived failings invalidate my diagnosis of failings elsewhere?

You need to take a hard look at your rhetorical style, son.


I have to agree with some of the commenters, here. I think it's oversimplifying things to state that a single genre espouses a single viewpoint. By the same count, science fiction only busies itself with rocketships and space squid.

On the other hand, I do agree with a large portion of your essay. Steampunk hasn't exactly presented itself as the most enlightened genre. But that's more because most authors use it purely as entertainment, rather than cheering on Victorian values.

And on a side-note: With your disapproval of monarchy, I find it strange that you enjoy Girl Genius. The entire comic's world is based on the Divine Right, what, with the Spark and all. The main character is even a long-lost princess, bound to return Just and Honest rule to the world.


I agree there's an oversaturation of steampunk on the market right now, and that most of it is bad. I agree wholeheartedly that the Victorian era was horrible and I wouldn't want to live there.

That said, I think you're missing the point a bit on the current incarnation of steampunk. I've heard it summed up rather nicely as 'steampunk needs historical accuracy like a fish needs a bicycle'. Its escapist fantasy (the label 'gaslamp fantasy' from an earlier post would probably be more accurate than steampunk').

So, rather than looking at the Victorian empire and throwing in some anachronistic technology. It borrows the style and aesthetics of very early SciFi (ex. Jules Verne), but its more taking the bits of history that are good and running with them. While the Victorian era was riddled with social problems and bigotry, it was also the last hurrah before most cutting edge science disappeared into the realm of specialist knowledge (Origin of the Species is said to be the last work written simultaneously for popular and specialist consumption) and exploration of the globe was still happening on a large scale (now we're more or less done, you explore space, the very bottom of the ocean or small ecosystems in great detail). Steampowered zepplins wouldn't work, but from a fantasy standpoint they're fun to write/read about, and I can take that sense of scientific drive and wonder and still keep 21st century morals.


This glut of "steampunk" is market driven, just as the term steampunk is a marketing term. There is only so much money out there, what better way to get more your way than by slinging mud at the other guy's product.

Sorry I offend.


Charlie @ 319 Really! You should know that Monarchy != hereditary dictatorship. I repeat: No British monarch since Anne has refused to sign an Act of Parliament that has been put before them. If Parliament was (or is) determined that this is the way it is going to be done, then the monarch signs. Agreed, the monarch may, and often has, tried to influence the decision beforehand, but then, so do all the other involved players. Even before the Bill of Rights of 1689-90 [ A much more important, far-reaching, and still-applicable piece of legislation then the "Great Charter" ] most monarchs had to trim their wishes to that of the other important players. Charles' I refusal to go by those rules was one of the reasons that he was got rid of, and similarly for James II & VII. Before then, the only two exceptions I can think of, who got away with it, were both Tudors: Henry VIII & Mary. Even in late medieaval times, monarchs who took no account of the wishes of others, tended to come unstuck - that's how parliament got started, in fact, because Henry III's misgovernment and cronyism had reached a point where it could not be tolerated, and de Montfort led the "reform" party ....


1) FTL does indeed include its own assumptions, something like "there is very little than can be withheld from the full power of human reason".

2) Britain is pretty nearly a democracy, we just need an elected house of lords. Monarchy is where the monarch rules.


Bob: I am spending this decade in Angry Realist mode. (Escapist revisionist fantasy, not so much.)

What I think we need in SF is believable near-future works of fiction depicting a non-crapsack world that, if we were to end up living in, would provoke sighs of relief rather than an impulse to suicide. It's a tall order but I think it can be done -- and not only that, it needs to be done, lest we lose all hope for the future.


Greg: the British monarchy is an exception, and even then it was only tamed at the cost of a decade or more of ruinous civil wars -- civil wars in the plural, there was more than one of them -- that killed up to 10% of the population. Then a trial and execution and thirty-odd years of dictatorship to drive the message home to Charles I's heirs: fuck with Parliament and we'll give you a Cromwell haircut.

Even so, it took another civil war -- 1688 -- to ensure the message stuck.

And the British monarchy was near as dammit unique in being so hamstrung by its subject peoples -- until 1789 -- and even thereafter the ancien regime hung on throughout most of the Great Powers until 1917-19.

Monarchism: this decade's poster child is Kim Jong-Il, and -- romantic pomp and ceremony aside -- 19th century and earlier monarchs regularly resorted to secret police, informers, harsh interrogation, prison camps and gibbets for dealing with dissidents.


Charlie @ 329 I'd largely agree with you ... BUT it is not a NECESSARY condition that monarchy is as you portray it. You are defining a tyrrany, and they don't have to be, and very often are not, monarchical. In fact tyrranies are usually run by a select group, some form of corrupt oligarchy, today's poster-child for that model being "Myanmar". Then there's the worst from of all governments: a theocracy. This latter garuantees a tyrrany, exactly as in the case of N. Korea, where, as you say, the third generation of Kim God-kings take the "throne".


Tim @ 327 "there is very little than can be withheld from the full power of human reason"

The desire for perfectibility is a myth, perpetrated throughout human history by priests and philosophers.

Human reason is limited by the tools we use to measure the world. The world as far as humans are concerned has a beginning and an end, therefore finite and closed. To think otherwise is religious.

Charlie Stross @ 328

Utopian SF is driven by the same desires that drive religion - the promise of a better world, if only .. if only you don't eat an apple. SF like fantasy should entertain and stop there, your characters being human should have religion and politics and philosophy and unlimited knowledge, but the author should just tell a story, like Homer did.


the author should just tell a story, like Homer did.


Who are you to dictate to writers what they should or shouldn't do? Writers write what they want to write, or at least in this commercial world, the closest to that that they can sell, and there is a centuries long history of writers wanting to say something about the world in what they write. It's up to the readers whether they then want to read it.

Perhaps it's significant that you had to go all the way back to Homer for your example.

SF like fantasy should entertain and stop there,

Because goodness forfend that anyone actually write a book that made you think. I mean, it might change your mind about something, and then where would you be?

Brain-popcorn has its place, but on the days when I'm not stuck in bed with a head-cold I'd much rather read something that challenges me in some way. Which is what good Science Fiction does.


Sorry, Charlie! It was a copy-and-paste error, no insulting formality intended.

As for my homophony, don't you think Master Pabulum would be an excellent character in your upcoming steampunk zombie novel?


bellinghman @ 332 Chrisj @ 333

Are you guys getting educated from science fiction, that's a major fail, like learning economics from Ayn Rand, science from the bible or art history from Dan Brown. I read Dune, Lord of the Rings, Look to Windward and Singularity cause they're fun, like vivid dreams or rollercoater rides. FTL and the physics behind it don't exist and never will. Humans living in space will, but not on other planets in other solar systems. If our "children" manage to get to another planet in another solar system in a hundred thousand years, they won't be human that's for sure. No aliens going to come here ever, no way that will happen. The best SF like the best fantasy are dreams nothing more.



Some science fiction has very good science in it, as it happens. Yes, there's lots of non-science brain candy (and indeed non-science complete unreadable drivel), and quite a bit of stuff that breaks our current understanding of the rules of physics (but note that a good deal of our current understanding of the rules of physics would have been regarded as implausible nonsense by physicists working a hundred years ago - Einstein asserted that black holes couldn't exist). But there are also plenty of works - both old and new - that contain plausible universes working entirely within physics as we understand them. (I believe there are even a couple by some bloke called Charlie Stross who you may possibly have heard of.)

But quite apart from that, the idea that a (fiction) book has no content other than story is something that anyone who's ever paid any serious attention to the subject of writing would disagree with. Authors in the Homeric period would (by and large) have laughed at the idea; their works (written and oral) were definitely intended to convey meanings beyond the mere words - religious and symbolic meanings, mostly, but important to them and their audience even if we largely disregard them. Do you really think pTerry Pratchett (a man described, with good reason, as "Britain's greatest living satirist") is exclusively writing entertaining novels about wizards and trolls, with not the faintest hint of commentary about our own world in them?

What about, say, Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness", or C.L. Moore's "No Woman Born"? Both science fiction classics, and great stories, but also (along with numerous others, not all by women) serious discussions of gender politics. What about the myriad science fiction novels that ask thoughtful questions (or suggest possible answers, or even constitute lengthy diatribes) about the nature of consciousness and identity? How about those which consider serious questions of morality (what constitutes 'good' and 'evil'? Are they the same as 'right' and 'wrong'? Do those concepts even have useful non-subjective meanings? What about the differences between intent and outcome)? Perhaps those (both within and beyond the fantasy tradition; consider our gracious host's "Merchant Princes" series) that discuss the nature and problems of different kinds of state and forms of government and the transitions between them?

Had that all passed you by in some way? (If the answer is yes, I recommend that you go away and read all the books mentioned above, not to mention the rest of Le Guin's and Moore's works and a huge number of other books by Ken Macleod, Justina Robson, Chris Beckett, Liz Williams, Michael Swanwick, Ekaterina Sedia, Damon Knight, and too many others - living and dead - to mention. The names I have just listed aren't random, by the way - they're all the authors of books I've read in the last six months that had something of value to say above and beyond telling a story. That is, they all made me think, which is why I read their books - and our host's.)


The movie Wild, Wild West was a consciously ironical take on the 70s TV series Wild, Wild West (Robert Conrad as Jim West?), and that series had some proto-gaslight-fantasy elements, along with the tone of surreal, LSD-influenced low-budget works like The Prisoner. I guess the movie was more steampunkish, but of course it came out after steampunk had been established as a genre.


I read Left Hand of Darkness in 1972 it is full of bad science but still very entertaining. I read Dispossessed next, it was extremely didactic and overtly political and just plain boring, she forgot the story. Whether a novel has good science or bad science it's secondary to the story. Gender politics, philosophy of consciousness, serious questions of morality have been in the background of good and bad stories since at least Homer.

It's true Homer was about more than words, it was the stories he told at parties. Mythical beings and historical exaggerations, but human characters at the center following story arcs, action rising and falling, etc. No one learned religion at his feet. There were priests for that.

If you think science is somehow eternally progressive that would be totally misguided. Read Marcelo Gleiser's A Tear at the Edge of Creation for some exposition of the limitation of science and the quest for TOE.

What you as reader got out of those books is a subjective interpretation of a subjective interpretation. Those authors weren't trying to teach you something they were telling you and selling a good story.

John Gardner said good fiction is the "creation of a vivid and continuous dream...". This applies to science fiction and fantasy.

...but the author should just tell a story, like Homer did.

You fail Ancient Greek literature forever...


My problems with "steam punk" are more basic. Where does the heat to MAKE all that steam come from? How much wood do you burn to power a steam-mecha, and where do you store it? I sort of like the idea of explaining it using radioactive material that boil water (and a non-humnan species that is more radiation resistant than humans) Steampunk might actually work better on a non-Earthlike planet.
Perhaps a planet with a Venus-like atmosphere? A dense oxygen-free atmosphere would be very zeppelin friendly, and seriously interfere with internal combustion engines. Could a planet with lots of super-lightning storms block the development of transistors? Or you could just explain away electricity and gasoline using a post-apocalypse civilization where the metals and fossil fuels have been used up.


I second your opinion that social questions can make for a good or a bad story, barring even the disconcerting fact of a good story written by a guy whose whole stance you detest[1]. But that doesn't add to the question of the historical background of steampunk.

Looking at your argumentation, you bring up two points, first you think Homer's Illiad mainly involved narration and little education, second you decry scientific progress as an individual interpretation, as if that's any argument, and say this leaves SF and fantasy interesting and/or entertaining 'dreams'.

First of, your little meta-narrative of Homer recitating the Illiad on a party aside, we know pretty little about Homer's life and time, even leaving some doubts about said guy's existence; it's so bad there was a time they called it "the dark centuries", and one of our sources for it were some anachronisms in the Mycaenan Bronzte Age tech of said Illiad, shedding light on the time of the author; it's better now, but still, calling this time postapocalytic[2] might be a little bit histrionic, but meets a first approximation:

As such, we can only guess about the story behind ol' Homer and his magnus opus, if he even existed. Knowing my party animals, I somehow doubt the Illiad being that popular after more than a few craters, for this, there are Ancient Greek stories about god Pan sticking a dildo up his anus[3], always a favourite topic in a macho society with a certain ambivalence towards homosexuality at the brink of the 1 promille level. At the very least, we can assume different levels of parties with a certain high-brow low-brow stratification even in Ancient Greece. So Homer seems to have been interesting not only for his entertainment value, for harsh levels of entertainment.

Excluding education and/or archive functions as explanations seems unwarranted; looking at the history, even if Mycaenan Greek had it's own script, it was lost, and the later Greek script is an import from Phoenicia; this leaves us with a culture without a script, and some of those are bound to develop eleborate literature without any written content, see e.g. the Veda of India or the teaching of the druids[4].

Realizing this, it seems logical to assume at least part of the Epics had a similar context.

Concerning the mythological education, well, the local cults constituting 'Greek polytheism' work a little different than your hebrew Sunday koran school Judeo-Christo-Islam, first of, you got no central authority but many different local cults, some descendents of the same older cults, some new influences later to be edited into a concensus; an important point are sacrifices, many of those were done by the house owner himself, or in other cases, the king, in some other religions like early Vedic religion, 'priests' are something like a special consulting guy you hire if the sacrifice has to go really well, any deviation is frowned upon with near OCD fevor, don't know how this goes for Ancient Greece; how much religious education figures in this profile is up to debate, but my bet is, much of this was cast in stories similar in content to the Epics told at one point or another in the extended family.

(Looking at the history of Epics, I think the textual history of the Mahabharata in India is a nice example, with some parts like the story of the divine dog accompanying the dead maybe mirroring really Ancient burial practices,

others, like the Gita, being much later additions.)

So, no, your point for Homer as 'just a story teller' doesn't add up. At best, it's easy to implement a countering narrative with the same facts; at worst, your interpretaion flies straight into face with the facts.

Second, you are using a very narrow difinition of the function of literature as entertainment, and even then, it's totally up to your definition of what's 'entertaining'. Some of us might require an elaborated social background in their reading to get the latter. Concerning your stance on the theories in books as interpretation, hell, so what, let me counter with Mach, there are no recipes for scientific breakthroughs, but the live of scientists are most interesting; BTW, Feyerabend adds that they are ineresting because they prepare the mind for something new, guess how this guy'd have thought about good SF, well, he figure in a story by Lem, or simulated personality of his...

And if we venture into philosophy of science, let's do some more Feyerabend and Lakatos[5]; we should judge competing literary projects just like research projects, by their results; using the current formula of steampunk or even further disinhibiting the genre wouldn't do the genre an good and would lead to a certain kind of dragonrider lore with Zeppelins, which wouldb't even be that entertaining. Complex Victorian societies with backstabbing and dark implications, hell, ther is some -albeit somewhat decadent- potential there...

[1] I mean, really detest; like in "let him sign an organ donor waiver with AK-47 in the face on a mountain pass with a car with defect brakes in the background"-detest; in short "makes you sick to be the same genus"-detest. Do I really have to elaborate?

[2] Notice BTW how it's always the problems of our times that killed our Granddaddys' Golden Age. First blue-eyed, blonde Dorians swathing over a decadent oriental culture, later it's environmental issues like deforestation, in the time of nuclear overkill it's Thera, and now illegal immigration. So much for 'only narration'.

[3] I'm not making this up.

[4] AFAIK the Romans said teaching a druid took more than 10 years, and they had a calendar of multiple years. Not good for preservation without druids, sorry Wiccans.

[5] Leaving the value of "Against Method" for disgruntled biology mayors aside, using it as a art manifesto seems worthwhile...


Bob @ 331 ... "... being human should have religion ..." WHY?

Lots of humans, including Charlie and my self have NO religion, we are atheists. I suggest you join the real world, or better still read H. Beam Piper on the evils of religion.

@ 335 SF can never come true? Really? I suggest you try chanelling Arthur C. Clarke about that!

@ 336 We had "Tormer's Lay" read at our wedding!

@338 "The limitation of science" ... Erm, you wouldn't be an, er, christian, would you? Because what you've written sounds like the usual lying religious blackmailing bullshit about "other ways of knowing". I do hope I'm wrong.

@340 You boil the water using LIQUID fuel - called "OIL", you know? Even paraffin/kerosene will produce a LOT of heat, after all, it was used until quite recently (may still be) as fuel for jet aircraft ....


it was used until quite recently (may still be) as fuel for jet aircraft ....

You'll be happy to hear that jet aircraft have yet to go nuclear powered to any noticeable extent, though reports this morning suggest that Qantas may be carrying out preliminary experiments with their A380s.



No not a Christian or any other religionist, but I apply the same skepticism to science. Humans invented science as well as axes and chisels. Science is a tool we use to describe the world and since the world is finite (a closed system), science has to be a closed system and humanity is a closed system therefore there are limits to human knowledge. One of those limits seem to be the speed of light another human mortality.

The human brain is a story telling machine, it tells us stories about the world, if it doesn't have all the facts it fill in the gaps the best it can.

Clarke was more wrong than right.



Charlie - @344 (Challenger) is pure unadulterated SPAM

(I hope that spammers aren't going to rush in to take advantage of all the extra eyeballs.)


Taken care of, thanks.

"...and since the world is finite"

Sorry, that's not a fact, that's not even a theory, that's a hypothesis. One you cannot prove[1].

"One of those limits seem to be the speed of light another human mortality."

Leaving the question why c should be extempt from your skeptical stance on science aside, comparing a constant on cosmological scale to spme historical constraints of the curent biological human condition seems a bit unwarranted.

"The human brain is a story telling machine, it tells us stories about the world, if it doesn't have all the facts it fill in the gaps the best it can."

Once again, care to elaborate on the connetion to your argumentation? As already hinted at, I share your opinion the human brain is merely creating a model of its surroundings and our interior, one of those models called 'consciousness', but that's not necessarily in favour of your argument; one could even say this strengthens the point we need more social realism in literature. Seems like human brains have some rudimentary model evaluation code[2], and if the social model is not adequate, we just bail out.

[1] "There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened" -Douglas Adams

[2] "This smells fishy." "Am I going insane?" "You're going to visit me in the Landeskrankenhaus, won't you?"



The world is either finite or infinite, pick one for your starting point - whatever makes more sense to you. Our best tools see approximately 13 billion light years no more. Thats a closed system to me. My world is finite, as is my existence.

Again - check out cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser's book A Tear at the Edge of Creation. His thesis has more to do with humanity search for a Theory of Everything and comparing that to our historical quest for a monotheistic deity, but he gets the brain juices flowing.

Here's a quote from Richard Powers "The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine, and consciousness is the ultimate story. Our neurons tell our selves into being. So any novel on the subject clearly had to tuck that insight back into a similar, self-narrating network.",


Yes! Awesome posts Bob.


allynh @ 349


"The world is either finite or infinite, pick one for your starting point"

I'm neither sure it's a simple either or[1], nor do I think we can simply pick one for starting to do some ontological reasoning, especially as the whole argument contains ample room for confusion between quantity and quality. I think we should keep to the observations and deduce from them, but that's not the point; what I wanted to hint at is that using scientific facts to show science has its limits is tricky business, and in this case, you take a head stomp into the muddy water of logical paradox.

Space being finite is a hypothesis you arrive at through interpretation of certain scientific facts, note BTW this interpretation is not universally accepted, since there are signs of the universe having a flat topology; either scientific reasoning is correct, then you start with a hypothesis that contradicts your own conclusion, which is fine if you try a reductio ad absurdum, but this kind of proof requires some rigorous conditions not fulfilled here, or scientific reasoning has its limits, then there's nothing certain about space being finite, and you can't follow through; concerning the reductio ad adsurdum, it doesn't work here, cause your argument requires "science has its limits" clearly contradicting "science explains everything", which is only valid if "everything" has no limits. If space is finite, then "everything" clearly has limits. Capisce?

Clearly, science may be imperfect, but then, there's no reason to assume space is finite, so as I mentioned, you can't prove your starting point. And that's even with leaving the validity of the rest of your reasoning, e.g. the relation of the finity of the universe to the finity of science out of the question[2].

So please, back to the drawing board...

"His thesis has more to do with humanity search for a Theory of Everything"

Care to enlighten me what this cosmologists' wet dream TOE has to do with the rest of natural science, let alone social science or the humanities? Or math? And how does our tendency to minimize cognitive dissonance leading to monotheism invalidate every use of our ability to minimize cognitive dissonance? It shows it can go astray, yes, but then, Alexander had an infinite number of limbs. And a finite number of different rules might still push 99% of reality to the wall.

And once again, how does all of this apply to your advice for authors to 'stick to the narration' if even science is just narration? Till now, you failed to demonstrate that's a logical reasoning and not just a contradiction in terms.

[1] Relativity hurtz brainz mine.. [2] What e.g. if there is no bottom, e.g. quarks are not the final answer? We might get to infinite computational power, which might keep science limitless, but our understanding of the universe will always remain partial[3]. [3] And then there is the infinite space, ruled by a finite number of rules, AKA a science with limits[4]. [4] And if that's not enough, we could always start with Gödel, till everybody goes dumdigagaduhdadih... Sorry, I thought we knew since Anselm that ontological reasoning is something for endogenous and exogenous potheads...


bob @ 344 Category-understandin FAIL.

Science works. Religion does not, certainly not as an explanation for the universe. Therefore comparison is invalid.

Try again, with brain switched to ON, please.


46: I would wager sir, you took the wrong steampunks to your thoroughly engaging event. In this world as you well know there are lookers and doers. You made the mistake of taking a bunch of lookers to a doing event.

Mr Stross a very interesting and thought provoking article that has sparked a fair few heated discussions in the online coffee houses of the net. I wish you all the best with your future literary endeavours .


@351 @352

I'm not trying to convince you of anything, it's impossible to reason with religionists especially when their chosen religion is "science". You boys actually believe FTL, multidimensional worlds or whatever scifi trope du jour actually exists and science will soon discover those things, they just need a little more data.

Angels, god, heaven don't exist because science don't support them, but science doesn't support FTL, other worlds, aliens either. All you've done is change your metaphors, turning angels into aliens, heaven into other worlds, prophets into science fiction writers.

Don't me wrong I love Kenyon, Heinlein, LeGuin, Clarke, Hamilton (both Peter and Edmond) - Great Stories, much better that Franzen's navel picking.


CE Petit (#42) said:

"... and steam power ain't gonna cut it; the Carnot cycle, plus some calculations easily done on a napkin in a pub, demonstrate pretty conclusively why the smallest effective steam power is between a large farm tractor and a small locomotive."

Not with the technology the Victorians had at their disposal, I agree.

However, modern technology produces the Irsching Siemens Gas Turbine (which is -- see the article -- a combined steam and gas turbine), producing 800 MegaWatt, with an efficiency of over 60%. We still use steam today: it's just become HUGE.


Believe it or not, somebody already told a story very similar to the one you propose:,_Here_and_There

This isn't exactly the sort of derivative "steampunk" that you're talking about. The aesthetic doesn't match up: nobody's carrying around a gun with a single decorative gear glued to it, and it's very clearly set in the future. It's more a skewering of the "giant robot" genre, but many of the elements of steampunk are still there.

I should warn you: the first episode or two set up some Anime genre conventions that make you expect that it's all going to be okay, that the plucky hero is going to triumph (or at least get his own giant robot to cruise around in) but make no mistake: the series is hard to watch. It's more of a "Grave of the Fireflies" with giant robots than a "Giant Robo" with some depressing characters.

I wouldn't say that I enjoyed the story per se, but I remain haunted by it, years afterward. It's definitely worth watching.

'it's impossible to reason with religionists '

Depends on the religionists. I know a lot of christians that are quite reasonable. Same goes for some muslims. But now ask yourself, is it possible to reason with you?

'especially when their chosen religion is "science"'

Err, what? My personal stance concerning science is that it is forever imperfect, and even if we've found a reasonable rule, the question if it's going to stand up forever is a nontrivial one. Proofs? Well, history of science for starters, with a little look at the sociology of science for sure.

IMHO both your rhetoric and logic leave something to desire, and how your argumentation relates to literature in general is something of a Chewbacca defense. But then, well you don'tr have to care, it's all just us science worshippers...


@ 357

Your version of science requires those quotes and it's pretty obvious your knowledge of the history of science comes from wikipedia and maybe Neal Stephenson. Anyway what brought me to this place was Stross' comment on gas induced zombies. My original point stands, that there is no essential (as in essence) difference between steampunk, scifi, and other forms of fantastical literature so why badmouth the competition. Now he's gone so I'll leave you and your fellow science fetishizers in peace.



The British monarchy was somewhat atypical, but Louis XIV style absolute rule was even more so.

The servants of his monarchy spent centuries trying to consolidate royal power.

With modest results


Actually, NASA and University of California have already found other worlds that look like our planet -- about one per four stars like Sol have a planet like ours.

So it's entirely possible that there are aliens there. Then again, aliens, by definition, are different than we are, maybe they're different enough we wouldn't even notice them.

"Your version of science requires those quotes"

Err, what quotes? Depending on the context, my version of RL science requires a peer-reviewed article, an intelligable elaboration, a cup of coffee with somebody privy to understand the subject, e.g. in physics.

Quoting your text is a reminiscence to good ol' usenet, where quoting is a good way to keep discussion from going astray.

"'s pretty obvious your knowledge of the history of science comes from wikipedia and maybe Neal Stephenson"

Err, you might be in for some surprises...

And leaving the ever-so-popular wikipedia-bashing aside, wiki is your friend if you remember something you read a few years ago and want to make sure you're not in for the discussion equivalent of false memory syndrome. And BTW, no, I've never read Stephenson, though he's on my reading list; to advance on my mea occulpa, I have to admit I'm guilty of reading Sir Popper once, I was young and didn't know what I was doing, qnd I read Feyerabend for the evuulz and kinda liked him, but being in the company of Ernst Mayr isn't that bad. So if you try to intimidate me by implicating I'm the sci.hist version of a script kiddie, sorry pal, beside the ubiquitous imposter syndrome[1] and the fact I don't own a academical degree in the history and philosophy of science, that's not going to work. But then, I'm sure you'll explain me where I got something wrong, right? We never stop learning...

"Anyway what brought me to this place was Stross' comment on gas induced zombies."

If you'd care to notice, our gracious host has written fiction about zombies animated by infovores (AKA Eaters of Souls) from another universe, leading to a hilarious , but utter nonscientific "zombie don't surf". And personally, I'm not that much aghast with toxicologically induced zombieism, with neurotoxins of MPTP or CO fame leading to not so nice results, or looking at the nice effects of Thiamin defiency. So I'm not taking him too seriously there[2].

But as you might have noticed, that was more about the amount of science in steampunk, and he didn't imply that's that much different from the rest of SF, and it was more or less in passing, his main point dealing with the relation of steampunk to the societal reality of the appropiated age; the only result of him referencing Priest was me looking up Boneshaker on wikipedia, finding the synopsis was not really up to my tastes, and choosing to not add it to my reading list. Err. And to keep things in perspective, if anybody wants to write a novel about the rumours Edison was trying to catch the spirits of the deceased

and uses a young Arthur Conan Doyle teaming up with Alfred Russel Wallace to stop him, with T. H. Huxley thinking the old man has finally succombed to the brain eater, well, the science is questionable too, but there is potential in it, if only for the fact you could get some of the most colorful characters of age together. Long matters short, I'd read it, might like it, and may even write it in the first place.

But as already mentioned, the main target of our gracious host was something else, and since I somewhat agree with him on this one, it didn't matter to me; to elaborate, said novel, let's call it 'smoke ex machina' (theos being maybe related to smoke), could just tell a conventional adventure story; or it could use the background of the acting parties, like Wallace's travels, his somewhat egalitarian stance, Doyle's education as a doctor, his somewhat difficult to characterize stance in colonial matters etc.; the first result is a failure, the second, well, let's see...

What I took offense to was your admonition to writers to stick to the narration, pulling out old Homer, for Elysium's sake, as a counbter example, and using quotes highlighting the central role of story telling in every human endeavour to justify your point, which, as already mentioned, is exactly not the case if even science, history, politics and like are story telling to a degree; oh, and your strange stance on scepticism helped, too.

"My original point stands, that there is no essential (as in essence) difference between steampunk, scifi, and other forms of fantastical literature so why badmouth the competition."

If you care to enlighten me how this relates to a blog entry which goes so far as to say "But that's just about forgivable, inasmuch as much modern SF doesn't even like to pretend that sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship, and not a metaphor."

And then, may I introduce you to the Mohr Scale of SF?

[1] Come on, even Kafka had it. [2] And then, de gustibus; there are people who think the TOS episode 'Catspaw' is an all-time low of the series, for heavens sake, it was a Halloween episode by Bloch.


Since I can't edit a past post, let me try to be clearer.

The French monarchy took centuries to get to the point where the king had as much power as Louis XIV. After that they held onto that level of power for one full and one partial reign.

Before that, they were much more constrained, particularly before the mid-15th c.

In medieval Germany the monarchy was weaker still.


Dr. McNinja has skewered the steampunk aesthetic ethos.

Also, Charlie, I continue to be astonished by the length, depth and erudition of your comment threads.


I disagree: Stross seems to be writing about CRAP steampunk.

For GOOD steampunk, see "The Difference Engine". For CRAP 'steampunk', read "Boneshaker" (really, WTF Cherie?).


Strong words for a comic that jumped on the ninja and quirkiness bandwagons.


Been thinking about this post a lot since I read it, especially since I'm developing a mid-19th-century alternate history myself. I'm planning to have the technology advance just a little faster than it did in our world, but I very deliberately do not want it to be overtly steampunk. I do enjoy steampunk, but I don't want to be jumping on the bandwagon--though it'll be seen that way whether I like it or not.

And I'm well aware of Charlie's complaints about the socioeconomic milieu of steampunk. I'm really hoping to have something that addresses those disparities, since my main reason for writing this is to look at the workings of large historical forces. (And the worldbuilding has been a lesson all by itself; the point of divergence is about 250 years previous, so I have to look at an insane amount of history in order to find a reasonable path from there to my setting.)

Anyway, I'm very consciously trying to do something that talks seriously about class and economics, while keeping the aesthetic trappings to a minimum.


Thank you for posting the link to the Moorcock essay. That is quite a period piece. I will bookmark it to show people who think that Obama is a leftist, or who boggle at the idea that there used to be leftist "libertarians" and that "libertarianism" once meant something more than merely wanting lower taxes and, for those of a pseudo-intellectual bent, a fondness for Ayn Rand.

"and, for those of a pseudo-intellectual bent, a fondness for Ayn Rand."

Looking at some of her photos, there is worse one can do. But then, err, let's not go into this any deeper, please. Let's just say it's a crush in spite of what she wrote, not because of it[1]...

[1] But then, maybe a little bit because of it; if you excuse me, my nurse is waiting for my round in the wheelchair, it's time for me to do my Salieri impersonation from the end of Amadeus, you know, the "I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. On their behalf I deny Him, your God of no mercy. Your God who tortures men with longings they can never fulfill." part. Anybody got some old NIN CDs around?


Shouldn't we describe the cutoff date of steampunk as World War II, or maybe 1945, or 1947? (Feel free to debate the terminating event: the atomic bomb, the ENIAC, the beginning of the Cold War, the independence of India, after which nobody could deny that the British Empire was dead)

I've observed a lot of steampunk set in an alternate or imaginary "between the wars," with dirigibles not airplanes, but the clothes and the temporal color are more 1920 or 1930 than 1880. There's electric lighting and automobiles. Women appear wearing trousers, at least when on adventures. The nostalgic and reactionary elements (including nostalgia for the British Empire) still may be present.

On the "cosplay," look at the J. Peterman and Anthropologie catalogues (the ultimate in vacuity and romanticism). I have fantasized about making the design teams and marketers at Anthro sit down and read Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas.

There's an even higher-end clothes company called Gilded Age. So we have our very own turn-of-the-century upper-class twits who dress up in this manner and go on cycling expeditions, as chronicled by the New York Times.


I had a conversation with Cat Valente about exactly this, focusing on that if everything is hunky-dory awesome in your setting, there's no punk in your steam. You are not alone. :)


There's military fiction like 'pork chop hill' which shows war as a brutal cost and then there's comic book military fiction like 'rambo' that shows war as magical thinking, good guys win, bad guys lose, clean victory, no innocents killed, etc.

Every genre has examples of writing that glosses over reality, engages in magical thinking, downplays the costs of reality to sell copy or tickets.

Doesn't condemn a genre as a whole, but it might help to point out examples of bits from fiction that gloss over the facts, if for no other reason than to try and use it as an opportunity to educate.

"...and then there's comic book military fiction like 'rambo' that shows war as magical thinking, good guys win, bad guys lose, clean victory, no innocents killed, etc."

Even though I see your point and agree with it, at least the original 'Rambo' movie with its textbook case of PTSD Vietnam veteran protagonist is at least in part an example of your first category; but then I guess Truffaut Was Right...


I'm just popping in to mix up my own personal opinions with one-eyed socio-historical ramblings with a bit of musing on late stage consumer capitalist failings as icing on top of the cake. Also, the way I think is actually the truth, and my viewpoint is one of realism, so any response can happily go take a running jump at itself in a lake. I think I covered most of the options but I can certainly pull out a bunch of textbooks with '101' on the cover to support my arguments ;)

Kids today, and their goggles.


o pleaeze. accusing everyone who wears a corset of secretly wanting to own slaves. i should probably call you a crazy old man, except that is obviously what you'd want me to do. allowing you to dig yourself further in this hole were you will convince yourself further that this new generation of youngsters is a bunch of a: idiots with no knowledge of victorian history, or b: monsters who would have even the slightest desire to re-enact those parts of history.


to everyone who posted comments bitching about how a) YA is a ridiculous genre that shouldn't exist b) because all it contains is pulp fiction, escapist fantasy for losers, catty girl novels, and sparkly vampires in love stories. do not kvetch about things you know nothing about. at first glance there is very little YA fiction that is actually worth reading, and the stuff that is worth the paper it is printed on is carefully disguised to look like crap. that is at first glance. if you bother to actually look past your own preconceptions however, you will find books like the icemark chronicles, the leviathan trilogy, the inheritance cycle, the redwall books, Terry Pratchett's YA books, and countless others that are so good, adults conceal them behind newspapers and read on the train on their way to work. YA is not a pointless genre. teenagers do not want to read kid books because they are to tame, and we don't want to read adult fiction, because we don't relate to the characters. if you actually look past the twilight, you will find books that are entirely worthy of their own genre.


There have been 3 previous comments mentioning either "YA" or "young adult", two of which complimented particular books. The third did not comment on the general quality of YA fiction (it said many works that could be considered "urban fantasy" were now being marketed as YA). You appear to be replying to a conversation which is not this one.

On your substantive point, yes, there are a lot of extremely good authors publishing YA fiction and this should be celebrated at every chance. And I certainly don't hide any of Susan Cooper, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, Megan Whalen Turner, Alan Garner, Holly Black or countless others behind a newspaper. But the counterpart of calling great books great is getting to call shit books shit: if the only allowable form of critical expression is effusive praise, criticism becomes worthless.


If what your saying is true, then why hasn't current pop culture stuff died years ago? (Talk about over exposure!)


Here here!


It's complicated, because Marx thought that industrial poverty was more soul-sucking, more body-damaging, and just all around WORSE than rural poverty (at least the rural poor used to have the commons, and relatively greater freedom of movement). On the other hand, he criticized romantics (and anti-colonialists) who wanted to return to or preserve pockets of agrarian life - in his words, "the idiocy of rural life".

Marx may have regarded Industrial poverty as the worst sort, but his directional history always wins out over other considerations. "Primitive Communism" was pretty good, but was unstable and so had to give way to hierarchical agrarian societies. These had to give way to Industrialism, which will have to give way to True Communism. Things get worse and worse and worse until a "universal class" with "nothing to lose but its chains" saves us all.


We got to this post a little late, but are delighted to see it. We suppose that everyone comes to science fiction from a different place and for different reasons, but for us its purpose is to provide a means to confront issues in the real and present world. Because of its connections to a contentious historical era, Steampunk has wonderful potential to facilitate conversations about the issues of class, race and violence – but it seems like the loudest voices are those championing vacuous genre fiction and RPGs that reduce alternate histories and futures into stat-lines and venues for people who’d really rather not read books at all. We hope, and are encouraged by what we see here, that there are a lot of quieter voices looking for something more substantive – for stories that question contemporary society by looking at its more tangled roots and which might yet fuel a sub-culture that is willing to live up to a bit of the anti-authoritarianism of its name.

Parliament & Wake


I'm of Irish roots. The "Steam" age was passed down through family oral tradition. Actually, my family largely escaped it, by fleeing Eire even before the "Potato Famine" and going FAR west.

To me it glorifies the excess and pomposity of the Bretons who practiced on US before they dared chain a black man, loot Africa, send religious loonies to the Americas, hire Pirates to attack France and Spain, conquer India and use it as a bank and be a drug dealer in China. And they only made us "White Men" because they'd first apologize for every single other crime, give back the land and $ stolen and then shoot themselves before any consideration of any true reparations to us.


GreenGestalt: To me it glorifies the excess and pomposity of the Bretons who practiced on US before they dared chain a black man, loot Africa, send religious loonies to the Americas, hire Pirates to attack France and Spain ...

Epic geography fail.

Bretons are natives of Brittany.

Which is in France.

(I am trying to restrain myself from pointing and mocking the ignorant American ... but failing.)


@ 381: Even worse, Charlie. it's an Irish-American trying to blame the Brits for everything, including leaving them alone with the catholic church for company. The reason, of course that the Irish are supine under their present financial fiasco is that they CAN'T BLAME THE BRITS .....


Stross is a crypto-Stalinist and would-be Lunacharsky, smelling out deviationism and reactionary scheming in all forms of literature that do not Fight for Peace.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 27, 2010 4:19 PM.

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