Leviathon, by Scott Westerfeld, and recent criticisms of steampunk

I don’t always appreciate Young Adult (YA) SF/F. The world might not be complex enough for my taste and sometimes I don’t relate to the protagonists (perhaps I’ve crossed into crotchety-old-fart-land — more on that “place” later), but this wasn’t the case with Westerfeld’s Leviathon. I cared about the characters, particularly Alek. The girl Deryn is a tad irritating, but she’s pretending to be male and the more prickly she is, the less likely someone will get close and discover her. Westerfeld does a great job creating an alternate history with fresh biological and mechanical technology, which he weaves into the political backdrop at the beginning of World War I.

But let’s talk steampunk, since there’s been recent discussion about this type of SF/F, which includes Leviathon and Scott Westerfeld. When it first appeared in the eighties, it was a name for a narrow sub-genre. The term steampunk was thrown out by K. W. Jeter as a contrasting but parallel term to cyberpunk. “Punk” referred to the gritty, dystopian environment, often displaying the underside of society. “Steam-” versus “cyber-” indicated the technical and historical milieu; most steampunk was set in Victorian England (or a similar social environment near the beginning of an industrial age) and used steam- and gear-driven gadgetry that’s generally technically and scientifically impossible.

Nowadays, steampunk has also become a style of dressing at SF cons. The time period has loosened, considering that Leviathon is set more than a decade past the Victorian period. People are having a lot of fun with it, and that includes authors. The “punk” has been replaced with humor in many cases, and I think the results have been splendid (see my posts about Gail Carriger).

Now crotchety-old-fart-land reenters the picture, in the form of criticism from established SF writers. I’m not talking about age, but attitude: today’s steampunk isn’t serious or dark enough, and it doesn’t showcase the horrors of the time period. Read on, if you dare.

Locus Showcases Steampunk

For the September 2010 issue, Locus covered steampunk, with essays from an impressive cadre of authors and editors. Some wrote what are now considered the roots of this sub-genre (Sterling, Blaylock, and Moorcock) and some are now expanding the sub-genre (Priest, Carriger, Lake, Westerfeld). Nobody went as far to consider steampunk a literary movement, a few mentioned that steampunk was more fantasy than SF, and many pointed out that steampunk has moved far beyond literature (googling “steampunk” will get you clothing, goggles, jewelry, movies, fashion, music, etc, long before books or short stories are mentioned). All of these comments were expected. However, I was surprised by Michael Moorcock’s essay. The first two sentences set the tone, and he follows with talk about his Bastable stories, which start with The Warlord of the Air, first published in 1971:

I said recently, in a review, that steampunk seemed so full of lords and ladies these days that it ought fairly to be called Steam Opera. To be honest I found most of the sub-genre boring almost as soon as it began to appear, just as I find most non-confrontational fiction boring.

I hadn’t anticipated that so many readers would become enthusiasts for the romantic imagery of giant airships and so on and rather miss the point of the story which was, I hope, using science fiction to do what it does best and help us examine ourselves and our world in fresh ways. To see this method becoming again no more than another exercise in nostalgic escapism (my criticism of so much SF of the 1940s on) is a bit depressing and might help explain why I’m always trying to come up with new methods—with forms which will carry my ideas without the burden of nostalgia or escapism, allowing instrospection without being mere dreaming of some lost ‘golden age.’

My first reaction was La-de-da, what pretension—then, did I read that right? Keep in mind that we’re talking about fiction. Besides falling into the long-established-authorial-whine of “my books are so important and they’re never fully appreciated,” Moorcock just inferred that most of his readers were too stupid to get the point of his books! He spends a few more words beating up escapist reading, and even more on his books, where he examined “the paternalistic notions still infecting Anglo-American thinking which of course would emerge specifically with the invasion of Iraq and picking up once again of the white man’s burden” (that’s not hubris, is it?) But Moorcock isn’t the only voice criticizing today’s steampunk.

The Blog Kerfuffle

The PW blog Genreville highlighted this exchange, where Charles Stross blogged about his problems with today’s steampunk. While he does it with much more humor than Moorcock (“Harumph, young folks today, get off my lawn….”), he also worries about romanticizing the time period:

We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good.

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).

Cherie Priest responds to Stross, rather light-heartedly, as does Scott Westerfeld (I told you I’d eventually get back to him). Westerfeld’s defense of steampunk, titled “Genre Cooties,” is more detailed, where he insists he’s not romanticizing the period and neither are most of his readers (in Leviathon, he accurately portrays an idiotic Europe stumbling its way into a war that, in our world, would show us the first use of trench and chemical warfare, where fields in Europe would continue to ooze mustard gas for decades to come).

Underestimating Readers

Here’s my problem: I don’t think Priest or Westerfeld should have to defend their worlds and stories. Again, I’ll point out that this is fiction, which was commonly referred to as “romance” until the eighteenth century. Its primary purpose is to entertain. If it manages to also challenge, enlighten, or inform the reader—well, bully for the author—but if it doesn’t give the reader a tight plot, deep characterization, conflict, and decent pacing, it’ll be put back on the shelf. And finally, escapism is a prerogative of readers, not writers.

Remember the warning to Science Fiction authors: don’t preach, don’t teach, and the story must justify everything. That’s doubly important for YA books. Take a look at Mr. Westerfeld’s blog, and you’ll realize how creative and intelligent his young readers are. They don’t want to be patronized by a message masquerading as a story.

Furthermore, as Westerfeld says, people who dress up in steampunk fashions aren’t necessarily romanticizing the period. If you assume this, you’re underestimating them. My husband and I went to a MileHiCon “How to Dress Steampunk” session, and came away quite impressed. The young people who presented the session mentioned plenty of the social issues inherent in the Victorian period. Perhaps they even learned about these issues while doing their research for steampunk. If we assumed everyone who liked to dress period was “romanticizing” that particular period, then we’d have to shut down all those darned historians who reenact battles and characters (unfortunately, Mr. Clay Jenkinson, we can’t have you portray Thomas Jefferson during the Jefferson Hour or dress as Jefferson during your presentations, because you’re romanticizing the period of poor dentistry—people will start pulling out their own teeth!)

I think it’s time we give our readers a break and assume they have the ability to think for themselves, regardless of what they chose for entertainment.

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