The Cow in the Apartment and the Ghost of Steampunk Future

So in the last week or two, there were a fair number of posts ’round the blogosphere that could be pretty much boiled down to “I am bloody well sick of steampunk” and “Steampunk is awesome, don’t be a hater.” (I am not linking to these because some of the parties have since recanted, extended olive branches, etc, and while I am happy to beat a dead horse on MY blog, it is bad form to drag those lamentable equines to other people’s parties.)

I am late to the party, as usual. For awhile, this was because I didn’t have much of an opinion–I think very reasonable people can quite reasonably be sick of steampunk by this point, I myself am very very sick of zombies and vampires and the revelation that apparently zombie steampunk is the Next Big Thing made me do a Digger-style facepalm. Kevin is sick of steampunk, and mutters darkly about dieselpunk being far niftier, and I respect this position. But I myself am not sick of steampunk. I still think many of the visuals are fantastic, I think the costumes are neat, and I am not a costume snob and thus do not get terribly bothered by the stylistic same-ness that troubles some of the genre, and when somebody rants about just slapping a gear on anything to make it steampunk, I smile and nod and mentally plan out my next garden project in my head. It is a matter of unconcern to me. Steampunk has twenty years of cloning to do before it achieves the stylistic uniformity of Ren Faire Wenchdom, so far as I’m concerned, but that’s really neither here nor there.

I did finally discover that I had an opinion, though, about one specific part of the debate.

It was pointed out–and with justice–that the 19th century was a pretty awful place for a whole bunch of people.  This was when Dickens wrote. This was the rise of factories and industrial pollution, and there was an exaggeration of already horrible social class dichotomies and miserable rookeries and child labor and squalor of really epic proportions.  (One of the best books I’ve ever read about this was “The Ghost Map” by Stephen Johnson, which included descriptions of things like “By the way, they’re keeping cows in apartment buildings!” and so forth that were downright mindblowing. Also, cholera.)

Steampunk generally does not address this. Steampunk is very shiny and involves brass and usually wealthy people drinking tea and shooting airship pirates and smuggling things and (sigh) apparently killing zombies now. The horrors of gaslamp London are more likely to be Cthulhu-esque, the nod to poverty is probably a Lovable Urchin or perhaps someone who speaks briefly but bitterly about growing up in squalor, but has nevertheless taught himself to move in polite society and which fork one uses to eat pickled dormouse brains.

So then the argument goes something like “What the hell, what is wrong with you people, the past was a bloody awful place, what did we fight the American revolution for anyway if you want to be a British aristocrat, and if you MUST deal with the 19th century, why doesn’t somebody write the great Dickensian steampunk work that deals with the horror and the rookeries and the cows being kept in apartment buildings!?!” (Also, cholera.)

I read this argument for more squalor on the airships and went “Oh, hmm, good point, there really isn’t any Dickensian steampunk dealing with the horrors of early industrialization and squalid class warfare, somebody should write that!”

Then I went away for a little while and did other things, and (FINE! I was running prints and leveling my Oddish* so I could take on the Pokemon League, are you HAPPY!?) and something in the back of my brain said “Somebody could write it, but you sure as hell wouldn’t read it if they did.”

Wise voice.  I applaud this sort of thing in theory, but I am hardly going to curl up with a copy of The Jungle for fun.  Feel free to dismiss me as shallow–it’s fine. I’ve made peace with that. And it’s not even just that I’m shallow, but when I ran down the number of good readable fantasies that I have enjoyed that handled squalor and the crisis of class dichotomies well–handled it as a major, serious part of the book, the driving force, not a footnote in somebody’s background–and I came up with Perdido Street Station and Paula Volsky’s Illusion.

They’re both great books, and you should read them. But given the sheer quantity of fantasy I’ve read over the years, the fact that those were the ONLY two I could think of is kinda telling. Pratchett could do it well, and occasionally does, but it’s Pratchett, and that’s another standard entirely. I’d give Tepper an outside shot, but then we’d have to have the big revelation halfway through where it turns out the Artful Dodger is actually an alien and will shortly be devouring Oliver Twist preparatory for his metamorphosis. (Hmm, actually I’d probably read THAT.)

But anyway, I couldn’t write it. Give me a cow in an apartment building and the cow and I will sit and stare at each other for awhile and eventually I will excuse myself and leave, feeling vaguely embarrassed and concerned for the cow, not more cognizant of the general brokenness of a system that requires farm animals being kept in apartment buildings so that people can eat.  If the Ghost of Steampunk Future came down and told me that Tiny Tim would die if I did not write the Great Dickensian Steampunk Novel, I would begin making plans for the Timothy Cratchit Memorial Foundation, because it ain’t gonna happen. That is not the sort of story I tell. I am not a Big Picture writer. I write about individual hedgehogs or dog-soldiers or iguanas with glasses.

There are authors who can mark each sparrow’s fall. I’m the kind who names the sparrow Bob and talks about what he had for breakfast.

There are better and different authors than me who could do it, and maybe do it well. But that’s not an easy thing to write. Go too far over and you get preachy and unrelentingly grim, go too far the other way and you get flippant, and I can hardly judge anybody who doesn’t want to write the horrible squalid book about labor organization in the rookeries because I couldn’t write it and I probably wouldn’t read it and I can’t think of many authors who could make something out of it that would grip me enough to overcome that. (Largely the same authors who could write a zombie novel I’d read, actually–the short list of people from whom I will read ANYTHING.)  I’m not saying that all fantasy is escapism, because that does fantasy a horrible disservice, but I will say that judging a genre as young as steampunk for not having produced such a book yet is pretty unkind when there’s a definite dearth of apartment cows in fantasy as a genre, and fantasy’s been around since the days of dreadful pulp.  (Can’t remember that many in SF, either, although I’ll give military SF the benefit of the doubt and say that undoubtedly there is scads of well-written Dickensian labor organization on alien worlds and I am merely missing it.)

It occurred to me somewhat later than anybody getting het up about steampunk’s unrealistic portrayal of the 19th century probably doesn’t read a lot of Regency romance either, ‘cos if you’re miffed that the airship isn’t dirty enough, boy howdy, you don’t even want to look at Georgette Heyer.

And that led me to thinking that if I ever do write a great steampunk novel, I’m gonna have a heroine who takes snuff. Snuff is underutilized.

And that was about as far as I got before I ran out of printer toner and had to get back to work.

*He’s a Gloom now! I call him Odd-Bob.

6 thoughts on “The Cow in the Apartment and the Ghost of Steampunk Future

  1. Jamie says:

    As with any fad, you will get a ton of drivel. The bigger the fad, the higher the ratio between noise and signal. Steampunk’s getting big these days, so yes, there is a LOT of noise. But the digging is worth it.

    I also recommend “Boneshaker” by Cherie Priest. This is steampunk and humanity at its gritty and most real.

    Even zombie steampunk can be done really, REALLY well. This is a roleplaying game that takes place in London 200 years after the advent of the Plague, so about 2100 CE. It is bleak. It is really, really bleak. Even the aristocrats don’t have anything good going on, let alone the poorer classes. Think Fallen London with ray guns and zombies, only with the general expectation that you will die and it will probably be horrible. (Might be the zombies, might be the cholera, might be the fact that you simply go insane and can’t handle it anymore. All classes, genders, and even a number of nationalities are all considered in the core manual and its supplements.)

    The authors researched the Victorian era with the meticulousness of fanatics in order to create this incredibly detailed universe. I sometimes take this book to bed with me for light reading, which usually leads to nightmares, but it’s worth it because it’s so beautifully written. Unhallowed Metropolis:

    Good luck with seeking the signal!

  2. TangoPig says:

    And y’know, on some level, steampunk as a mentality grows from dissatisfaction with technology as it stands. It’s still in the “we can fix it! with CLOCKWORK!” phase. It’s like saying the first series of Star Trek should have grappled with civil rights instead of presenting a utopia.

    But there is a little bit of gritty steampunk. Not a lot, not yet, but it exists. Abney Park’s “The Clockyard” off of their Aether Shanties album comes to mind (I personally consider the song subpar for their work but that’s just me), and as we speak I’m playing in a steampunk tabletop which has steampunk assisted suicide, steampunk Mary King’s Close and steampunk French Algeria. Read some of the Alexis de Tocqueville letters about crushing all who would not crawl beneath the feet of the French armies. It’s terrifying stuff.

    The latter suggests to me that when we get over our collective hard-on for the pith-helmeted British and realize there’s a whole other world to extend the genre to. I think that once a Steampunk India is no longer a novel concept it will correct some of the genre’s elitism and sparkly-shininess.

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  4. K. Foster says:

    The book Whitechapel Gods is a gritty, filthy example of the steampunk genre, where steam and clockwork technology is employed by fanatical worshipers of the gods Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock, the district is ruled with a fascist fist, and life sucks for basically everybody. Honestly, I hated the book, but then, I don’t really like steampunk to start with. The book’s rated at 3.5 stars on, for what it’s worth.

  5. Ellis says:

    I always liked thieves world for realistic, gritty sort of stories that aren’t saccrine sweet or totally depressing but I only read the first 3 or so books and they could have gone to pot after that and I wouldn’t know. On a totally non fantasy side I like Bernard Cromwell. He tells it like it totally was and his poor characters are poor without being maudlin and you like and respect them. Sharpe couldn’t even read in the first one and he was a thief but he doesn’t feel sorry for himself, he just accepts life is unfair and tries to do the next buggar before he does him (hopefully my pronouns didn’t just make total hash out of that statement). And there isn’t anything remotely romantic about his Arthur.

    I, personally, am fascinated by how people justifiy themselves and authors exploring that. Harry Harrison was good at that. Clearly, I am going to have to give some of these others a go too.

  6. The doodler says:

    For what it’s worth, “Airborn” and “Skybreaker” have a few nods to class conflict and the fact that some ethnicities were pretty far down the totem pole. (The main character is a first-generation Irish immigrant to the US.) It’s mostly a pretty fun, light read — it’s sure not “The Jungle” — but it doesn’t totally idealize the Victorian era either.

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