18 January 2011


Oooooh, double entendre!

So, I just finished Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (the first book, not the full "quartet"). Excellent speculative fiction, displaying exactly the kind of massively post-apocalyptic setting I so enjoy. The characterization, too, was very well-handled, and the author did a good job of creating a believable world that combined both cool, high-tech things (like long-distance laser-powered weapons) and cool, steampunk things (like airships).

However, the book served to hammer home a point about steampunk which has always been an issue for me:  It's just cool stuff. I've found that there's not a lot that draws me to the genre, when actual history -- which gets lost so often in steampunk stories and projects -- is much more interesting from a character standpoint, and the plots of such novels and projects are often weak. In Mortal Engines, Reeves cherry-picks from the coolest stuff -- like airships, goggles, and shooting jets of steam -- and uses them in a more interesting setting, which is to say, the London of his novel, than the vague, poorly realized "London" of much of steampunk literature -- or worse, the made-up metropoli that have become even more characteristic of the genre.

I have nothing against creating fake cities based on real ones -- I do it a lot myself. What I do have a problem with is taking a genre that is based on things that laypeople can easily research, like a particular period in history, of which we have a vast record and a lot of archaeological remnants, and not doing the research and, worse still, not bothering to make stuff up. The beauty of China Miéville's New Crobuzon books is that they make stuff up. Sure, there are trains and cogs and goggles, but he also just did a good job with building his world and, more importantly, with building his characters. In contrast, Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters, is weak and unwieldy. The characters in that book were clichéd, and the setting was thinner than the mass-market-quality paper the book was printed on. Sure, some clockwork god has taken over London. Woo freakin' hoo. Peters didn't develop those gods as deities, providing little reason for people to worship them other than that... they were there, I suppose.

Admittedly, comparing anyone else to China Miéville is going to put the unfortunate not-Miéville in a bad light. Reeves, however, could stand up to the comparison, and, specifically, to the steampunk of the New Crobuzon books. Because what both authors are writing is not so much steampunk -- insofar as steampunk is characterized by its stuff -- but whatever the hell they want.

Maybe I'm just disenchanted with steampunk because it's become so ubiquitous (though it is a hell of a lot more visually pleasing than other trends). But that's not so much the problem, I think. The problem is, its ubiquity has made it thinner than a work'us inmate. The lushness of aesthetic that characterizes the earliest works in the genre, like Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, has been reduced to, "smack some goggles and a top hat on it and make opium jokes." I mean, come on.

So, I suppose this post boils down to:  Mortal Engines = good; steampunk = over; me = longwinded.

Oh, and the double entendre? A good friend of mine is in traction. Please keep F.McD. in your prayers.


  1. Well, Radio, while I agree with the general arc of your argument, I quibble with some of your basic points:

    Steampunk as it is now is definitely thinly developed and very style-over-substance, but it might be helpful to look at the foundation books (Not "Diamond Age"; that's more post-cyberpunk,) such as "The Difference Engine" and "The Warlord of the Air." There's always been an emphasis on style over substance, the difference is that it was intended as such, while people today seem to think that the aforementioned "cool stuff" is the equivalent of substance.

  2. I think that's true, that a lot of it was intended as style over substance, but as you say, it's been wearing thin. I think also that I tend to feel that "steampunk," as such, should embody more of the attitude of Victorian (or at least long-nineteenth-century) endeavor and fiction -- exploring social issues in a thoughtful way while maintaining an attitude of optimism and enthusiasm, or at least of exuberance, over all. So I tend to mistakenly identify some things as steampunk that pretty much aren't, and tend to dismiss things that are (or at least, are in a sense that has nothing at all to do with what I'm looking for) as pandering and silliness. So part of the problem is, I guess, that when I think, "steampunk," it essentially means "a world existing largely without computerized technology but with a lot of big machinery and a semi-anachronistic aesthetic that also features an exuberant and 'can-do' sensibility." Which doesn't really have much to do with anything.