I’ve said a time or two that I don’t like steampunk. I find it terminally silly and I can’t understand the attraction of it. At all.
I posted last week how much I liked Norman Spinrad’s definition of speculative fiction, in a recent issue of Asimov’s. In that essay, he also expressed a dislike of steampunk. I appreciated his dissection of steampunk, as it confirms my own distaste of the genre. I liked it so much that I decided to share it with you.
Build a past with pseudo-Victorian technology that never was, much of which could never have worked, and extend it into the present or even the future. Instead of airplanes, dirigibles. Instead of electronic computers, mechanical “difference engines.” Cars and trucks running on steam engines. Maybe even gas lighting instead of electric lighting. In many cases, public domain characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Queen Victoria dragooned into story service.
Now some of this fiction can be well written and amusing, though I must admit I am generally not amused by it, because I am generally not amused by Victorian nostalgia. But what it cannot be is speculative fiction, let alone “science fiction,” because it is inherently retro fiction, whose entire esthetic is a nostalgia for a past that never was and mostly could never have been. It can only be nostalgic fantasy.
Again, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the reading of such stuff, as many people do, and there is nothing wrong and much that is therefore lucrative in writing it, nor any literary reason it cannot rise to high art. What is wrong is that, commercially, it tends to be marketed as “SF,” and, indeed, as often as not, even “science fiction.” What is wrong with that, literarily speaking, is that the speculative element, ipso facto, is phony Victorian technology that never existed because technologically speaking, it couldn’t have actually worked.
Exactly. It’s not silly because it is unlikely to work or doesn’t work. It’s silly because supposedly science loving people are fawning over “technology” that never will work and never could work. It’s not science, it’s faux science. It’s anti-science. That’s not fun, that’s just a waste of time.