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The Music of the Synapses

this tightrope made of sound


November 4th, 2010

Why Steampunk Is Important @ 03:04 pm

So, catvalente said in her livejournal here: there is this underlying idea that steampunk is Important. I am hardly the first to spill ink on it, even this week. And I wonder why.

And I started a comment and realized it deserved a post.

This is why: Our immediate ancestral memory used to be about a pre-industrial world. Now it's about an industrializing one.

This is why Tolkien-esque fantasies written by authors of this generation mostly feel flat and cardboard, as if the backdrop is going to fall down and someone's going to screech "Cut!" at any minute. Diana Wynne Jones made fun of this in "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland", and it's become more and moreso. Oh, there are still a few who get it - mostly professional historians, or people seriously involved in historical re-creation hobbies - and there are other authors who write with conscious fill-ins of magic for science, because they know where their blind spots are and how to cover them.

But in most ways, we have forgotten.

We don't remember a time without antibiotics,and neither do our parents. We don't remember a time without electricity, and neither do our parents. We don't remember a time without rapid intra- and inter-continental travel, and neither do our parents.

That's the important part - it's not what we remember personally; it's the second line of memories that we have access to that informs the edges of our conceptual sphere. Because people we know have mannerisms from the time in which they grew up, and speak it in their language. We intuit from them what was.

Delany points out this effect in one of his essays - I haven't the collection close to hand at the moment, but he talks about how texts change as readers become sealed off from details of the past.

The sealing-off is completing itself, now, for the nineteenth century. The turn of the twentieth is becoming the far point for our cultural Cone of Obliscence.

And so we are trying to construct a new fantasy realm from the stuff of our body of living memory, as a species -- building it around that far point, that graspable level of difference. A world where there are large machines and we don't know where every single thing comes from; a world where there's transport and medicine and infrastructure.

And the questions: where does it come from? how does it work? who is making the things that come from a nebulous somewhere just offscreen, and are they getting food, clothing and shelter over there? are core to the process of understanding this new world. The fact that some works overlook them, and others focus on them -- that's part of the dialogue we're having. We're still building the stock sets. We're still dealing with the implications of having stock sets, and the way any shortcut makes something invisible. And infrastructure is, itself, so much about building, and about visibility and invisibility -- who builds, who chooses, who sees the plumbing and who drinks the tap water.

Steampunk is about living in a world with infrastructure, which is a thing we're still adjusting to and struggling to comprehend.

Steampunk is what happens as our dreams of the past move into their future.
 
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From:glowing_fish
Date:November 4th, 2010 10:21 pm (UTC)
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I have often thought about this in terms of current politics and social transformation.

We don't remember a time when smoking marijuana was taboo...and neither do our parents. Or (often) grandparents.

We don't remember a time before Rock n' Roll...and neither do our parents. Or (often) grandparents.

We don't remember a time before it was considered normal for a woman to have several sexual partners before marriage... and neither do our parents. Or (often) grandparents.

We don't remember a time before the general attitude towards all social institutions was one of skepticism and cynicism. And neither do our parents. Or (often) grandparents.

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From:athenesolon
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:17 am (UTC)
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We don't remember a time before it was considered normal for a woman to have several sexual partners before marriage... and neither do our parents. Or (often) grandparents.

I might disagree with this one but I think for my nephews' generation (he's 2 so he has time until he starts asking this kind of question) I think it is/will be true in the extremely near future.
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From:glowing_fish
Date:November 5th, 2010 05:28 am (UTC)
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Well, I was not writing something that is strictly factual as such.

It depends on what I mean by "we". It actually isn't true of me, my grandparents were part of the generation that would have still assumed female celibacy...or at least wouldn't have talked about the fact that women were active before marriage.

But my parents, who are in their 50s, and got married in 1976, would have been on the tail end of the generation that didn't grow up with that as a widespread assumption. So if you are a teenager today and have parents in their 40s and grandparents in their 60s, it would probably be true.

As for the others...my grandmother is close to 80, and while she was too old to be into rock music as her primary thing, and was probably suspicious of it when it came out, she was still part of the generation that grudgingly accepted it. How old would someone have to be to have totally missed out on rock and roll?
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From:varro
Date:November 5th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
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I'm thinking born in the late 20s/early 30s...my dad was born in the late 30s, and likes doo-wop and 50s vocals, but not Beatles/Stones and British Invasion and late music.

Weird - I like KNRK's new music - would that be like my dad liking, say, Blondie or the Knack?
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From:glowing_fish
Date:November 5th, 2010 10:42 pm (UTC)
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Ohh...well, you are probably a bit older than me, since your father is almost as old as my grandparents.

And I am 31, which means I am only a bit below the median age at this point.
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From:glowing_fish
Date:November 5th, 2010 10:44 pm (UTC)
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One of the things that is probably true is that there are small generation gaps, and large generation gaps. There are generational differences between myself and my mother, but they aren't like the generational gap between her and her mother.

If you were listening to rock music in the 1970s, rock music forty years later isn't going to be that discordant for you.
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From:lilairen
Date:November 4th, 2010 11:10 pm (UTC)
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I'm still left bemused by this entire blowup, because the literal first I've heard about Steampunk Is Important is catvalente complaining about it.

(My concept of steampunk-as-genre is apparently still stuck back in the universe where Sky Captain tanked.)

I do like your point though.
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From:amberite
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC)
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Well -- that's part of catvalente's point: there's a certain dearth of core steampunk canon, and many people's attempts at it have not quite worked, yet this year and last year, all of pop culture has been going OMFG STEAMPUNK.

So yes - there's an odd discrepancy and a need to know why, which is why I wrote this post.
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From:lilairen
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:27 am (UTC)
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You see, this is what I get for not actually paying much attention to pop culture. I miss stuff. ;)

I read yuki_onna's "People are trying to tell you to be interested in this!" and was left mostly with, "... are they? ... wouldn't I have noticed?"

(Closest I got was a steampunky episode of Castle. Which is, I suppose, pop culture or something, but honestly Castle does a lot more reinforcement on "Oooh, strip clubs!" and "Hooray, theatre!" than comes from its occasional one-off subculture-referencing episodes. Plus of course the glamorising of police work and pulp novel writing.)
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From:kaffyr
Date:November 5th, 2010 01:01 am (UTC)
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I was impressed with this, and read it to my Best Beloved, who also thought it was impressive. Do you mind if I reference this, and link to it, in a post?
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From:amberite
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:04 am (UTC)

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Go ahead! I am always happy to have my public posts linked.
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From:amberite
Date:November 5th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
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Awww, thank you!!
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From:lucianwolf
Date:November 5th, 2010 02:06 am (UTC)
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Wow. I never thought about that. This is totally awesome.
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From:elfwreck
Date:November 5th, 2010 03:32 am (UTC)
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Ooh, shiny! Yes!

And another one: we, and our parents (even my parents) don't remember a time before science fiction. Have always lived with an awareness of stories about clever and possibly crazy people who were trying to explore the moon, go back in time, install cybernetic enhancements, design the perfect mousetrap and genetically engineer the mouse that can escape it.

Even our "mundane" dreams and fantasies include at least the possibility of drastically restructuring human reality.
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From:athenesolon
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:21 am (UTC)
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We, and our parents (even my parents) don't remember a time before science fiction. Have always lived with an awareness of stories about clever and possibly crazy people who were trying to explore the moon, go back in time, install cybernetic enhancements, design the perfect mousetrap and genetically engineer the mouse that can escape it.

Considering some of the earliest stories/images of the early 20th century was about just this concept of going to the moon it's even my great-grandparents would not be able to remember a time that this was not in the human imagination/consciousness.

*ponders the idea of Maurice-Belle's father- as Enlightenment Era Steampunk*
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From:lilairen
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:28 am (UTC)
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I don't remember a time in which science fiction wasn't normal bog-standard reading material. (In my experience, if one got razzed for reading science fiction, it was the "reading" thing, not the choice of material.)

This gives me a certain cultural rupture with many of the sort of people who call themselves "fen".
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From:dionysus1999
Date:November 5th, 2010 01:04 pm (UTC)
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Don't get me started on "fen". Geekspeak is all well and good, but when convention attenders have to start making up words for "people" they have dropped off the deep end.
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From:lobolance
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
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Methinks you know not of what ye speaks. *I* got bullied for reading science fiction when I was a kid, in the '70s. The whole fanspeak thing came about as a (typical) defense against being 'other' (see bullying).
OTOH, re sf in general... I've read and heard some convincing arguments lately about the dearth of spacefaring sf right now; due to actual science, we all know there's not likely to be any warp factor 10 in the next 100 years, so we don't even think about that anymore.
Really interesting post! (in case you're wondering, I came here from reading Jay Lake :-) ).
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From:geek_dragon
Date:November 5th, 2010 05:03 am (UTC)
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I enjoyed this post, but it made feel a bit sad too.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:November 5th, 2010 05:20 am (UTC)
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Hm. Do people now really have so much trouble with Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons -- or even Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz -- or Avonlea?
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From:dbroussa
Date:November 6th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
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It's not a problem per se, but rather that fantasy is sort of a stock overlay to our universe...it's always midieval (sometimes Renaissance) with magic. There is often little discussion about how the existence of magic fundamentally changes culture and daily life. For example, we don't think twice about naming a child when they are born (or before) but just 100-150 years ago roughly half of live births didn't make it to two years old. Some cultures didn't bother to name children for a long time after birth because so many died and it was easier. How many fantasy novels really delve into the need for birth control in a world where magical treatments cure disease? In fact how many even look at the effects that high infant survival rates have on things like primogeniture?

Twenty odd years ago we had the cyberpunk wave of literature that was a dark distopic future where technology was not a panacea, but often the cause of misery. Gibson also wrote a book called The Difference Engineers (I think that was it's title) and it was, sort of, a steam punk novel that essentially put cyberpunk in the Victorian era.

Science Fiction is usually the story of how technology drives human vision and life (trips to the moon, or cybernetic implants). Fantasy tends to be more archetypical in story format and the magic is not really the focus of the story so much as the window dressing (at least not in the manner scifi focuses on technology).
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From:polydad
Date:November 5th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
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Excellent idea and excellent post. Thank you.
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From:dragoness_e
Date:November 5th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
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I think there is some validity to your view of why steampunk is interesting; I don't think the corollary about the hypothetical decline of fantasy holds. Tolkienesque fantasy falls flat because few people write outstandingly good derivatives of someone else's seminal work. I have seen some excellent fantasy in recent years and more distant years, but it wasn't Tolkienesque.

We don't remember a time without antibiotics,and neither do our parents. We don't remember a time without electricity, and neither do our parents. We don't remember a time without rapid intra- and inter-continental travel, and neither do our parents.

And this has what to do with the popularity or excellence of a story? I think that it's the quality of the story itself--does it keep turning the pages to see what happens next, do the characters resonate as 'real' people that you care about, can you imagine the world described in the story as real place that you haven't visited yet?--that determines the success of a story.

I submit that its the fact that Victorian England has moved far enough into the past that we can easily romanticize it that makes steampunk popular. (Although for some reason we have been able to romanticize the American West of the exact same period since the late 19th century... possibly because for most readers, it was a distant and exciting place).

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From:amberite
Date:November 5th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC)
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I have seen some excellent fantasy in recent years and more distant years, but it wasn't Tolkienesque.


That's sort of the point I was trying to make: doing it like Tolkien no longer works, because most people are too far from experiences like Tolkien's to be able to match up the territory.

I did declare that authors who are conscious of this, in one way or another -- whether that's the extra effort to be authentic, or the fill-in technique -- are still writing good pre-industrial fantasy: just that it's become a much longer reach, and harder to do.

The Victorian era is just on the cusp of what we can project our realities into, while still being, as you point out, distant enough to romanticize.

None of these are absolutes; I think more that our perceptions of history could be visualized as a curve with a gradual fade-off, because people are born and die every year and even amongst people of a given generation, emphasis can be different. For example, I imagine that the Holocaust has left a much more "present" impression on my early-formed ideas of the world than it did for people my age who weren't Jewish, and a less "present" impression for people older than my age who are...

Ooh, Westerns are another good example - not least because they hit peak popularity mid-twentieth century, with a period of some popularity leading up to that and tapering off after it.

There's also a whole 'nother article to be written at some point about how our frame of reference has changed faster as the landscape has changed... Spenser's window into the past was to Chaucer's era, for example, a good few hundred years. But I must advance two squares to genetics class now, I'm running late!
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From:chelseagirl
Date:November 5th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
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Here via the comments in catvalente's last steampunk post, and just wanted to say that your insights are really good -- great post!
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From:bodlon
Date:November 5th, 2010 11:05 pm (UTC)
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Holy Mother Judy Tenuda, I think I love you. I have never thought this, and it's brilliant.

Also, my mind is suddenly blown wondering what the literature of our generation's grandchildren -- those whose parents don't remember life without the Internet -- look like?

I hope I live to see.
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From:roachpatrol
Date:November 10th, 2010 12:39 am (UTC)
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This is an extremely interesting thing to think about! You are awesome for thinking it up in the first place, and articulating it so well. I'll be chewing on this for weeks...
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From:roachpatrol
Date:November 10th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
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This also makes me think of the continuing debate as to what's up with the abundance of Jewish authors dominating the Science Fiction fields and the absolute dearth of any Jewish authors at all in High Fantasy, like what's being discussed here: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/spengler/2010/03/05/christianity-and-myth-why-theres-no-jewish-narnia/.

I think some of the points you made here, about how our past defines who we are and also how our past itself is changing, are also central to the Science/Magic Jewish/Christian/Pagan thing. Exotic pagan otherness, and the climactic Good Vs Evil struggle that seems so endemic to Christian and Western thought are getting harder and harder to definitely point at in modern society, and maybe thus is getting harder to identify with?



The Music of the Synapses

this tightrope made of sound