I've been following, and enjoying, this debate for the past six weeks or so.
Charles Stross got the ball rolling with an attack on steampunk in October:
But there's a dark side as well. We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. 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).
I think Stross is maybe a tad harsh and probably misses a few very good counterexamples, but his argument did resonate with a lot of what I thought after reading Boneshaker:
Steampunk really is more of an aesthetic than a subgenre . . . everything is in service to the visuals . . . . Steampunk scenarios so often miss the obvious opportunities to explore the real history in their settings while getting distracted by the scenery.
I also think Stross overstates the differences between the Victorian world and our own, however. There's no question that there are major differences, and that billions of people have greater access to the rights and stuff of the modern world, but I do think we're still living in that modern world that the Victorians made. My favorite counter to Stross (I haven't read them all), is by Jean-Christophe Valtat, and he makes much the same point:
It is very naive to think that we are through with the 19th century: it is, in many respects, a nightmare we haven't quite woken up from. Most of what we experience today - in urban life that is - has its origins in the 19th century. I always find it fascinating to think of a time where the things we are used to, and pretend to be adapted to, were felt for the first time: huge capitalist production and commodification, enormous cities and crowds, speed, networking, mass media, the rise of a visual culture, unprecedented destruction in warfare etc... And what makes it more interesting is that it all fell on dazzled, unprepared brains. The impact of this mode of life on the nervous system and the way that people tried to shield themselves from it (self-mechanization, neuroses, alcool, drugs etc...) were analyzed and debated instead of simply regarded as normal. It could be one of the ambitions to steampunk to go back to the source of the life we live and, by exploring those "first times," try to make our times a bit clearer for ourselves.
Finally, I wanted to post this today after reading the finest summation of the debate yet, by Henry Farrell. Farrell discusses Cosma Shalizi's notion that the Industrial Revolution was a singularity, and points out a couple of excellent steampunk works that Stross missed:
The two books which really brought steampunk to a wider audience – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’sThe Difference Engine and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Both of these are unabashed exercises in sociological speculation, which use nineteenth century forms to explore modern anxieties. Gibson and Sterling’s book is indeed arguably a Singularity novel as well as steampunk – but the singularity is the emergence of an unusually baroque form of the ‘vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, “the coldest of all cold monsters.”
Check it out for yourselves.
Anyway, I think the upshot of all of this is that I must read Felix Gilman's Half-Made World, posthaste!
I'm on a posting frenzy this week. There must be grading I'm trying to avoid...