Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Jess Nevins's Steampunk Generations

When writing about the Frank Reade steampunk stories of the 19th century recently I mentioned a writer Jess Nevins (a man) who has some excellent webpages about steampunk sources. He wrote the 'Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana' (2005) the bulk of which seems to be online. He is an academic at Sam Houston State University and he is a leading annotator of steampunk works and has also collaborated with Alan Moore. He is incredibly knowledgeable about 'Edisonades' comic-book stories written for young people in the 19th century, including the Frank Reade stories, which focus on using steampunk inventions on the frontier of the American West and once that had been conquered fully by the end of the 19th century how this strand moved into modern science fiction. He rightly teases out the difference between the strand for young readers and that focused more at adults such as from Verne and Wells, whilst recognising a great deal of crossover between the two especially in terms of technology.

To some degree, though Nevins highlights the difference between the youthful and adult strands and shows the heavy American focus of the former, this does tend to lead him to overlook the difference in culture between Europe and the USA. It was apparent in the 19th century and is apparent today in contemporary movies. The USA has an enduring enthusiasm and a belief in technology. Even in post-apocalyptic scenarios there is a far more positive slant, the sense that it will be like the World after the Flood and a better society will rise from the ashes, whereas in Europe to coin a phrase: 'we're doomed' was more the slant. This may be because of the experience of warfare in the last two centuries. Even in the USA's worst war, the American Civil War, you could always escape by fleeing West or into the wilderness, as seen at the end of Ang Lee's wonderful 'Ride with the Devil' (1999). In Europe you had to live among the ruins and try to put back together what had been there before, from the Napoleonic Wars, the First and Second World Wars have all ravaged Europe with the latest technology. I believe we are still conscious of that difference and unsurprisingly it is reflected in popular culture. Hence the work of Verne and Wells is more uncertain and more morally ambivalent than was the case with American equivalents.

This was one reason why the Cyberpunk stories of the 1980s had such an impact. William Gibson who is seen as the father of the genre is a very 'clunky' writer you can see his plots moving slowly into place. However, he had a good technological imagination, though even there you could argue he grew out of the foundations laid by Walter Jon Williams. What shook up the USA in particular is that Gibson dared show that technology and large corporations could be bad at a time when 'greed is good' was the slogan. He seemed a heretic, a revolutionary even. Of course, to some degree he was only reflecting the experience of the bulk of the USA's population in the world of the 1980s, not benefiting at all from the fast economy and instead living in decaying urban settings. Gibson was not a writer of social problems, but he was awake enough to know that they were not going to improve even with new shiny technology. To some degree 'The Difference Engine' (1990) written by Gibson and Bruce Sterling (a far stronger novelist of many genres) marked the end of Cyberpunk as a fad. It showed that technology had caused problems no matter what the century.

Anyway, the reason why I decided to come back to Nevins is because I was recently given 'Steampunk' ed. by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer (2008) a collection of steampunk authors. Nevins has an essay in the front of the anthology, which covers much of what he has written about the Edisonades. However, he then puts forward a perspective which I have more problems with and am going to focus on in this posting. He sees two 'generations' of steampunk writing. The first beginning in the 1960s, notably with 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' by Ronald W. Clark (1967) which is about the development of an atomic bomb in the 1850s. He then sees 'The Warlord of the Air' by Michael Moorcock (1971) as the next key milestone in the post-1914 steampunk genre. He sees the ending of the 'first generation' of steampunk coming with 'The Difference Engine' in 1990, which most people consider to be the start of the steampunk genre of the late 20th century. Nevins's complaint is that the 'second generation' of steampunk fiction has lost the critical, self-reflective edge of the first generation and as such is falling back into the overly positive, even bigoted Edisonade genre. To see such a sharp division, to me, is heavily flawed and I will explain why. In addition, I will argue why his so-called second generation of steampunk is not as poor in its viewpoints as he makes out.

Two books do not make a genre and to some degree it is wrong to see Clark's and Moorcock's books as being part of an ongoing evolution. Both men wrote for their own reasons. Clark's novel is very much of the age of nuclear war. Many of the issues he tackled about the use of nuclear weapons and the danger of radiation were as current to 1960s readers as climate change is to us today. People find 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' staid and that is because Clark wrote it in the style of Victorian accounts of conquering empire. He is a good pastiche of that style, which I imagine Clark had read. It shows that as a superpower the British would have faced similar challenges to the USA and USSR were at the time with their nuclear weapons. The testing of the bomb causes biological damage and the bomb cannot be used effectively either against a great power, Russia or against African tribespeople. The novel may have steampunk wrappings but it is a 1960s novel written in a style that Clark and many of his original readers would have been very familiar with.

Michael Moorcock is a force unto himself. He has written scores of novels over a career now stretching over 50 years. He has a vast over-arching view of his 'multiverse' and so many of his different characters appear in different novels as if all woven together in a spider's web. Counter-factual has always been a large element of Moorcock's writing, in some books, just a page outlines some particular twist in history. However, Moorcock is also custodian of a great deal of the history of imaginative fiction. This is shown very clearly by his two anthologies of Victorian/Edwardian 'science fiction': 'Before Armageddon' (1975) and 'England Invaded' (1977) and his non-fiction analysis of the genres, 'Wizardry and Wild Romance' (1987; reissued 2004).

In addition, in his novels Moorcock is unapologetic about his fascination for other writers' work. In 'The Warlord of the Air' and its sequels, the hero is Oswald Bastable, a character from E. Nesbit's 'The Story of the Treasure Seekers' (1898) and its two sequels. By doing this Moorcock established a pattern of using other people's fictional characters in his steampunk novels, something taken to the maximum in Alan Moore's 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'. Of other Moorcock novels, 'Gloriana' (1978) is a homage to Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queen' (1590). He has been very influenced by the work of Mervyn Peake (like David Bowie) especially the Gormenghast triology and you can see that in so many of his lonely anti-hero characters, let alone the architecture they walk through. As I have noted before, once MCG supplied the missing piece for me, 'The Warlord of the Air' (and the two other books of the triology, 'The Land Leviathan' (1974) and 'The Steel Tsar' (1981)) are heavily influenced by the work of George Griffith. Of course, interestingly, 'The Land Leviathan' envisages an invasion of the USA by a vast tank, which seems to turn the Reade stories on its head.

As with Clark, we have to think about what times Moorcock was writing in. He was at the cutting edge of science fiction and fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s and in many stories, especially the Jerry Cornelius series, there is a great deal about the influence of drugs and hallucination, topics which are of less interest to writers today than then. This was an era when society and its assumptions were being challenged and Moorcock was not alone in doing this through science fiction writing. He edited 'New Worlds', 1964-71 and 1976-96, and its anthologies, and if you read the 1960s/70s collections today, the obsessions seem as quaint to a modern reader as those of the 1890s. However, at the time they were radical and challenging, even the phrase 'New Worlds' summed up a sense of potential. Moorcock like liberal-left writers of the time, of course, looked at the established system and sought to invert it. He created Elric, an anaemic, amoral, fantasy anti-hero as an antidote to the muscle bound Conan stories. Probably his most famous novel is 'Behold the Man' (1967), still a really fascinating, excellently crafted story that suggests that 'Jesus' was actually a Jewish time traveller from our times who stepped into the sandals of the son of Joseph the carpenter who was mentally subnormal. Moorcock went after every established bastion. He did not discard it, he just encouraged his readers to think about the assumptions they were making.

The thing that marks Moorcock out from his contemporaries in science fiction writing of the time, and funnily is what has led him to endure and be rediscovered, is his almost childlike love of the early imaginative writing. Moorcock started his career editing magazines carrying Tarzan and Sexton Blake stories. As is shown in the excerpt from 'The Warlord of the Air' which is included in 'Steampunk', he loved the vastness, the excitement of what the technology could do, the elegance of airships. He refers in this novel not only to 'The Outlaws of the Air' but also to 'The War in the Air' by H.G. Wells, most notably in the Fei-chi flying motorcycles which also appear in Wells' novel used by Chinese pilots in their attack on the USA. These are featured in the first novel of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' too. Of course Moorcock shows how technology can be used by the revolutionaries as well as by the authorities. Moorcock is taking from a particular strand which was uncommon even when it was produced. In his career Moorcock has been like Griffith, taking imaginative fiction and putting it to the use of socio-political commentary.

So, Nevins complains that the 'punk' has gone out of steampunk. I would argue it had already gone by the time of 'The Difference Engine'. There is nothing radical in there, nothing challenging society, it is about the dangers of addiction to gambling and hope in new technologies. The reason why there might be no 'punk' in contemporary steampunk is that there is no punk in contemporary society. As I have noted recently, even with the global economy collapsing and environmental change, revolutionaries or even simple protestors are pretty thin on the ground. There are probably authors out there challenging society in their writing but they are unlikely to get any further than their blog pages, certainly not into print. I would suggest Nevins is looking in the wrong place for challenging literature these days, he is more likely to find it in the form of electronic zamzidat work.

Another more fruitful area for more radical writing is in graphic novels. This has probably been the case since the advent of 'Watchmen' (1986/7) though to some degree that reflected 1970s sensibilities. I can see why Nevins works with Moore, because the latter is probably the only 'punk' in popular culture, with the 'V for Vendetta' series (1982-8) and in aspects of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' especially the second series recasting 'The War of the Worlds' but also addressing biological warfare and genetic engineering.

Nevins seems to expect all people writing in a genre to challenge the status quo and that never happens. It is not going to happen in historical drama, detective novels, romance, whatever genre you pick, except with a handful of authors. He seems disappointed that steampunk, somehow has not set itself up as a revolutionary genre, and yet what genre is revolutionary especially in the highly culturally conservative times we have been living in since the mid-1970s? Yet, look at a writer such as Stephen Baxter, and say, his 1993 novel 'Anti-Ice' which references Clark's work, especially with the element in the Crimea, but is probably of the more excited, enthusiastic steampunk pattern that Nevins condemns. It might not tackle things the way Clark did, but neither does it subscribe to the racism and western domination theories that 19th century writers did, it could not in our times. There will always be people at the cutting edge of writing and of particular genres, but following on behind them are more mainstream writers who sustain the genre and make a living out of it. Many readers want to relax with a novel, not constantly be challenged. Novels do inform and challenge but they are also entertainment, and that latter type is much more appealing to publishers.

There have been no generations of steampunk, just different writers at different phases of their careers going in and out of a particular genre. The only generations I see are 1860s-1910s and 1960s-now and even then this might be stretching both periods a little. Two novels does not make a genre as I say, because there are always writers who step outside the currents in writing and Moorcock has always sought to do that whilst simultaneously grounding himself in work he loves. Nevins, I advise, to stop whining about the missing 'punk' especially when the society this work is appearing in, totally lacks such critiques itself. Look for good quality writing and accept, as with all fiction, it reflects the context from which it comes.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

I see that this posting has actually now been referenced in an academic thesis: http://cchin01.wordpress.com/category/thesis/ It is entitled: 'Steamy Cyborgs: A Woman’s Sexualized Role in Technology' and explores the portrayal of female characters, especially cyborgs in cyberpunk and steampunk. It is written by an aspiring journalist called Cassandra Chin, a wonderful name. The thesis is a really good academic study of the cyberpunk and steampunk genres and especially issues around gender portrayals in the genres. I recommend you reading it.