Thursday, March 27, 2014

On the Steampunk Genre...

You may not know this about me, but I'm a huge steampunk fan. The idea of a scientifically advanced Victorian England sparks something in my imagination that I've never been able to fully ignore--perhaps because as an English major I find the Victorian Era's literature particularly interesting. In short you might say that I love it. I have a board on Pintrest dedicated to my steampunk fascination, I've invested some time in a steampunk RPG that's published in Poland, and I follow several steampunk pages on Facebook.

However, I'm having a problem. The more immersed I become in the genre, the most problematic it's becoming for me. I'm sure it's true of any genre, but there seems to be a divide between how the genre looks superficially and how it actually functions as a genre. For steampunk, it may be particularly pronounced because it has a very distinctive appearance and everyone has an idea about what it should look like. Those ideas are not, however, always complete or correct. This is my issue in a nutshell. An issue that started with a picture on Facebook that most certainly can be steampunk, but that many people disagreed is steampunk because it had to do with vampires (which are Gothic, had a very pronounced history during the Victorian Era, and are therefore able to be steampunk under the right circumstances).

Queue teeny tiny little rant: 

I'm of the belief that an admirer should make an effort to understand all elements of the genre. Steampunk fans, for example, should endeavor to understand first the Victorian Era, then the tropes of the science fiction genre (easier than the first, by far), and finally how those motifs work together to make steampunk, a compound genre. Skipping the first step isn't an option. Steampunk is more than just leather, gears, and gadgets. It's more than dirigibles and goggles. It's more than corsets, top-hats, and tails.

Rather, steampunk is a complex genre that calls upon the grittier elements of the Victorian Era, a genre that often exposes the many complicated issues of identity and culture happening during the reign of Queen Victoria. Steampunk is science fiction to be sure, but also relies heavily upon fantasy, particularly since the Victorian Era was one of intense Gothic interest. In fact, the Victorian Era begins a completely unique cycle of Gothic fictions, where science fiction and fantasy work together to create an atmosphere of Gothic tensions that reflected the cultures fears about science and technology. The Victorian Era was a time of immense change, when traditional ways of life were being exchanged for growing industrialization. A time for tension between what was natural and those things that were, decidedly, not natural. Understanding of all of this, and accepting it, is important to fully comprehending steampunk.

However, steampunk is not the only genre that has this problem. A whole host of others struggle with an incomplete understanding of their histories and tropes. The point I'm trying to make here is simple: being a fan is awesome, but being an accurate, well-studied fan is better. I love steampunk fans, but knowledgeable steampunk fans are a thousand times more interesting than those who are not. They're also a thousand times easier to converse with about the genre when they know a little something about the Victorian Era.

image via steampunk wallpapers