The Smell of Progress, On Various Scales at Once

Progress. I’ve made some on a number of fronts, but the one I’ll mention is writing. I’ve been busy in the past week or so–grading, preparing a few lectures, baking, handling some stuff that needed handling–but I’ve made significant headway with writing.

I haven’t leapt into the project I was hoping to get into this semester–though I will, hopefully later this month, or early next–but I have made significant progress toward getting a few new short stories, or reworkings of older ones, finished and ready to go out.

For the record, I’ve:

  • heavily revised “Asshole Island” (previously “Instead of Pinochets”)
  • made significant progress in reworking my steampunk robot uprising story, “The Clockworks of Hanyang” (and should be finished revising that by the weekend)
  • edited and cleaned up a superhero short story (which I could pitch as Carmela Soprano + Watered-Down Libertarian Ann Coulter + superheroes) so it’s ready to get some feedback on
  • drafted, in the last 24 hours, a new story titled “Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika”–which, yes, my clever readers, is indeed a reference to a work by Erik Satie (see here if you want to get the joke in the title). It’s more steampunk mechanika, set in the same world as “The Clockworks of Pyongyang” but it focuses on a different aspect of the of the steampunk robot uprising (as well as being vaguely in the same vein as Bruce Sterling’s “Twenty Evocations,” a piece I immediately admired, but didn’t take as a challenge until now. (It’s almost done, in fact the text is all done, but I need to reinstall Finale on my Windows partition to get the one missing section, part 6, part of it written, however… or, perhaps, composed is a better word for what I have left to do. Yes, an experimental story, yes, yes.)

A word about “steampunk”–I ended up writing in the genre mainly because of a conversation I had with my crit group about some criticisms of steampunk (the so-called Steampunk Kerfuffle) that had appeared online a few months ago. (Particularly, the comments by Charlie Stross and Catherynne M. Valente.)

For what it’s worth, my sense was that the criticisms–the inherent imperialism, racism, sexism, classism, and brutality of the Victorians is ignored in much of the giddy excitement over Steampunk, especially–was met by a defense that amounted to, “But I like Steampunk, and it’s fun!” Indeed, when I mentioned the criticisms, one of my friends said, teasingly (I hope), “You don’t like anything fun, do you?”

Oh, I do. One thing I delight in doing, for example, is taking challenges–so, yes, like Barney Stinson, I said…

So “The Clockworks of Hanyang” and “Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika” are my attempts to write something interesting, compelling, and even “fun”, while dealing with the things in the real Victorian era–and which also continue into our own, in some ways–that Charlie Stross noted in his post really are not so fun at all.

(Because, frankly, as I read it his post was less about the science, which he brings up and sets aside along the way, and far more about the disturbing revisionist-historical fantasy of Victorians we’ve been nursing in Steampunk.)

In places, these dare both quite dark stories, and also (perhaps cruelly) a little honest about some things we humans like to ignore, or pretend away. I wonder, briefly, whether they’re reaching back toward something of that “New Wave Intensity” that Karen Burnham recently brought up over at Locus.

Maybe these stories are feathers, more than chickens. But I get the feeling they may be necessary feathers–necessary for me, anyway. We’ll see what happens.

13 thoughts on “The Smell of Progress, On Various Scales at Once

  1. My take on Steampunk at the moment is that more of my own experience of it is people doing the costume/informal LARP thing with it.

    Yes, I realize I need to read more of it.

    But my experience of it since I read The Difference Engine and The Diamond Age is of people taking the costuming and the “good” stuff, definitely the “fun” stuff, from an earlier age, and just having fun with it. I don’t see what the difference is between that and going to RenFaires (and there are bunches of people I know who do that, some of whom work at them) or Dickens on the Strand, which is a fun-sounding thing that some of my friends have gone to. The Renaissance era was kinda crap for the majority of people, and Dickens was writing about some pretty awful conditions in some cases, but these folks are taking all the fun stuff and getting sentimental about it, and having a good time. Right now, I’m lumping Steampunk-as-LARP in with that, and as long as no one is so delusional as to think the Victorians were actually like what the LARPers are doing, I don’t have a problem with it.

    1. Julia,

      Being that I’m so far away, I don’t really know much about the LARP/costuming stuff, but I’d say what you describe suggests Valente was onto something when she argued there was a preponderance of surface in the subgenre. You’re right we do this with other historical eras: we do it in SF, too, focusing on exciting and glamorous jobs, and not on the kitchen crew on that generation-ship, for example. However, I find it particularly disturbing with Victorian culture as, to quote A.N. Wilson in his book The Victorians, “The Victorians are still with us.” That is, the shape of the world is, in part a shape they set up for us. Many of our anxieties and values and many of the border-lines and conflicts we have today are inherited from them… and yet, at a distance of a century, a century and a half for the earlier Victorians, we misremember so willfully. Wilson writes, “All history is selective, and by implication, if not overtly, it makes judgments.”

      Wilson may be noting this to qualify his own biases and emphases in the book, but in steampunk, the selections and judgments seem not just biased, but willfully ignorant… especially when contemporary authors are much less sentimental about other places; if contemporary authors can be blunt about, say, child prostitution in a future Southeast Asia, or bigotry in India, or whatever, then I find it hard to believe that steampunk excludes the racism, sexism, and exploitation so core to the Victorian world simply because it’s “not fun.”

      Of course, LARP is different from literature. It’s like civil war reenactments: people may LARP Confederate or Union soldier roles, but nobody LARPs being a field slave far removed from the front. And I should also say I haven’t read enough of the current wave of steampunk to know how true the criticisms are of it. I’m thinking I’ll probably like, for example, The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. But there is something of the steampunk craze that annoyed me, around the same time that those people were posting. It was like, Steampunk this, Steampunk that!

  2. I’m probably going to be reading an anthology of steampunk short stories later this month. If I remember to come back here after I read it, I’ll come back and say something. (Brain is mostly back to normal, I think, but not quite 100%. Falling flat on your right side, including the right side of your face, is not conducive to maintaining a normal brain for the next week, apparently.)

  3. Julia,

    Would love to hear your thoughts on it. Is it one of the Vandermeer anthologies? Those are the ones I’d like a look at.

    Yeah, don’t fall flat on your side again. It sucks.

  4. Well it sounds like you have been writing up a storm, Gord. You squeeze out a lot of work in spite of teaching demands.

    Sometime I would like to read more about the “kerfluffle.”

    I think this is a genuinely interesting debate. I haven’t had a chance to read any steampunk but I understand it is victorian retro-sci fi.

    Your accusation that it is romanticizing of Victorian society…and in fact, that it perpetuates many of the bad things that the Victorians have saddled us with…has all the makings for A BADASS ACADEMIC PAPER.

    Not that you have any lack of ideas for those. But I just wanted to say that it could be very interesting issue for a broad academic audience not necessarily conversant with steampunk.

    Any journal published in the area of “cultural studies” would go for it.

    Personally it interests me because although I don’t read much fiction, I do have a terrible hankering for “retro” stuff. By living in past styles and fashions, I create a fictional world for myself to live in.

    Why do I do that? (I just bought a commemorative Simon and Garfunkel CD off of Yes24).

    Why do people love retro stuff so much?

    It seems like an issue that digs into cultural politics. It has some ramifications beyond the case study of steampunk itself as a genre. It’s a great case study which can be used to explore some of the cultural politics of retro subcultures.

  5. Bradley,

    Hmm. Well, I have a lot on my academic plate, and I’m not sure I’m the guy to write about Steampunk either, seeing as it’s also somewhat unfamiliar for me — I’ve seen a lot of touches of it here and there, but haven’t really gotten deep into the literature or the cosplay-aspect of it.

    What you say is interesting, though. I don’t know how well the nostalgia for 70s or 80s music and fashion lines up with the nostalgia that seems to mobilize a lot of Steampunk. The former seems more of a personal nostalgia for when one’s own life was simpler, where I suspect the steampunk kind might be linked to a kind of weariness of the technological sublime, which people feel is linked more to the, let’s say, “drab everydayness” of technology… they still want the sublime, but aren’t so much feeling it. (The Internet no longer makes all of us go “Wow,” like it first did. OR maybe it’s a subtle American prophecy of ongoing/impending decline? Steampunk does, after all, reimagine a time when the British industrial revolution was in high swing, and when the collapse of the British empire, economy, and so on weren’t quite a twinkle in old Britannia’s eye. I dunno…)

    Anyway, neat idea, but it’d take me a few years to be in a place where I could write a paper like that. Far better someone very into Steampunk do it. Or, hell, far better you do it! :)

  6. Gord,
    I guess I might have a paper somewhere down the road in cultural politics of nostalgia.

    Seems like your plate is too full.

    Exactly I was thinking of the “drab everydayness” of technology.

    In my own case, I asked myself why I spend the time in my car listening to Korean rock music recorded during the regime of Park Changhee or Chun Doohwan. I realized that on the one hand, it gives me the illusion of becoming part of Korean culture…while on the other hand, enabling me to express that I’m definitely NOT part of the technology loving Korean society which is moving at a drably fast pace all around me–in which people madly consume techno dance music and computerized hip hop.

    In other words, it’s not a rejection of technology nor of technologized music itself but of the regime of life forms which is symbolized by latter-day fashions.

    Like Julia, I have known a lot of people who are into the Rennaisannce Festivals and Dickens on the Strand.

    It’s not noncomformity but a consumer choice as well as aesthetic and political. It’s an expression of identity, to say that “I’m into something else, something much more sublime than what the mainstream people are enjoying.”

    However, it sounds like perhaps steampunk is something more than this kind of consumer choice. Perhaps I leaped to the wrong conclusion. It sounds like you are cautiously disavowing any knowlege of steampunk, as if it is a sort of loaded term or issue.

  7. Anyway, my point originally was…that I enjoy your way of analyzing social phenomena, whether in your fiction or in your non-fiction writing. I thought that there is a topic you are exploring here which would appeal to an audience, not just to me.

    It was really not my intention to impose my own projects onto your agenda. Sorry.
    I guess I don’t have the hang of responding to others’ blogs quite.

    1. Bradley,

      No worries, I was not put out in the slightest. I’m just (a) too busy to write such a paper, and (b) more likely to explore it in a story or something. I’m flattered you found the subject and my approach to looking at social phenomena so interesting.

      (Also, I’m retyping this; I wrote a comment but didn’t post it, and then had to reboot. Argh.)

      It’s funny, I find it odd that you would necessarily want to pursue the illusion of being part of Korean culture (or rather, society). Personally, I stopped aspiring to that some time ago. I also find the idea amusing that rock is less “technological” than techno music. Music has been a technological endeavour since the first drum was built, and in fact when you study music history you learn of how very specific technological advances shaped music in different periods.

      That said, techno itself partakes of a kind of “rhetoric” of technology and technocratic aesthetic: it’s certainly very functional, and not really designed to push a lot of the buttons music was once expected to do. I’ve been thinking about the rhetorical and discursive nature of a lot of music lately: the way the structures in music are reflective of other kinds of narrative or discursive structures humans tend to use. There are forms of music that have such an alien take on that, like minimalist music… say, Steve Reich’s gorgeous stuff:

      …or much techno music. Then again, I have a DJ friend who would (probably successfully) argue that the job of a DJ in a club is to arrange the tracks in a manner that enacts the same sort of flow and oscillations we see in other forms of music — faster, slower, up, down, invoking moods and effects, and so on.)

      The thing about Steampunk “nostalgia” (that differentiates it from Ren Faire and Dickensian types) is that it’s nostalgia for a time that actually didn’t exist. It’s a kind of counterfactual nostalgia constructed out of our beef with the present. Much as we want to say it’s about the Industrial Revolution, most of the attention seems to get focused on the Victorian culture and especially costuming and manners, except pushed through a filter where our own scientific and technological proclivities are somehow woven into this Victorian setting.

      Anyway, I am only talking about the social phenomenon, not the literature (of which I haven’t read much, except books that only sort of use it — like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, in which I’d say it’s more of a spice or flavoring than the main thrust of the novel… it has Steampunky things, but I’m not sure it’s purely in the Steampunk mode.) It’s not necessarily a “loaded term or issue” but it’s just one I don’t know much about beyond what I’ve said, and read about it.

      Also: it’s funny you think Korean society is so technology-loving: to me, this society is profoundly nervous about (and awkward regarding) tech. Hence the “BE CAREFUL!” warnings on ATMs, the crazy security systems people tolerate for online banking and transactions, the constant panic over whether cell phones or smart phones are good or bad for us… to me, North Americans are much more technology-loving, even as they’ve been relatively slower to actually embrace certain new technologies.)

  8. So I’ve started on the Vandermeer anthology (the first one, I may be picking up the second one later this year), and I’m enjoying the stories.

    The introduction was another matter entirely. Jess Nevins got a critical detail wrong on something I know a fair bit about, and I’m not sure I can trust the rest of the introduction. (Hint: The Aubrey-Maturin series, whose 20th book ends in 1815, cannot really be called Victorian, now, can it?)

    I was wondering just how Joe R. Lansdale was going to pull off something Steampunk, and it didn’t surprise me that he went into the “rift in space” thing that he’s done elsewhere. What he did with it, though, was, well, Lansdale. (I could say “genius” but since we’re talking about Lansdale here, that would be redundant. And I’m not just saying that because he likes me — he just writes that damn well.)

    As most of the genre consists of alternate histories, and I’m fond of those, I’m enjoying what I’m reading very much. I’ll comment some more on specific contributions at a later time. (Rough weekend. Husband sick and friends had a crisis in which communication needed to be established, and we ended up being relays. Of course, it happened late enough that I was wound up and didn’t get to sleep until almost 2 hours after I’d intended to.)

  9. Julia,

    Argh, sounds like you had a tough weekend indeed. (I know how those are.) I haven’t read a ton of Lansdale, so I’m curious to know what pure Lansdale is like… I’ll have to check ‘im out.

    And yeah, Aubrey Maturin certainly wouldn’t be Victorian, though I bet a lot of the folks who read it enjoy the stuff that is analogous to the Victorian era-stuff, if that makes any sense. For lots of people, history does seem to collapse more easily into centuries. Hence considering 2000-2001 21st century when, for me, the beginning of the 21st century is most likely located at Sept 11 2001. Well, unless something else big happens in the next few years… it’s possible it’ll be relegated to late-20th century, as might our own decade.

    Or, on the other hand, one might consider that moment at the end of the Reagan Administration, when the Berlin Wall fell and Communism went into crisis, as the beginning of the corporate/conservative/militarist crisis (who’s our enemy now?) and revival as neoliberalism… which seems to be ruining the planet for all and sundry at the moment.

    It all depends on what bad things happen next, I’m guessing. Or, though I’m more dubious, what wonderful things happen to upset that neoliberal economics-driven mess, and how soon they happen.

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