What interests me in steampunk stories (and what really doesn't)
So recently we've had Strange Horizons' review of the Steampunk and Extraordinary Engines anthologies. Then Fantasy Magazine this week is running a whole series of articles and commentary and comedy around the topic of steampunk, and to top it off, a writer on a forum I'm part of asked yesterday what exactly steampunk is--she'd seen it in guidelines but didn't really know.
This has me thinking. I don't identify myself as purely a steampunk writer or reader (or DIY designer), but I do dabble in it and enjoy it. But it seems there are a lot of pieces to steampunk that a person might latch onto and think, this is why I like steampunk.
So the first obvious thing I like is just the gadgets--the gears and steam valves are simply fun. There isn't a whole lot more to this than fun, no philosophical reason why despite some attempts fans have made to assign deeper meaning to it. As a teenager I loved swords. Now that feels somewhat childish, perhaps because of the romanticism some place on swords...but really liking clockwork and steam engines is no less childish and no less susceptible to silly romanticism. So I really haven't matured, I've merely hidden my childishness behind other objects.
Before moving on to the other things I like, let me just get out what doesn't interest me--Victoriana itself. I mean, I like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I like the era's book and graphic design, and I like other literature from the time period, but it isn't London itself that attracts me. It isn't the specifics of the historic time period. It's the underlying systems and the interesting way an author might transpose them and juxtapose them with other ideas and settings.
Which begs the question of what those underlying systems are. I've set stories I've written in many different time periods, from hunter-gatherer societies to early cities, late Bronze Age through early industrial and on into the future. And to a certain extent, I'd say the same about each of those settings--it isn't the historic specifics (I'm not trying to recreate an actual Mesopotamian city-state and if I want to evoke castles and manors, it isn't out of fascination with, say, Norman or Celtic history) but with how those specific practices develop and change and influence the people living there. For the early industrial era, then, I like the sense of change, the tension between exciting newness and the things that are lost. Change is, of course, inherent in any time period, but the industrial revolution seems especially suited to explore that. It's also an era of immigration, of country people moving to the scary cities and of people traveling to new lands for different opportunities. Both situations are ripe for interesting stories and tough tensions. Add in there the growth of tensions between factory workers and owners and the early glimmers of environmental awareness when faced with the devestation of coal-burning factories, and you have some great dynamics to work with.
That attitude probably reflects back to what I was saying a few months ago about setting and escapism--issues of justice, immigration, environment, these are contemporary matters that demand thought (and action), and divorcing them from today's real world connotations lets me (in writing or in reading) examine them without taking a knee-jerk response and really give them the thought they deserve.