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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

SNOWDOG ALERT: "Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit" normally runs on Tuesdays, but due to circumstances beyond our control it was delayed until today. We will return to our normal schedule next week. ~brb

Twenty-some years ago, I just about got myself thrown off a panel at a WorldCon for advancing the argument that this "cyberpunk" thing was primarily a marketing label and a fashion statement, and we might as well be calling it cybervoodoo because most of the people writing it and nearly all of the people reading it clearly did not know jack $#!+ about how computers and networks really work and apparently thought Tron was a documentary.

Well, here we go again...

In case you've missed it, the Flavor of the Month is "Steampunk." Everywhere I turned at Dragon*Con, it was steampunk this and steampunk that. I heard Firefly described as a "steampunk space opera." I heard my own Wild Wild West described as an "early steampunk western." Maybe it was just a small group that I happened to cross paths with continuously, but it seemed like everywhere I turned, I was running into people dressed as if they'd just escaped from Girl Genius. Why, even our old friends at Weird Tales have discovered that they love steampunk.

Now, I certainly don't want to even begin to sound like I begrudge Phil and Kaja Foglio their success. They're wonderful people, and richly deserve everything good that comes to them. And as far as sci-fi fashion statements go, steampunk certainly is easy on the eyes. In a field where many of the female fans require serious foundation garments, the return of the corset is not unwelcome:

I could do without the men in skirts. I'm sorry, but if you're wearing a tartan with a sporran and the whole works, it's a kilt; otherwise, you're just a guy in a funny-looking skirt. But I suppose sometimes you have to take the bad with the good:

Especially considering the previously dominant fashion modality that's being displaced:

A couple of days into the con, I got into a pleasant conversation with an editor of long-standing acquaintance who was trying to get a handle on this whole steampunk thing. She wanted to know where it came from, because it'd slipped in under her radar while she was focusing on paranormal romance. I said Girl Genius. She countered with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I pointed out that Gibson and Sterling were using the term back in the late 1980s to describe this book they were working on that would eventually become The Difference Engine, and that Michael Moorcock was putting this kind of stuff into his Nomad of Time series back in the 1970s.

I thought of Katsuhiro Otomo's anime epic, Steamboy, but couldn't pull the reference in off the top of my head at the moment. I do get the sense that steampunk is 95-percent visual style. I have this vague feeling that Larry Blamire has been drawing his Steam Wars art since, like, forever, or at least that I first saw some of these things as magazine illos back in the 1980s. I 'spose I should ask him about it one of these days.

If I had unlimited time and money, I would have Rampant Loon commission and publish an actual Tales of Steam and Thunder, just so I could use Blamire's terrific faux cover art:

But on a philosophical level, I consider steampunk to be evidence of the utter failure and final exhaustion of science fiction. It's as if the entire field collectively woke up one day, realized it's the 21st Century, suddenly grokked on some subliminal level what this century is likely to be like based on the history of the past half-century, and then screamed in horror and shouted out, "NO! DO OVER! DO OVER!"

So if you're a dedicated follower of fashion and the sort who likes to chase trends; go ahead. Do over. Go back to Verne and Wells and do it all again, and pretend the 20th Century never happened. Have fun.

But if you do so, remember: there are good reasons why Verne is remembered now for Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and not Robur the Conqueror, and Wells for The War of The Worlds and not The War in The Air. There are good reasons why both Verne's airships and Well's land ironclads are errant nonsense; why Diplock's pedrail was beaten in both the marketplace and on the battlefield by Holt's caterpillar tracks; why the Great War was not fought between the Kaiser's and the Tsar's mighty air fleets of armored zeppelins.

Edgar Rice Burroughs at least took the time and trouble to invent a new principle of physics unknown to Earthly science in order to get his Barsoomian air battleships aloft. The Difference Engine was based on an actual viable science-fictional premise—that Babbage's analogue computers actually worked—even if the social changes envisioned as flowing from that change in history are rather silly. Do try to at least match that level of intellectual exertion.

But as for me; well, actually, I'll turn the last word over to The Kid. When we got back from Dragon*Con he immediately went rummaging in his closet, to find one of his old Nerf guns. Then he got out his paints and got busy.

"Cool," I said, when he showed it to me. "Why?"

"Dad," he answered, with that exasperated voice 15-year-olds do so well, "they were selling junk like this for fifty dollars in the dealer's room! I'm gonna buy up all my friends' old Nerf guns, steampunk 'em up, and sell them online!"

Some days I think The Kid is definitely much smarter than his old man...
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