I get the feeling that Josh Ishiro Finney doesn’t like steampunk. In an article he wrote for neondystopia.com, he angrily writes about how the term “punk” has been diluted and the meaning lost as steampunk has turned from a gritty dystopian alternate reality stuck in the 19th century into a group of terribly polite nerds who are too lazy for Victoriana.
That’s my description, not his, but that’s the message I get from him. As a steampunk I immediately got defensive. How dare he besmirch the good name of steampunk! His entire argument is that the word “punk” has lost it’s true meaning and that it simply gets tacked onto the end of a word and ALAKAZAM a new subculture appears. But does he have a point?
Well no, and here’s why:
He begins talking about Punk and how it was a “youth revolution” that stuck two fingers up at the establishment and never sold out. I think the punk he’s referring to is the 1970s punk and not the various other references it has had throughout history. It was a time of rebellion, of not caring and spawned many iconic musicians as well as some noteworthy cinema, literature and art. We then get to learn about Cyberpunk and how it meant something because it broke away from the shiny Star Trek future and showed a decimated world full of greedy corporate bodies and technological terrors. Splatterpunk gets a mention because it also broke away from what people described as timid horror and pushed the boundaries to include extreme violence. I wrote an article on Splatterpunk which you can read on the Other Subcultures page. Finney is right, Splatterpunk was a group of writers breaking down barriers and showing the reader what was really happening in gruesome detail, but the term “splatterpunk” was a joke made by David J Schow. Splatterpunk isn’t strictly a movement as there’s no-one in it aside from a sporadic ezine. So where “punk” is used to define an actual movement with a cause, splatterpunk was a throw away comment at a bar in a convention in 1986 and hasn’t seen anything released under its moniker since 1995. However, I can see how he appreciates splatterpunk for what it is and how it stands against the typical routine of predictable horror. It certainly employs a punk ethic, it just hasn’t lasted very long.
When Finney talks about steampunk, I’m not sure where he got his research done. While The Difference Engine was the first book to use the term “steampunk”, it certainly wasn’t born there. It had first been used three years previously to that by KW Jeter. His first novel in a style that could be argued as steampunk was Morlock Nights, released in 1979. Finney likes that The Difference Engine is a dystopian view of London with poverty and despair. It’s a Cyberpunk world stuck in the 19th century. “Now that was steampunk” says Finney. What he doesn’t know about the culture – because he dislikes it so much – is that it changes from person to person and while that may be his version of steampunk, it’s not necessarily everyone else’s.
Finney complains that the steampunk literature of today is too watered down. There’s no rebellion or edginess, but why would we want to be like Cyberpunk? Who says we have to be? Because steampunk is so wide and encompassing, there’s plenty of room for the dystopian setting as well as a utopian view and because it’s an individual experience, you don’t have to pander to one particular style of writing. Gibson and Sterling wanted to write about a dark, fearsome London where technology had outstripped the people inventing it. It worked for them, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Does that mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to write a steampunk novel?
I get the feeling that his actual issue isn’t with the literature side of things though. It and if you were to look at it from his viewpoint that it has to be written to the punk outlook, then a lot of books don’t stand up. I think the main crux of his problem is that the actual word “punk” is being used for anything to describe a new culture. There are a lot of sub-cultures out there at the moment and there’s more popping up all the time. In fact he mentioned some in the article that I don’t have on my “Other sub-cultures” page. I can actually see his point of view on this Some people think that simply changing something from how it normally is – or “putting a spin/twist on it” – means it’s allowed to have the word “punk” placed at the end of it like, a suffixed crown. However, given that steampunk actually started with the same outlook as what he wants and still has a large sensibility of the punk culture, I don’t think it’s fair to blame steampunk for the dilution of the word. If it is to blame, it’s only really because of the popularity of steampunk that people outside the culture don’t really get the true meaning of it. We have to tolerate chrome coffee machines called The Steampunk or Storage Wars nut job Barry Weiss calling his dieselpunk influenced motorbike steampunk or people selling steampunk galvanised header tanks on eBay.
The article isn’t just a vehicle to try and stick some rules to steampunk, it’s also a way to show his utter distaste for any other culture. It seems that being a writer, Finney is only happy with the way Cyberpunk has continued the same root as it always has. Maybe he’s a Cyberpunk that has gotten despondent at the rise in popularity of steampunk. Maybe he’s a punk that thinks that steampunk in some way is directly linked to the anti-hippy musical movement of the 1970s? Either are entirely possible. It looks on the surface that he’s a grizzled writer who is horrified at the mauling of such an iconic word that means so much. Shouldn’t a writer welcome diversity in literature? Shouldn’t a writer want to see new people coming into a genre with fresh ideas and taking it onto a different level? Isn’t that evolution?
The answer to this dilemma is to change the name of steampunk – a name that is 28 years old – to steampulp. Can you imagine that? The article has met with unpopularity in the comments section on the page and on social media where it’s been shared on the British Steampunk Community page and Dieselpunk HQ. Most of the comments point to the author being angry for the sake of being angry in order to get views, while a lot have pointed out that the core ethics of steampunk are actually quite close to the principles of punk and therefore the author is intrinsically wrong. He also got pulled up on the lack of historical knowledge surrounding the conception of steampunk which in a lot of instances can undermine a written work.
Of course there’s arguments for and against for each point he made including the one about punk values. One person commented on the articles comments section saying that as a steampunk who makes items, they consider themselves using the punk ethic of DIY and not buying into the corporations and their mass produced rubbish. He then pointed out that we spend all of our events dressed as upper class citizens which are the very people that the punk culture rebels against and I think he has a point. However, steampunks are about fiction and fantasy. Maybe we dress as the upper class in order to lampoon them? Or maybe it’s because we can. I think that it’s simply because we want to and no-one has the liberty to tell you otherwise… Well, they can tell you but you certainly don’t have to listen.