March 21, 2011

This post is the second of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

Steampunk, while now well-distributed and originally offshore, feels quite British. A fetishisation of the difficult, the complex, the grimy, the high-friction and the physical. Engineering-fic. But too often it’s also a default position for a certain kind of literature, like London’s ‘gaslight mode’, that pea-souper, Jack The Ripper, Neverwhere Victoriana that sometimes feels like it’s deadening capital fictions. There must be other ways to mess with histories.

In a recent interview Michael Moorcock had this to say:

MM: In [1971 novel] The Warlord of the Air, for instance, I invented this specific form to do a specific job. And then 10 years later, 20 years later, I’m suddenly dragged into the steampunk movement, as a steampunk writer, which I wasn’t. And again, it’s disappointing to me, because very little steampunk that I’ve read actually does what I was trying to do with Warlord of the Air, which was, I was basically looking at, if you like, a Fabian view of Colonialism. It was an idea of Benign Colonialism, which I didn’t believe in. And I was trying to explore that.

Yeah. Whereas a lot of the steampunk doesn’t have that intellectual content, it just uses the period imagery.

MM: Yes, that’s right, and they think, “oh great, big airships! Wow!” You’re a bit suspicious of people who like too many big airships. You think, maybe you should be writing porn, you know!

Charlie Stross had a crack at the same problem: the depoliticisation, or absence of politics at all, in the genre, proposing an alternative steampunk that takes “the taproot history of the period seriously”:

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage.

Stross’ argument is that second artist syndrome has stripped the genre of its politics and its scientific understanding, leaving it nothing but aesthetics (“nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown”).

It’s a call for a steampunk that explores all the conditions of its history: of the mill, and of the workhouse. It’s the same impulse that, when a friend throws a 1920s party, makes me want to turn up as a polio victim.

So steampunk—hell, *punk—is the retrofitting of today’s potentialities onto the technologies of an arbitrary point in the past. By doing so, those potentialities are made visible: like the distributed communication / packet switching encoded as pillars in the landscape in Keith Roberts’ proto-steampunk novel Pavane.

(That opening line about fetishising the difficult is actually a half-remembered quote from somewhere about the Britishness of Newspaper Club: a retrofit of potentialities onto older technologies if ever there was one.)

So, we can retrofit onto other periods too. Like Dieselpunk, “a subculture and a genre of art blending the aesthetics of the 1920s through the early 1950s with today”, whose self-description declares itself to be entirely aesthetic, prefiguring its devolution into bobby-socks, greaseballs and hotrods rather than anything political.

What about cavepunk, a potential genre that must exist somewhere between Modern Primitives and the Flintstones’ Family Saloon? I’m seeing a lot of fire, and a political focus on anarcho-primitivism and “rewilding”.

When I asked Russell a while back for alternatives to steampunk, he suggested 80s-punk, all massive walkmans and Nike Air Jordans. Back To The Future 2. Technology without the network. Fashionpunk (no).

Can *punk belong to the future, or is it predicated on past knowns? Cyberpunk did and wasn’t: it defined a territory by parodying it (Gibson was always a Beat writer). Likewise the developing-world futurism promised by AfroCyberPunk, which I keep linking to in an effort to will it into being (/being better). Gurgaonpunk. Paulistapunk.

I want to read a near-future enviropunk, where pandas are fed into woodchippers to give us the escape velocity to move beyond enviroconservatism.

Not Salvagepunk, which is merely a hauntological critique of *punk. Salvagepunk is total Dark Mountain, even while it rightly eviscerates hauntology’s endless wibbling about in the tickets of history as “pseudo-Leftist” in the worst sense: factional, morose, yearning for some never-never Golden Age of the past.

*punk is not the same as speculative fiction or alternative history. It’s more focused on technology, and the social implications of technology, than pure spec.fic or alt.hist. That’s what ties it ideally to Science Fiction, and why Sci Fi writers have started to rail against steampunk’s perceived decadence.

But it is definitely tied to time, which suggests there is a path to be made to Network Realism. Even if *punk can be considered anti-realist by definition, we can borrow some of its tools. Are all *punks subsets of timepunk? Or do they merely appear so because of a technological focus that so clearly situates and timestamps them?

(And I’m interested, I realise, because I want Network Realism for precisely the same reasons that Moorcock and Stross decry the aesthetisisation of steampunk: because the aesthetisisation of anything is an abdication of its politics, because the aesthetisisation of politics is fascism, and fascism is the opposite of imagination. We have too many dead literatures.)

If *punk doesn’t have to be about technology, what else can it be about?

Can we locate *punk in forbidden modes of writing, like slashfic, a proto-pornpunk, retrofitting different desires onto existing characters and situations? (Yes, we can.)

Thus, we locate *punk in the quietly radical queer writings of JR Ackerley and Jocelyn Brooke in the years before Wolfenden. These works inhabit a space of imminent possibility imagined by the writers as a way of calling such spaces into being, collapsing the quantum society of the time, full of hypocrises and hidden allowances. If designers are concerned with the recently possible, writers should be concerned with the imminent.

Essentially, *punk is a hollowing out of conceptual spaces based on only slightly varied worldlines. It may be subsumed by aesthetics, as is the problem with most bad steampunk (“stick some brass cogs on it”), but it may also uncover previously hidden possibilities.


Update, because there are going to be more:

  • Farmpunk via Matt Jones / Warren Ellis

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