Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for UTOPIA

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that takes many Victorian/Industrial Age technologies, and then thrusts it into a futuristic world. In a steampunk world, there might be flying machines, computers, and ray guns - but built from copper, wood, brass, and using steam as a power source. It's a unique blend of the future and the present that makes steampunk unique.

I hope you've enjoyed my pic-heavy posts the last couple of weeks. Since steampunk is incredibly visual, I had to SHOW you all the cool steampunkish stuff.

But today, I want to discuss the theme of utopia in steampunk. There's an ongoing debate about whether steampunk is uptopian, dystopian, or something in between. I would say that although steampunk does take the Victorian (or Edwardian) view of a uptopian society, the fact that the word "punk" makes up half of steampunk means that it takes this view, and turns it on its head.

Once again, steampunk is speculative fiction where time/technology is completely out of order. In its most basic premise, steampunk is what might have been. What if electricity had never been invented (or at least in the way we know), and steam continued to be the main powersource for everything. But if you dig deeper, modern steampunk dares to make a strong statement about this idea of Victorian romance that early steampunk works seemed to project.

Also, is there really such a thing as pure utopian stories anymore? Much of speculative fiction that does depict a  utopian society shows how such a notion is impossible to sustain. Societal perfection usually comes at a huge price - and its most often at the expense of personal freedom and liberty. Hell, I learned this from watching Logan's Run when I was a kid.

Victorian society might have seemed perfect on the surface, but it was far from a utopia. It was full of class warfare, racism, and mysogany. When we think of Victorian morality, we think of prim and proper. Strict moral code, height of industrialism and self improvement, and enlightenment. But class warfare and elitism remained. Women were not seen as equals, and people of color were seen as less-than-human.

I conclude that steampunk is really an oxymoron: it borrows the proper attitudes, the love of visual aesthetics, and the power of the great industrial revolution. Then it throws along with it into the proverbial blender, the fight for individuality, challenging the status quo, and the dangers of sacrificing personal freedom. It's about the rise of the underdog (the poor, or women, or people of color), and breaking through that rigid social strata.

Modern steampunk has taken a darker edge, and it's also taken on a more supernatural twist (another Victorian/Edwardian phenomenon). Sure, we can all gawk about steampunk's awesome aesthetics. But in the end, steampunk is about revolution, massive worldwide change, and the transformation that an industrial/technological explosion can bring to society.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You have a point about a utopian world. It would have to be at the cost of personal freedom.

farawayeyes said...

Had not thought of steampunk that way. Obviously, Utopia is not all it's been cracked up to be. Seems it's been tried before or at least promised.

Laura Eno said...

I've never liked that spec fiction is labeled as Utopian or Dystopian. To me it represents an evolution of what might have been. Nothing's all good or all bad...it just is.

Julie Dao said...

You explained this so well. I've never read a steampunk story before (closest I've come is Sherlock Holmesian stuff) but sounds fascinating.

Kelly Barnes said...

I think of steampunk as a stark dialectic between cold hearted social order and civilized anarchy. Rage against the machine if you will.

Carrie Monroe said...

I haven't really read much steampunk. I'll have to give it a try. Great post explaining some of the things going on in these stories.

DEZMOND said...

I'm loving the pics you've chosen today!

Huntress said...

I guess the recent Sherlock Holmes movies are steampunk then?

Great pictures!

Brinda said...

I took a class on steampunk and there are so many subgenres. It blew my mind.

The Golden Eagle said...

Really interesting post on steampunk. One of the reasons I like reading it is because of its social scope; different authors tackle the subject in a myriad of different ways.

And I've been loving the images you post during the Challenge!

The Golden Eagle
The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

Christine Rains said...

I'd never consider steampunk utopian. I love those dystopian stories, though!

Jay Noel said...

Alex: It's like yin-yang. One always comes at the cost of the other.

faraway: I really don't think utopian literature really exists anymore.

Laura: Shades of gray!

Julie: Thanks! And I do consider Sherlock steampunkish.

Kelly: Right on. Emphasis on the "punk" aspect.

Jay Noel said...

Carrie: Thanks so much!

Dez: I know - I'd love a poster sized one of each!

Huntress: Oh yeah, they're in there.

Brinda: Really where???

Eagle: I agree. I enjoy the social aspect of all speculative fiction. After all, they all make some sort of statement about society.

Christine: Me neither. But some thing it is because of how Victorian literature focuses on the ideal.

Vero said...

Great post, Jay! You said that very well, that steampunk is about revolution, about taking the compelling concept of industrial explosion and fascination with aesthetics and turn them on their head.

Rusty Webb said...

Well said, I've never thought much about steampunk as a genre and it's attitudes towards society. Thanks for the insight.

The Desert Rocks said...

You are teaching me a lot about this subject. Thanks Jay!

Cherie Reich said...

Fantastic post! And that last picture is so awesome.

Jay Noel said...

Vero: Exactly. Aesthetics are still fun though. Nothing wrong with being a little superficial!

Rusty: I hope to help make it a true genre.

Eve: You are so very welcome!

Cherie: I know. I want a print of that hanging in my office.

Lynda R Young said...

I've read a few steampunks and I'd have to say it's neither utopian or dystopian. Steampunk is a little harder to box. I like what you said about steampunk turning the concepts on their heads.

Jeremy Bates said...

Bad to the bone images for sure. I had never heard of Steampunk but I like it already!

Pk Hrezo said...

I love the way you explain it... makes perfect sense. The oxymoron part is what makes it so fascinating. Can't wait to read your book when it comes out. My CP just wrote a steampunk Camelot tale and did a fab job. I'm gonna send her over to your blog here. I know she'd love it.

Jay Noel said...

Lynda: It is tough to categorize. I think it's still trying to figure itself out.

Jeremy: I'm glad!

Pk: Camelot??? That sounds fantastic!!!!

Kathryn said...

Oh man, those pictures are BA!! Sent here by PK! Hi! *waves*

Jay Noel said...

Hi Kathryn! So nice to meet you. Ms. "Rezzzo" rocks!

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