Genre Cooties

So I go on tour, where I get to see loads of kids who are full of awesome, and who build crazy stuff like this for me:

jeffersonwalker

But then I come home to discover that the internet got stupid while I was gone. And not just regular internet stupid about cats or politics, but stupid about steampunk!

Perhaps the prime example is this post from the normally incisive Charles Stross, surely the most banal thing he’s ever typed. I mean, pointing out that the Victorian era was imperialistic? Racist? Sexist? Had lousy labor laws and no class mobility? Like no one in the steampunk world was considering this?

News flash: the online world of steampunk is constantly engaged in exactly those issues:
Check out
these
articles
for a
start.
(Just added this one.)

Stross then challenges the world to write a “mundane steampunk” novel that would reflect the true nightmarishness of the long 19th century.

Um, we might begin with the book most associated with the current wave of steampunk, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker:

The Blight gas had poisoned the natural systems until the creeks and streams flowed almost yellow with contagion. Even the near-constant patter of rain could not be trusted. The clouds that dropped it may have gusted past the walled up city and absorbed enough toxin to wash skin raw and bleach paint.
But the Blight could be boiled away; it could be filtered and steamed and filtered again. And after seventeen hours of treatment, the water could be safely consumed… But first, it had to be processed. It had to go through the Waterworks facility, where Briar Wilkes and several hundred others spent ten or fifteen hours a day, hooking and unhooking brass cylinders and tanks, and moving them from station to station, filter to filter.

Yes, the current emblematic book of steampunk is totally Dickensian, but no one pays attention to that because it’s got zombies and airships, and therefore must be a madcap lark. Because this whole conversation has been about flap copy, not actual texts.

By the way, I think I’m the first person in this whole internet kerfuffle to quote text from AN ACTUAL STEAMPUNK BOOK. And thus I win.

No wait. I win because the awesome kids who read my books built me a frickin’ Tesla cannon:

teslacannon

Now, agreed, many steampunk cosplayers aren’t engaging with the greater questions inherent in the subgenre. Some even dare to dress up as aristocracy, and inherited titles are a bad thing.

But, dude, in mainline SF the single most popular costume is an imperial stormtrooper. And imperial storm trooping is RATHER MORE BAD than inheriting titles.

Not to go flat out into Sturgeon’s Law mode here, but space opera is a subgenre of which an astonishing percentage is crap, both aesthetically and politically, and which gluts the bookshelves far more than steampunk. But no one will be declaring how much they hate it, because it’s been around long enough that old people aren’t bothered by it.

And yes, this is about YOU being OLD, steampunk-haters. (In spirit, not in years.)

THIS is why I don’t write for adults. Their heads are all full of genre cooties and “Taj Mahal? Nah, don’t like tombs.” Whereas a kid will come home from the library with a mystery, an sf novel, an autobiography, and three books about sharks. That’s how kids read, and when something’s cool and fun and awesome (or weird and gnarly and thought-provoking), they don’t worry about how many times it’s been mentioned on io9, or whether it’s that-genre-Fortnight on Tor.com.

In a word, they’re way cooler than you are. Deal.

And here’s a great story: At the school where they built the contraptions pictured above, a bunch of kids were dressed Edwardian. So at the end of my presentation I asked, “How’re you finding those clothes?” Of course, the middle schoolers hated them, and we went from a few simple observations about clothing to a free-ranging discussion of classism, sexism—the girls hated the clothes a lot—and much more. When you’re doing steampunk right, it’s all there in the details.

Anyway, thanks to all my fans who came out. You’re awesome. Sorry to bore you with this rant, but certain adults needed a Teslashing.

71 thoughts on “Genre Cooties

  1. “THIS is why I don’t write for adults. Their heads are all full of genre cooties and “Taj Mahal? Nah, don’t like tombs.” Whereas a kid will come home from the library with a mystery, an sf novel, an autobiography, and three books about sharks. That’s how kids read,…”

    I love that quote! I’m a young adult and I still do that! Except jewelry making books not shark ones. This is going on my quote wall at home. Gotta say “bravo”, Scott, for speaking out. Sometimes I feel embarrassed wanting to write for a younger audience since I’m in that weird 20s age, but this just reminds me it’s ok. People do it all the time and they help change other people. Thanks a lot, Scott.

  2. Teenagers FTW! Yeah, I come home from the library with a whole bunch of sci-fi stuff and my mom telling me to read schoolbooks >.<

    BTW: Those are some awesome creations ^.^

  3. There’s nothing like reading the occasional righteous, justice-seeking post and feeling like I absolutely agree. Steampunk all the way–and schoolbooks, well, that’s another day.

  4. I had largely the same reaction to Stross’ rant. It was kind of weird… all the things he was complaining about in the Victorian era were certainly true problems; but his criticism of Steampunk was only valid insofar as Steampunk as a “genre” glorifies those problems, which is a rather rediculous accusation to make. It’s been my assertion that those social problems and complexities are what make Steampunk a very potent genre, because it comes with a lot of built-in conflict to explore and build upon. Stross’ problem is that he labors under the belief that if you set a story in an era rife with social problems that you are by default unable to engage with those problems and grapple with those comlexities or provide any meaningful critiques (he’s leveled the same criticism at the Fantasy genre). In fact, it’s just the opposite: you are far better able to engage with those issues when you set your story in an era where those problems were front-and-center than you are otherwise. If we all set our fiction in perfect utopias without social problems or difficulties, they’d be boring and pointless.

  5. TEENS RULE!! And we think you rule because you write incredible stories. And to that we thank you :)

    Anyway, that Telsa Cannon ROCKS!!!

  6. Yeah, everyone’s so excited to bash the 18th century, as if the 19th century were possible without it. Dickens has a lot to answer for. Did he ever take a second to think about the conditions for orphaned children in the SEVENTEENTH century? Before the workhouses and the orphanages existed at all? Only a genius like Dickens could take men and women that took in hundreds and thousands of starving children, gave them a warmer place to sleep and meals to eat, for the scanty compensation of the work of the children they served, and make those people the villains. Before the “hellish” workhouses, those kids just died of starvation. That’s preferable? It’s all of a sudden noble to bash less enlightened cultures, just because they’re your own?

    And what on earth does any of that have to do with steampunk?

    Thanks for bringing an informed opinion to the discussion. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

  7. ‘THIS is why I don’t write for adults.’

    You don’t? Your novels The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds surely seemed like adult-oriented, hard SF. And they were the best Space Opera I’ve read in ages. When you finish your Steampunk series (which is all manner of cool, whether you’re 40+ like me or 12 like my son), I hope you return to that story. You left quite the cliffhanger!

    Not dissing Steampunk, you understand…got a whole shelf dedicated to it. Soon to be two shelves, in all likelyhood.

  8. wow, that tesla cannon was fantabulastic! (is that my word, or did someone else make it up?)

    that was the best rant I’ve read about anything in a long time, and about teenagers and books ever. in fact, is was so good, I’m going to go read it again. then send it to my mom, and my best friend.

    and, to all the grown ups who read like kids, i love you, and you are what reassures me that there is an option other than old-brain-reading-cooties when i grow up.

  9. hahahahahahahahaha TESLA CANNON is flipping amazazing and wowtastic. I’m not just saying that cuz i made it :) (im the girl who looks like she’s getting electrocuted) (not kidding) but yup it was sooooo awesome that u came 2 Jeffersn and it was great just getting to have you come! I’m reading like alllllllllllll your books now (uglies at the current moment) and i keep telling like everybody to read em too. Don’t stop writing mr. scott westerfeld cuz if you do i’ll be a sad lil teenage girl! keep up da gooooood work!!

  10. i’m with J.Z. in hoping that one day you do write for adults again. specifically adults like myself who would love a third book in the succession series. is that a selfish hope to have? i guess it kind of is. i’m sorry.

  11. Great post. One thing I don’t understand about a lot of these steampunk-is-no-good (and some of the how-steampunk-should-be) rants (and similar views expressed about crime novels in my small corner of the planet) is that to be any good a book (comic, movie, whatever) must be political, critical of society, address all injustices (in the case of steampunk, of the 19th century), etc., etc. And of course dark, grim, and full of misery and despair. Huh? What about a good story well told (or something addressing say some philosophical, physiological, … question)? I wonder why I’ve been reading mostly YA stuff lately (and young I am not) …

  12. What a load of dross that first article is….Stross makes so many blanket statements about the steampunk genre; but it seems as though he’s never actually read a genuine steampunk novel. And seriously, you can’t judge a book by its genre. I’ve read sci-fi that is complete garbage before, but that doesn’t mean I give up on the entire genre.
    Did anyone read the article by China Mieville that Stross linked in his blog? She tears apart the Lord of the Rings & Tolkien. Makes me so incredibly sad that someone could’ve missed the point of LotR so completely…

  13. What a load of dross that first article is….Stross makes so many blanket statements about the steampunk genre; but it seems as though he’s never actually read a genuine steampunk novel. Just goes to show that you really can’t judge a book by its genre. I’ve read sci-fi that is complete garbage before, but that doesn’t mean I give up on the entire genre.

    Did anyone read the article by China Mieville that Stross linked in his blog? She tears apart the Lord of the Rings & Tolkien. Makes me so incredibly sad that someone could’ve missed the point of LotR so completely…

  14. On one level, I’m quite happy to read about fictional people who points of view which are different from my own. The purpose behind studying history (and reading fiction, for that matter) shouldn’t be a simple exercise of grading the past as to how well it performs against our modern sensibilities. I’m not saying these periods of history should be idealised, but a capacity to empathise and sympathise with people who are different from ourselves is, well, kinda important.

    People in the past are people, and often their racist/sexist/classist views are quite different from our modern racist/sexist/classist views and they can also be remarkably nuanced. Books that actually explore that are few and far between, as opposed to using the past as a When-Men-Were-Men-and-Women-Were-Women exercise in wish fulfilment, or one in which the past is held up as a straw man for the Enlightened Protagonists to reform with their insightful 21st century morality.

    I suppose I do have some ire for books that seem to feel that women’s work is by nature silly and unimportant. Whilst the past was hardly a feminist utopia, the extremely inhibiting ideas of a women’s job is to do nothing and look pretty is actually only restricted to a very finite period of history and to very specific social classes when it comes to that. And yet time and again, this creeps up in pseudo-medieval fantasy, where background female characters do nothing but “uselessly” embodier (and the one feisty heroine goes off and fights like a man).

    I don’t personally see the heart of steampunk as an idealisation of the Victorian era (though I suppose there is an undercurrent of manners revival the gender politics of which I’m slightly alarmed by). It’s more of a borrowing of the aesthetic (or a perceived aesthetic, after all they didn’t all wear brown), frequently divorced from the original context. Never mind stormtroopers, a gander at how happily we’re throwing Greco-Roman columns around without thought of their associated cultures (and presumably ideologies) should attest to how easily that can be accomplished.

    Sidenote: Much of clothing is much up to what one’s used to (with some crucial exceptions). I hate bras and thongs (staples of modern western women’s clothing), but can happily wear fairly historically accurate corsets.

  15. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker was my first steampunk novel since Jules Verne (yes, I’m almost that old). I too noted the Dickensian feel both inside and outside the Blighted city. Nothing frivolous about that society, while the monstrous machine that started it all was firmly rooted in Verne’s amazing contraptions.

    And, Scott, I’m a huge fan of your kids’ books, like many other folk whose ‘kid’ is all on the inside.

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