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:


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
for a
(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:


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

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. awesome! “a kid will come home from the library with a mystery, an sf novel, an autobiography, and three books about sharks” – I remember those days fondly!

    Also love the expression on the girl on the right-hand side of the tesla cannon!

  2. Scott, you are, as ever, wonderful. As near as I can tell, haters of all genres are all suffering from the same delusion that popular = bad and, moreover, that fun= bad. The silver lining in this equation is that they are not having any funny and not doing anything that interests anyone else.

    Steampunk on, good man.

    – Liz

  3. Great post–those kids are awesome! I agree about genre cooties. I also think there’s an element of “who’s-got-the-most-nerd-cred” competition going on. It’s a nerd-off.

    Though, I have to admit, I didn’t actually read any of the steampunk-bashing rants in question–I’m hoping to start a steampunk-ish project soon and figured it might be a downer. 🙂 I wonder what those guys would have to say about “clockpunk” (a new genre I just learned about, speaking of genres and sub-sub-genres…).

  4. That is so true! And it’s not just steampunk either – the whole scifi genre is being constantly bashed, and practically no one ever says a word! Hello, people, trash is written in EVERY genre, that doesn’t mean nothing thought-provoking, insightful, or just plain cool is written, too!

    Thanks for standing up for lovers of steampunk and speculative fiction in general! 🙂

  5. “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”

    My wife (bless her) still reads like this. And lets me read long passages from your rant and laugh without tsking me even once.

    Great post. Loved it.

    I think this means neither my wife or I ever grew up.

    Keep it up.

  6. I love your books, Scott! Fantastic post – I’ve been a steampunk fan since I stumbled across Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and have been devouring anything and everything I can find on it since (Loved Leviathan!)

    I’m a 34 year old woman and come home with everything and the kitchen sink from the library. YA, Middle Grade, Adult – I read them all.. although the YA/MG tends to be the most fun. =)

  7. 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.

    Actually … I’m pretty sure *I* am the one who wins, if only in dorky blushy aw shucks 🙂 Thanks a million for the shout-out, dude – and reiterations re: previous professions of your continued awesomeness.

  8. Uhhhhhhhhhh…. I think my dream where you were my uncle wasn’t far off… When I just read that I felt as if I were reading my own words…
    Hahahahahahahahahah LOL ROTF!!!!!!!!

  9. I was always under the impression that a lot of the appeal of steampunk was in combining, you know, the attractive Victorian aesthetic (one could call it the ‘steam’) and the modern values (you know, the ‘punk’)… So, like, yeah. Plus, (to engage in a little jacket-copy genre-wide speculation of my own) not all steampunk takes place in the literal 19th century of our world, anyway, even if the genre is visually inspired by it…

  10. Cherie Priest was the only author he mentioned by name, but her work is so clearly dystopian I don’t really understand what he was getting at. I can’t say I’m some sort of Steampunk expert, but I can’t think of any that romanticize Victorian times. It seems to me it really wouldn’t be “punk” is it wasn’t grimy, gritty, and unpleasant… that’s sort of the point.

  11. …a kid will come home from the library with a mystery, an sf novel, an autobiography, and three books about sharks…

    Darned libraries with their kids-can-only-take-out-five-books-at-a-time rule!

  12. Your comment about why you write for kids reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ fanzine article about writing for adults and kids that’s been reprinted here:

    Perhaps the most relevant bit follows.

    From “Two Kinds of Writing?” by Diana Wynne Jones:

    …when I was asked if I’d like to try my hand at an adult novel, I most joyfully agreed. To my great surprise, writing it and after that receiving the comments of an editor revealed all sorts of additional hidden assumptions about the two kinds of writing. Most of these were quite as irrational as the shame of a grown man caught reading teenage fiction. They ran right across the board, too, and affected almost everything: from the length of the book to its style and subject matter. And nearly all of them – this was what disturbed me most – acted to deprive me of the freedom I experience when I write for children. Furthermore, when I thought more deeply about these assumptions, I found they reflected badly on both kinds of writing.

    To take the most obvious first: I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand. They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day and, though they may not make the effort willingly, they at least expect it. In addition, nearly everyone between the ages of nine and fifteen is amazingly good at solving puzzles and following complicated plots – this being the happy result of many hours spent at computer games and watching television. I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.

    This is back-to-front to what one usually assumes, if one only looks on the surface, but I found it went much deeper than that. At first I thought it was my own assumption, based on personal experiences. Once when I was doing a signing, a mother came in with her nine-year-old son and berated me for making The Homeward Bounders so difficult. So I turned to the boy to ask him what he didn’t understand. “Oh, don’t listen to her,” he said. “I understood everything. It was just her that didn’t.” It was clear to both of us that his poor mother had given up using her brain when she read. Likewise, a schoolmaster who was supposed to be interviewing me for a magazine explained to me that he had tried to read Charmed Life and couldn’t understand a word, which meant, he said, that it was much too difficult for children. So he didn’t interview me. He was making the surface assumption, that children need things easy. But since I have never yet come across a child who didn’t understand Charmed Life, it occurred to me that he was making the assumption about himself. But it was a hidden one and, when I came to write for adults, I realized that it was something all adults assumed. I grew very tender of their brains and kept explaining.

    This makes an absurd situation. Here we have books for children, which a host of adults dismiss as puerile, over-easy, and are no such thing; and there we have books for adults, who might be supposed to need something more advanced and difficult, which we have to write as if the readers were simple-minded.

  13. The Tesla cannon is pure awesome. And your rant is perfect. I shall be linking to it in my review of Behemoth (also perfection – Behemoth, not the review) tomorrow.

    I bristled at an interview question once (from a good friend, no less), about whether I might some day attempt to write for adults (I write MG and YA). I replied that I had started out with the difficult stuff. Perhaps when I took it easy in retirement, I might consider writing adult lit. 🙂

    p.s. Steampunk haters: Please find something useful to do. You pick.

  14. I think one of the problems he’s addressing but not thinking about is that, if we put in all this great technology, won’t we have figured out those problems already?

  15. Scott:

    I think the invocation of Sturgeon’s Law is quite relevant in this case, as is the example of storm-trooping, a term which I would like to now see used more often to discuss the problematic of unreflective representations in SF. But I digress.

    Tor’s Fortnight had a number of great articles talking about the ambiguities and problems within steampunk that do not seem to get a lot of consideration. I think those articles add to your argument that there are folks who not just slapping gears onto corsets or something. There are people considering the ideas and history purported to be within the genre more critically, and as more of them produce new works and arguments I think there will be richer stories coming out of the genre. Which should be the whole point: what can writers gain from using the genre framework that will lead to better fiction?

  16. One of the best rants ever. The other thing that those young readers have going for them is a sense of humor, which seems to have been stripped from the sort of adult critics you describe right before they drank the post-structuralist Kool-Aid.

    For me, the beauty of steampunk, science fiction, and fantasy, is that they let readers explore possible alternatives and see how some of these big issues might play out, and maybe make us look at the world a bit differently. For instance, when the British Minister of Finance said that he wanted to turn England into a “nation of auditors,” my first thought was of Terry Pratchett. That’s the last thing England–or any of the world–needs right now. We need more Granny Weatherwaxes and Nanny Oggs and Tiffany Achings.

    I also loved Leviathan and am looking forward to reading Behemoth.

  17. I still read like a kid. My latest haul from the library included a YA novel with a fey premise, the Drawing of the Dark, white papers on wetlands, a biography on Ray Bradbury and the social media bible.

    Thanks for this. The last few things that I have written are more for YA — and your point of why the genre is so appealing makes total sense to me now. I thought maybe I was only writing for my kids…but, it seems larger than that.

    I am looking forward to reading Behemoth.

  18. Bravo! Thank you very much for this. It has given me some points to think about as I construct my own steampunk style novel.

    BTW, I am 39 years old. And my reading habits follow the same curve as the kids you mentioned above. My Dad chastised me years ago for digging into fantasy and comic books. Told me to read history. I did. I read both, and loved both.

    This is where steampunk comes from.

  19. Thank you thank you thank you.

    It’s been tough seeing people I otherwise respect stomping all over my fun. (steampunk has started me sewing again, which I hadn’t done in ages…)

    And you’re right. You win.

  20. Scott, I love you.
    It makes me sad when people bash ANY genre. Because the thing is, books AREN’T their genres… they’re individual books. And you can’t judge a book by it’s genre.

  21. First: The Tesla Cannon and StormWalker are flipping amazing… and made of common items!!!!! Second: Steampunk is AMAZING. People are just acting to stupid to see that. Their opinions are mutilated by the fact that they think old things cannot be new. If people stop to look, they’ll find they DO SECRETLY AND UNKNOWINGLY love Steampunk things. For example, the movie Avatar with the blue peoples is Steampunk in it’s own way, it’s basically pieces of hsitory re-written to fit the future and given a different ending. Not completely Steampunk… but if you look at it write… So… I guess I’m saying that Steampunk is barking awesome and people should stop dissing it, because it is WRONG to dis such amazing stuff.

  22. Just wanting to pipe in, there is a magazine that had magical attire such as merlin capes and such. it had dragon things and witch spell books. Now, it also includes steampunk attire. I’m not sure what to think. I might have to find the name of this magazine and post again.

    Thoughts anyone?

  23. “a kid will come home from the library with a mystery, an sf novel, an autobiography, and three books about sharks”

    Wait, I STILL read like that!

  24. Thank you, sir!

    I’ll be buying some of your books tomorrow. I’d been planning to soon, since I attended Ay-Leen’s reading of Behemoth, but this has inspired me to do it asap.

  25. Funny you mention “writing for kids.” I’m not necessarily a kid (at least, not according to my birth date) but I tend toward YA because of cool topics like this. But if the same thing was presented in an adult book, it would be horribly dull. I guess there are different standards, even for us adults-who-pretend-to-be-teens. And yes, I did become more interested in the WWI era after reading Leviathan. At least, I understood it better (curse you, high school history class).

    So yeah, there are still adults out there that say, “that book was awesome!” and spend four hours on wikipedia researching the history surrounding it.

  26. It’s doubly ironic that Charles Stross took umbridge against the Tor steampunk fortnight when it its very first post by author Stephen Hunt over at, Hunt said:

    “Steampunk isn’t true Victoriana. It’s not five-year-olds crying as they were shoved starving up chimneys; it’s not having to have seven children so you can watch five of them die from pandemics before the age of ten. It’s not a decade of pain from a crumbling tooth because you’re living in an age where cutting-edge dentistry means a long swig of whisky and a short pair of pliers.”

    Then Stross jumps in and starts parroting all the points above. Talk about not reading the texts, only the jackets.


  27. Thanks, Scott. I think this is why I find myself reading more and more YA fiction; there’s a freedom there to cross genre lines and to have fun. The adult books I have enjoyed the most recently have had similar attributes (and all at least some element of steampunk), including Gail Carriger’s trilogy (beginning with Soulless), Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books of course, Zoë Archer’s The Blades of the Rose series, and Meljean Brook’s fabulous The Iron Duke. None of them fit Stross’ complaints, that I can see.

  28. Don’t worry Scott. Your rant was very interesting. And I agree. The part about what kids check out of the library is especially true. Except for my sister who refuses to read anything except fantasy. I will read any genre. In 2nd grade my big thing was biographies from the adult section on Queen Elizabeth I. Now it’s sci-fi and Agatha Christies.

    I am a girl and personally love Edwardian clothes. I am being Barlow for Halloween next year and am only disappointed that I didn’t think of it in time for this year.

    But anyway, I am dressed up as Barlow right now. and may send you some pictures because it is pretty fool. Another thing I need to send you is my amazingful(full of amazing) picture which I have named…A Beef Flavored Loris is Hanging onto a Huxley while Alek Shoots it down from his Walker and A Giant Barlow Head Floats in the Air Drinking Loris Flavored Tea BOOOM!

    It’s a pretty amazing title if I do say so myself. I just need to figure out how to use a stupid scanner. GRRRR. Curse my computer-challenged brain!

  29. The cover of Behemoth is possibly the worst cover ever to be put on a book. I was about to decide not to buy the book. When I got the book I literally tore the cover off the book and shredded it. It is the worst designed cover ever!!!!! The cover of Leviathan was quite clever but Behemoth is an epic fail, along with the paperback version of Leviathan!! The English cover of Behemoth is much better. Please don’t put a face on the cover of the final book, it ruins it completely.
    Mr. Upset

  30. Oh, thank you. I ranted about this same stupid mess (including Stross’s post) just the other day. I don’t know what planet you are living on if you think Cherie ignores the downside of the Victorian era. Hell, even Gail Carriger and Meljean Brook (who include romance in their stories) delve deeply into the racism of the period, not to mention pollution, poverty, etc.

    Is it just that folks who enjoy steampunk are having too much fun and thus they must be stopped? Is that it?

    Bah. I’m writing about steampunk (including Cherie’s latest – DREADNOUGHT) in my Jan Bookslut column. I am so over genre wars, it’s not even funny.

  31. beef flavored loris: Yes! Cosplay is just as fun as fan art, so send some pics.

    Tali: I’ve gone to NJ a few times! I was at Books, Bytes, and Beyond in Glen Rock on this tour!

  32. Actually my group of friends just made an airship/steampunk/cosplay group. We don’t even have costumes designed (or characters for that matter) and yet one of the first questions was “Ok, how do we incorporate imperialism?”.

  33. Amen to that! I’m so glad to finally see an adult that understands how teenage minds work! Takes guts to stand up for what you believe in. Steampunk’s awesome <3

  34. So, uh, Scott-la… I just came back from a Cassandra Clare/Holly Black signing. Not only was it awesome, I learned something interesting…

    Really? You won the vote for ‘Worst Juvenilia’ ? (I most likely spelled that wrong.)

    But I don’t know… (was it zombies?) crime fighting in space sounds pretty bubbly, to me…

  35. Wow…that had a bit of pashion behind it.
    So…like the stupid AP student I am I read both articules….and the other one annoyed me to no end.
    When he was talking about Steampunk as a fashion trend I kept thinking that I rarely see it in the real world, and even at anime conventions it is just starting to finally take root.
    Also when he was talking about historical stuff I just kept thinking of your books, granted that it’s a bit ahead of the time he was refering to, but still there’s alot of the things he mentioned in your books.
    Expecially sexism (Alek D:)

    (I’m totally sending this article to my Steampunk group, just so that way they can also be enriched ^_^)

  36. I wrote my own response to that whole thing here after a runin with Charlie about this: I confess that I didn’t post an excerpt from a steampunk book, but I posted a photo from “Master of the World”. Does that count as a first too?

    Finally, I wish I had thought to ask Charlie if women who like Jane Austen and dressing up in Regency style really wish they could live in an era where, among other things, they couldn’t inherit because it had to go to the kid with testicles.

  37. Holy mac-and-cheese?? Uhhhhhh……
    Ahhhhhhhhhh I love reading your books over and over again!!!
    Mwahahahahahahahahaahahahahaha!!!!!! <3 <3 <3

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