Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Steamed at this Punk

Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines is one of the best young adult novels I've read. So I'm really disappointed in his recent blog post, "The Stink of Steampunk," where he bags on all the writers jumping on the steampunk bandwagon, while admitting that pretty much everything he's ever written utilizes the same tropes. He claims that his own work is exempt from his criticism on the grounds that it uses a non-Victorian setting and mixes in other elements amid the tropes. Oh, and is well done. Then he is snide about Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, despite the fact that that too uses a non-Victorian setting and mixes in other elements. Of her, he says, "As if the authors can already scent the whiff of decay rising from their chosen genre some recent books have started throwing in elements from other mini-ghettoes; Cherie Priest's Boneshaker added zombies to the mix, and is highly regarded by people who don't seem to care that it is itself a kind of literary zombie." This in the same paragraph wherein he says, "I'm not singling out any particular books or individual authors when I say this." Right.

To be fair, I do take his point about the greater potential of SF. He says, "What I used to love about Science Fiction as a teenager was the way that, when you picked up one of those yellow Gollancz SF titles at the library, you had no idea where it would take you; it might be to some dazzling technological future or post-apocalyptic wasteland; it might be to another planet; or it might all be set in the present, just around the corner. But when you pick up a Steampunk book you know pretty much exactly where you're going."

That he says all this below a website banner that has him posed with a cup of tea and an umbrella in front of an airship and a row of Victorian style houses atop a big, hulking city on treads is just laughable. I can't think of a clearer case of "do as I say, not as I do." Dude, you might want to put the brolly down before you bag on Victoriana.

More to the point, steampunk has already begun to evolve outside its confines in exactly the way he says his own work does. As well as the aforementioned Priest, we have works like George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan, not so much steampunk as an American 1920s that has evolved out of it's 1890s steampunk past, or Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold, which sees the rise of technology in a fantasy setting.

But there will always be time-travel novels, outer space novels, vampire novels, parallel world novels, apocalyptic novels, and yes, steampunk novels. We work inside a genre that has established conventions and tropes. That's what a genre is. Personally, it's my believe that there are no good or bad tropes, simply varying degrees of skill on the part of the writer utilizing them. And steampunk wouldn't be popular now if it weren't popular now (duh! But think about that) and crying that other people are playing in your sandbox is dangerously close to telling readers that they shouldn't like what they like and you know better about what they do or should enjoy than they do. Reeve has a perfect right not to write any more steampunk himself if he's grown tired of it, but he shouldn't denigrate those who still chose to write - or read it. And when he complains about being swept up in a movement, he comes dangerously close to sounding like he's whining that he's managed to connect with a readership who like the sort of things he does. Don't tell us we're zombies for liking what we like. That's insulting to us all, readers and writers.

And that's what has me steamed.

Update: June 17, 2010 - Reeve's post seems to have been taken down. Meanwhile, it looks like Reeve and I agree on something, which is that we both think Paolo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker is genius.

22 comments:

Christian Berntsen said...

I haven't read his post yet, but when I hit the link and popped over to his site, the title of his blog kind of said it all: "The curious world of Phillip Reeve..."

critter42 said...

This is why Marvel Comics was so popular - it understood this, and not only didn't look down on the readers and their tastes, but ENCOURAGED it.

In the 70s and 80s if you were a fan of Marvel Comics you were a Marvel Zombie and PROUD of it! So what if everyone else was - it was good, you liked it, big deal!

Mad Hatter Review said...

I couldn't believe the audacity. Especially the shot at Priest. The Steampunk genre is only now coming to its own and evolving beyond what came before, which is exactly what should be happening. Look at Tim Akers's Heart of Veridon mixing in the crime genre or Shweta Narayan beautiful clockwork bird shorts or how silly yet proper Gail Carriger's Alexia Tarabotti is. They are all making Steampunk everything it can be and everything they want it to be. Sure all of it won't be wonderful, but what genre can say every book is perfect? To call it out like this is just inane.

Lou Anders said...

I think it is fine for individual authors to say they don't personally enjoy a subgenre or feel they personally should work in it. But to make sweeping statements about the quality of entire subgenres and denigrate those who write in them... I have no plans to be a Harlequin Romance author, but I'm not going to call women who read romances stupid. And I certainly wouldn't if I wrote them too!

Lou Anders said...

Doh! Can't believe I left Akers out!

Rene Sears said...

I also take umbrage at the tired charge, which is often levied against fantasy at well, that SF is the literature of the future, and anything that plays with the past is inherently of no value. Scifi is the literature of the present, using the lens of the future to look at what affects us today. If you can look at the Victorian era-a time of changing technology and shifting social mores- and say that that's not a valid lens for looking at today, then you are not looking closely enough.

I felt the entire article had a vibe of "I liked that when it was cool, but now that other people like it, they're sell-outs."

And, you know,what you said. Glad you wrote this, because I was grumpy when I read it as well.

JP said...

Didn't Reeve write the LARKLIGHT series? Which is Victorian era steampunk, in space, and is all kinds of awesome.

Yes, yes he did.

Lou Anders said...

Rene,
you have nailed it. When I was a kid, I lived in Indie record stores, and I only liked bands before they broke. Once they had a hit CD, I moved on.

As I say, when I was a kid...

When I grew up, I put away childish things, including the idea that I should begrudge those with talent their success.

Marc said...

At some point can I suggest we take a time out of all this heated non-argument and work out how many Victorian-set steampunk books/authors there actually are? Because frankly, as far as I can count, there are still bugger all, even two decades after The Difference Engine and Morlock Night.

Reacting to an excessive swathe of "Woo! Steampunk!" media articles is one thing, but let's not kick off about a non-existent torrent of cookie cutter steampunk novels.

Marco @ Angry Robot

darkcargo said...

Thanks for this response. Reeve's comments are unprofessional. He's entitled to his opinion, but if that's an example of his writing, well, I've got better places to spend my money than on his books.

Lou Anders said...

Marco, there are more than you count, and this "non argument" is really not about steampunk so much as my ire at his mean-spirited hypocrisy. If he didn't write it himself while denigrating others, I wouldn't be upset by his stating an opinion one way or the other.

Darkcargo - I enjoyed Mortal Engines very, very much.

andrewmayer said...

The funny thing about genres is that always they start out with a success.

And once a new genre takes hold, it's often a hard transition for the pioneers. Not only are other people going to play in their sandbox, they may even turn it into a playground.

It took Steampunk 20 years to gain a foothold and grow. The idea that it's not worth doing anymore because it actually has some (gasp!) tropes that define it, is more than a bit ridiculous.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Lou,

The Reeves piece is "no longer available". Either too many hits or, more likely, he is "reconsidering" his opinion.

Scott Marlowe said...

It seems the post is gone. I guess he got cold feet.

Lou Anders said...

Again, I like Mortal Instruments very much. Hopefully, he realized he sounded like a dick and is making amends. Or his agent/publisher/publicist realized for him.

redrichie said...

It was an odd article, yes. I can't say that I've noticed a particular deluge of steampunk. Of what there is, I'm sure that the quality varies, but big deal!

I also recommend Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion. It is *sort* of Steampunky (though that's not the most striking thing about it).

It's a good stab at a Steampunked version of The Tempest. And Palmer writes well.

(Although I have to admit the first thing that I noticed about it when it popped up on my Amazon recommends was that I share a surname with the author. *cough*)

GateTree said...

I could not believe the audacity and hypocrisy when I read that yesterday. Taking it down is damage control, but how does a professional writer (who is not Harlan Ellison) compose something like that, re-read it, and still think it's a good idea to post it?

Lou Anders said...

Yes, it was the hypocrisy, not the sentiment, that set me off.

rsdevin said...

The Internet never forgets. Found his blog post using Google's cache, and then saved that snippet of hypocrisy to my Evernote account for all eternity. Tsk-tsk, Mr. Reeves.

Caitlin Kittredge said...

Even Reeve's argument is tired and antique--"Genre tropes are for losers and feebs, are boring and bah! You kids with your dirigibles/vampires/Da Vinci codes get off my lawn!" has be leveled at everything from pulp to SF to urban fantasy, going back long before Mr. Reeve was drawing air.

As a "nontraditional" steampunk author myself, thanks for the sanity check.

tltrent said...

I was so very sad and shocked to see that diatribe about current steampunk from an author whose works I truly adore. I think I understand a little of the argument he's trying to make from a *very* theoretical literary angle, but the potshots at other writers and the "do as i say, not as i do" mentality are truly off-putting and unprofessional. Personally, as yet another non-trad steampunk writer, I'd like to think that there's room for everyone and am deeply encouraged by the enthusiasm that readers and the steampunk community have shown for the work many of us are producing. I almost feel sorry for Reeve now--he's probably lost many readers who would otherwise have truly enjoyed his wonderful work.

mcjibbin said...

I think this has more to do with the "punk" element of steampunk. Punks have always strived for originality and uniqueness - going out of our way to be different from the masses. This is certainly a quality to be admired, however sometimes with individuality, comes superiority.

To relate this to the Punk music scene, this reminds me of a Blink-182 situation. When Blink-182 first started out, they were a DIY punk band, not caring if others liked their music, as long as they were able to express themselves freely. After the band joined a major label, became enormously arena-rock famous, and eventually broke up, one of the original songwriters basically said he always thought of the band as a joke, their music was silly and he was no longer proud of it. It was as if he had become too cool for his own music, because it wasn't "punk" anymore. Blink-182 had become a household name, so it no longer held any of the alluring qualities of individuality or exclusivity. This has always been an issue of great debate in the punk music scene - this fleeting immeasurable quality called "punk" - who has it, who lost it, etc.

Because of Punk's grass-root's, DIY, anti=establishment ideals, the mere idea of growth, development, or improvement becomes gravely overshadowed by this malignant idea of selling-out.

Steampunk must steer clear of the hate and embrace growth and improvement. Let us encourage one another for pursuing our own ideas and growing as a whole, and leave the petty ribbing, superiority and patronization for the hallways of your local high school. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to be progressive, and at the same time progress.