Dancing to Dirges

Depressing and happy things Tim says, sometimes while drunk

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Better and better and better and utopia (if the current standards apply, of course)

See, I knew that if I delayed writing this it would get stuck in some kind of Zone of Intent, where I keep meaning to get to it but never do. So here it is, almost unchanged, from late last week.


While in Baltimore, we went down to DC one day to the Smithsonian. I used to live in DC, and did the whole Smithsonian thing. But the thing I did most was the Air and Space Museum. We must have gone once a month while I was living there, at least. I love that place. So, since we only had the one day, we of course went to the Air and Space Museum. I haven't been in 22 (my god I'm old) years and I was anxious to see how things were different.

Fundamentally it was the same place. Displays had changed, and things had been updated, and some stuff had been added. Space Ship One, for example, now hangs in the main atrium. That was cool. But what had changed most drastically, obviously, was me. I used to spend a lot of time in the space bit of the museum, there and the jets. And while I still enjoyed those sections, this time around I found myself most pleased by the Early Flight and Golden Age (that's the 20s and 30s) displays. And that got me thinking about Steampunk, and what about it appeals to me over science fiction, and how that relates to my writing. I haven't written a thing in about two weeks, btw, and I'm totally comfortable with that. Kind of. Anyway.

Here's what's unrolled in my head. What's the difference between cyberpunk and steampunk? They're both punk, right? There are some obvious answers, especially the cyber- and the steam-, differences in what powers the technology presented, differences in time period, stuff like that. But, as usual, I think that those are only superficial answers that are endemic of a much deeper difference. Here's the easy roundup: Cyberpunk is about progress. Steampunk is about Progress. Get it? In one the technology is a dehumanizing oppressotron, grinding people into units of consumption until we end up with dystopia or apocalypse or, you know, something equally dreadful and soaked in rain and neon. Steampunk, however, is all about science rampant. Science triumphing over the world, over disease, seizing the earth and reimagining it in the will of man. Nifty, huh?

Seems to be that the current Singularity movement is more similiar to steam than cyber. The whole idea of the Upload is persistently optimistic, a sort of upotia for the unathletic. Reminds me a lot of Postmillenialism.


At 10:51 PM , Blogger José said...

For me, Cyberpunk is about runaway technology controlling and risking dehumanizing humanity, and some humans either opposing or simply surviving the trend. Steampunk is about runaway humanity controlling technology. So I agree it is intrinsically more optimistic, if maybe rosy colored. Going back to those times when Technology was tame and easily understandable.

Of course then some writer comes and makes steamtech as uncontrolled and dehumanizing as anything cyber, but that is why I believe labels are hints rather than facts.

At 1:56 PM , Blogger colin said...

Just to be contrary, I'll take issue with the statement that both cyberpunk and steampunk are "punk". Cyberpunk, generally, was concerned with lowlife, scum of the earth, lying, cheating, alienated criminals. In short, my kind of people. Steampunk is (in my limited experience) not really about that. I think it's a misnomer. steampunk was called steampunk because it was the thing that came after cyberpunk. It should have been called "Steam Opera" or something like that (except that brings a whole new image to mind).

At 2:06 PM , Blogger Tim Akers said...

There are a whole lot of dashpunk genres that really had nothing to do with punks. It just became a convenient catchphrase for the industry. I suppose that part of my post was just verbal spillage.

One thing that's a similiar between the genres (or maybe the sensibilities) is the sense of individual daring attached to the tech. Think about old flight. People building coal-burning gliders in their garages, strapping in and just going for it. Same with cyberpunk, individuals wiring themselves to the gills and just throwing the juice on.

At 7:10 AM , Anonymous RobW said...

That's strange. I was thinking about exactly this after reading the "how weird would people in the past find the present?" thread over at the board, and I'd decided both steam- and cyberpunk seem to be grounded in the same theme of the cultural impact of technology, or, perhaps, of the feedback loop between technology and culture. I see more similarities than differences between the two. Maybe I'm reading the wrong books, but the steampunk - and dashpunk - I've come across doesn't seem necessarily any more optimistic than the cyberpunk I've read is about dehumanisation. But dashpunk does do that thing where you imagine the full potential of an era's science and engineering, which may be where the apparent optimism comes from - or, at least, the optimism of engineers that they can make a thing work, never mind if they should.

Applying "opera" as I would the punk in dashpunk (i.e. as denoting an oppositional subgenre to dashpunk much like humanist SF / space opera was to cyberpunk) I'd be more likely to apply the term to "Flintstones" style steampunk (borrowing from the thread again), the kind that plays the game of putting present day technological artifacts in Victorian times. Thus, people just as they were in the past, but with TVs made of brass. As steampunk becomes, as cyberpunk did, more about a "look", steam opera seems a more appropriate term, but I think the genre originally, and hopefully still, could explore the same questions about the cultural and social impact of technology that cyberpunk did, but moved to a past epoch rather than the "future".

At 7:48 PM , Blogger colin said...

Probably the best books did explore the same ideas. I'm really not that deeply familiar with steampunk.

"One thing that's a similiar between the genres (or maybe the sensibilities) is the sense of individual daring attached to the tech. Think about old flight. People building coal-burning gliders in their garages, strapping in and just going for it. Same with cyberpunk, individuals wiring themselves to the gills and just throwing the juice on."

Again, just to be contrary (don't you love that), I'd say there is a difference between the two images, at least in the raw:

The cyberpunk turning on the juice is associated in my mind with nihilism, the idea that the punk has nothing to loose, so, why not? The steampunk coal-fired go-for-broke individual is imagined (by me) as driven heroic urges, "because it's there" kind of things. So, again, my idea of steampunk is somewhat optimistic, which is not the same as bad, necessarily.

This reminds me why I liked "The Doll": because it gave other interesting motivations to a person doing that inventing thing, e.g. deep, personal grief and a hopeless attempt to bring back that which is lost.


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