When I set out to blog this year’s Hugo shortlisted novels, I imagined something conventional like a separate post on each book. For the first two books I was able to stick to that modest ambition, but the next three I read set off such resonances and cross-currents that I felt I had to read each in relation to the other two. Hence this composite post on The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson. (At first I assumed that such a compare and contrast would not preclude individual posts on any or all of these three novels; until the thing started getting out of hand. Now I think the thing has grown so cumbersome that I’ll have to post it in instalments.)
They are all novels that explore, in one form or another, the decline of America. This is not so unusual, these days, but once it was. Before 1984, the future was American. Even when science fiction headed out to the most distant corners of the galaxy, we encountered Americanised planets or we carried American values victoriously with us. If the novel was restricted to Earth, then even a global government was liable to be aspects of America (social, cultural, racial, sexual, political) writ large.
One reason for this is the overwhelming influence of John W. Campbell’s chauvinistic approach to the genre. From the late 1930s, Campbell, as editor of the highest paying and best selling magazine in the genre, insisted on the competent man (never woman) as hero, and that human ingenuity must be able to overcome anything that the universe might throw at it. Even the great editors who emerged in the 1950s as rivals to Campbell (Cele Goldsmith, Frederik Pohl) maintained many of his attitudes. So it wasn’t really until the new wave of the 60s that there was any challenge to the Cambellian world view, but the challenge (at least in the American new wave, which was distinctly different in tone and affect from the British new wave) was more social and stylistic. American dominance was still there, unquestioned, in the background of most of the science fiction of the time.
Actually I think Campbellian chauvinism was only an aspect of a far greater influence, which was America’s self regard and self confidence throughout the post-war period. The USA emerged from the Second World War in a far stronger position than any of its potential economic rivals, it was creating the consumer goods that were revolutionizing domestic life, it was the great military power. How could you look into the future and not see America marching ever onwards in glory?
Oh there were disasters in American science fiction, but they were invariably sudden, abrupt, and usually nuclear. We either see America struggling towards oblivion (with the implication that the rest of the world, never seen, is in even worse shape); or we see heroic survivors working towards the eventual restoration of American values. There are also stories of America defeated, often as a result of treachery or by overwhelming alien forces; but such stories generally set the scene for heroic American resistance to prove that the invaders are unfit to rule because of their political, religious or racial characteristics. As Campbell believed, white, male, Christian Americans could defeat anything the universe might throw at them.
Some questioning of the assumption of American cultural dominance began to appear in works such as Dhalgren (1975) by Samuel R. Delany and “Seven American Nights” (1978) by Gene Wolfe, but it was William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) that, for practically the first time, presented an America that was in the process of decline. There is an economic rival in the shape of Japan, and US cities have become the Sprawl, the natural habitat of an underclass of grifters and beggars, of the poor and the defeated. You’d found such an underclass in American crime fiction for decades, but not so much in American science fiction. This vision of an America in decline became a commonplace not only of cyberpunk, but of a lot of the other science fictions written since then. Over the last twenty years in particular it seems to have become harder to see America in a dominant position, politically, militarily, socially or culturally. And Bacigalupi, Priest and Wilson each take this sense of decline as the underpinning for their novels.
Each takes the topic in a very different way, but the overlaps interest me. Bacigalupi and Wilson both set their work in the future but employ old-fashioned technology; Wilson and Priest both use the American Civil War as their touchstone for decline; Priest and Bacigalupi both take the cause of decline as morally neutral but put the moral weight of their stories on the people coping with decline.
Let us start by considering steampunk. Steampunk has become inescapable lately and I am still struggling to understand why. It shares a history with cyberpunk, first emerging at roughly the same time in works like The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers and Homunculus (1986) by James Blaylock and overlapping in The Difference Engine (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Actually, I suspect it was only the coincidence of cyberpunk that turned steampunk into a perceived movement with its own name (coined by K.W. Jeter). The Anubis Gates in particular was an excellent novel, but this handful of books weren’t really doing anything that other sf writers had not been doing off and on for years. Consider, for instance, Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts, A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1973) by Harry Harrison or ‘Catch That Zeppelin’ (1975) by Fritz Leiber, each of which gave a twist to old-fashioned technologies. But Powers, Blaylock and Jeter were friends, so it was easy to turn them into a movement, a sort of retro-cyberpunk. Except that cyberpunk flourished and died and was reborn in the posthumanity fiction we’ve seen from the likes of Greg Egan and Charles Stross; but steampunk lay fallow for a couple of decades until it re-emerged in the new century.
The revenant steampunk, perhaps inspired by Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) (which was, of course, itself inspired by the postmodern habit of mashing-up other fictions) has tended to borrow Victorian and Edwardian fictional characters as much as they have borrowed the technology of the era. So there is a late-postmodernist element to this trend, though most contemporary steampunk I’ve read tends to go for a middle of the road literary style and eschews conscious literary experimentalism, so I’m not sure how much this is a factor. There is the attraction of steam (think how many people are involved in keeping alive steam railways across the UK), it does after all give machinery the semblance of breathing life. But if that were reason enough for this literary trend, then steampunk would have been a major literary movement for the last couple of hundred years. If, however, we contrast the human scale of steam technology with the posthuman scale of digital technology, a visible, graspable, clearly understandable machinery of pistons and levers with an invisible, super-fast, mystifying machinery of bytes and information, then maybe we are on to something. Steampunk represents a decline from the modern, but a decline to something comforting in scale and appearance; a decline from a fractured, computer-controlled society, but a decline to a more ordered, hierarchical social order. Sometimes we want to step away from tomorrow, and steampunk gives us a way to do so that can convincingly claim that it is not anti-technology, but that is rather stylish and fashionable.
And fashion does, of course, have a lot to do with it. The technology that affects most of us most closely and most consistently is transport, what marks the true beginning of the technological age is the ability to travel further, faster, without reliance on human or animal muscle. The obvious icon of steam technology, therefore, is the steam train, which is a feature of any number of steampunk works, from China Miéville’s Iron Council (2004) to Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. But a steam train is a little bit too obvious, steampunk (like all of the fantastic) wants to suggest difference, so the solution is to go for another technology from a slightly later era, a technology that in fact did not work, but hey, this is fantasy, so we can of course pretend that it does. That technology is the dirigible or airship, which has become the obligatory fashion accessory of any self-respecting contemporary steampunk. Just look at the number of book covers that feature an airship as the convenient way of signaling: this is steampunk.
I am far from being a regular reader of steampunk (I have very little interest in such literary fashions), but this April alone I read three novels that employed dirigibles: Pinion (2010) by Jay Lake, Terminal World (2010) by Alastair Reynolds and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. You can’t get away from the damned things. They are romantic, of course, and steampunk is nothing if not a very romantic mode; they are vulnerable (how could a big bag of gas be anything but a perilous means of transport) which makes them a handy device whenever you want high drama, and steampunk is a highly melodramatic mode; and they are a good way of traveling long distances if you don’t want to invent something as sensible as, say, an aeroplane, and since steampunk authors come from a culture where you don’t have to think too much about traveling intercontinental distances, this is a simple way of inserting their modern world view into their old fashioned world.