Monday, January 19, 2009

The Steampunk Anthology, The Mythic Roots Of Science Fiction

The volume that has perhaps most defined the current interest in anachronistic science fiction is Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology. The book has a wonderful breadth of vision, from the funny to the somber, from the fun to the disturbing.
The L.A. Time’s review of Steampunk centered on the books mythic roots: “the mythic, romantic roots of science fiction” and while it is difficult to pinpoint the full aesthetic of such a varied subgenre I think that’s an eloquent beginning.
Jeff VanderMeer was kind enough to answer some questions about the anthology and the subgenre in gereral.

Eric Orchard: Is Steampunk a relevant part of science fiction I think the feeling among some in the science fiction community is that this is just a novelty.

Jeff VanderMeer: As an aesthetic, it’s definitely relevant. As a movement, not so much. I can think of no active authors who self-identify as steampunks. But I do think many writers see steampunk as part of their “toolkit” on an aesthetic level. It’s definitely a relevant part of the wider world, though—in the Maker and crafts movements, it’s huge right now, and that energy may in turn create a “third generation” steampunk movement in fiction.

EO: Do you think that there is any value in a romantic, optimistic view of technology that is sometimes seen in Steampunk? As opposed to the science fiction as critic of technology

JV: Yes, there’s always value in hope, if it’s grounded in something real. The nuts and bolts of steampunk nowadays has to do with DIY and sustainable technology—getting back to a time when you could fix your car yourself. True, any car is an environmental threat, but a lot of people feel powerless when it comes to current technology. Being able to find a way to make technology “accessible” again to people isn’t just romantic and optimistic, it is practical.

EO: Do you see Steampunk as primarily an escapist fiction?

JV: Because I believe it’s as much an approach as a movement, it’s hard to generalize. But if I had to generalize, I would say usually it is escapist right now. My story “Fixing Hanover” in Extraordinary Engines was a specific response to that escapism, and in that sense the story is, ironically, given the current context in which it exist an anti-Steampunk story. But the pendulum will swing around again, because of all the new energy coming from places in Steampunk other than the literature. But in the meantime, I think of Steampunk as New Weird’s slightly naive cousin—the one who could get hit with a 16 ton weight and jump up smiling and whistling.


Trailowner said...

I feel the frustration with uber-technology that Jeff mentions, and my own writing in retrofuturism harks back to that golden age when the complete man was competent in most disciplines. After embracing GPS as a coming tool in surveying, and pioneering its use in some aspects of geophysical exploration (as well as jumping into coding in the c language so that I could manipulate the files produced) I came to realize that the further one immerses oneself in technology the further one separates ones self from humanity – the human qualities of life.

Those whose lives are centred in IT, virtual realities, gaming, abstract theorizing, and other mental games are leading society away from any possibility that we can ever recover a way to educate the young into being complete people again – as many were in the eras we celebrate in steampunk and retrofuturism. These activities are not real. Virtual is a word that applies to all of them.

So yes, I see that writers in these fields are voices in the wilderness calling their fellows back to reality.

Christopher Hoare

Eric Orchard said...

Thanks so much Christopher. I've gotten into huge arguments with people over this issue and many disagree with us. People often insist that we have little control over our own fates as it pertains to technology which has led to a lot of existential despair in SF writing. I think a hopeful attitude is essential in dealing with this issue. We need to find ways to own the technology before it owns us.

Bruce said...

This may be a little off topic, but do you think that people insist that we have no control of our technological fate because they themselves have so eagerly and unquestionably given up said control so freely?

The car analogy is interesting. Not too long ago I was having a discussion with someone about the backyard mechanic being somewhat of a dinosaur. Funny, how that can tie so easily into the sci-fi world.

Eric Orchard said...

I think that's totally the point Bruce. We keep getting more and more distant from our everyday world, our machines are more like blobs of plastic with no indication as to what they actually do and are made to be inscrutable and impenetrable. They are also made to break.

I was discussing the a similar thing with a friend yesterday, how the energy used to store computer information on servers is an invisible energy drain for us because it's so distant. It seems we sometimes foster a comfortable ignorance.

Trailowner said...

I agree with both your sentiments. I’d like to see retrofuturism as a genre that allows society to perceive the pitfalls in leaving everything to higher technology. Of course, a great deal of dystopian SF has trod this path for years, but I’d prefer to travel a more positive route that points up the decisions that have been made (and some that are not decisions but merely inattention) in the directions we take society and champions the social values of the alternatives.

An example if I can be concise enough. Surveyors had always had an obsession with calculating every last factor in their work to arrive at both precision and reliability. I was one of those who resisted using other people’s software (amateurs who were not even surveyors) to calculate with. Brief example being Microsoft’s M Basic, an early tool offered, that had inaccuracy hidden in it by the inadequate code size of mathematical variables.

Then came GPS, and using the system as a differential carrier-phase tool that could produce millimeter accuracies over tens of kilometers. However, no surveyor alone could perform the calculations involved in just one set of files within a lifetime – the software performed thousands of iterations in order to resolve the ambiguities in the data within minutes. And the surveyor had to believe them.

Sure, the software printed out a great many statistical results to assure the user that all computed reliably, and certainly the user could decide which to discard and re-survey, but there were those odd times when results came out as garbage, or files refused to process at all, and all that the surveyor could do was pull out hair. I still use one of the earliest processing suites for the odd calls I get (I’m actually retired) and I still have one old laptop that works in DOS to run it. But the software no longer knows what date it is when it converts the GPS Week/time to calendar – it gaily tells me I’m working in nineteen sixty-something. A simple glitch because of another roll-over of the GPS clock, but how confident should I be in other computations written into the software?

What if the whole world ran on software that had algorithms written in that sat quietly waiting for an unseen parameter change to start acting erratically. Hello Y2K – we‘ve been there once before and were lucky nothing earth-shattering happened. What if the glitch destroyed all the software diagnostics for every mode of transportation we use? As Bruce implied, we can no longer rely on the mechanics who used to be able to repair systems under a shade tree with haywire. Today’s recently qualified mechanics couldn’t even fix the timing on your car with a stroboscope.

Oh for the days of steam, when a judicious rap with the back of a pipewrench could start a balky machine. Just think, one day in the future no one will be able to remember how to fix a super-collider like CERN’s.

jamiegrove said...

I love the reference to the current Maker culture. I also believe that this is one of the key drivers to the current interest in Steampunk.

The romantic angle is also powerful. It's the part of the 19th century that every loves... All that flowing hair and such. :)

Great interview, Eric!

Bruce said...

I would never had thought about the problems in trusting software for GPS surveying (not being a surveyor, myself). That goes to show just how easy it is for technology to pull the wool over our eyes, in a sense. Perhaps it would be a smart move to always teach the basics of any trade, craft, area of expertise, etc. even if the current technology makes it easier for use. In that way, at least we could know how we came to our conclusions and end results.

A few years ago, I had read that the United States is actually a third world country because we have no choice by what's put in front of us as far as technology, products and all of that is concerned. We just use it and don't have any understanding about how it's made and how it works (or if we should be using it at all). Only a very small percent of our population makes the decisions that the rest of us abide by. I don't know if I explained that quite the way I heard it, but that's the gist of it. That always kinda scared me.

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