Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Goggles Do Nothing — Crooked Timber

On Steampunk:
Hence, the initial impetus of ‘steampunk’ was in large part an effort to recapture this sense of social inquiry, bridging the gap between nineteenth century inquiries and our own. Here, I am not referring to K.W. Jeter and others who were using Victorian tropes, but to the two books which really brought steampunk to a wider audience – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Both of these are unabashed exercises in sociological speculation, which use nineteenth century forms to explore modern anxieties. Gibson and Sterling’s book is indeed arguably a Singularity novel as well as steampunk – but the singularity is the emergence of an unusually baroque form of the ‘vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, “the coldest of all cold monsters,”’ that Cosma is talking about.
The difference between what say, Sterling and Gibson wanted to do (and what Stross wants), and what Priest is doing, is perfectly clear. Sterling and Gibson wanted to use Victorian technologies as a set of metaphorical tools to explore social change. Priest wants to use class struggle, exploitation, war and all that blah-blah-blah as a means of justifying cool-sounding Victorian technologies. A long war allows her to justify the inclusion of fun-sounding “tanks and crawling machines and elaborate guns” in her novel. A Dickensian factory allows her to have a heroine who wears goggles (she needs them to do her work). But the point of interest for Priest isn’t the war, or the class struggle, or the Dickensian factory conditions. It’s the zeppelins and digging machines, and the funky-looking goggles. The former provide a patina of sociological plausibility for the latter.