I still find it surprising that steampunk stuck. The name comes from a small joke of almost 25 years ago. I've greatly admired many of the computer mods, but find it weird it's inspired cosplay. (Then again, I find it weird that anything inspires cosplay.)
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Nova Albion Steampunk Convention in Emeryville. (Emeryville is a tiny city on the San Francisco Bay wedged between Berkeley and Oakland.) I don't go to many cons these days; I figure I'm practically obliged to go when one shows up at my doorstep.
More goggles, corsets, and top hats than you could shake a stick at. (Though some of the costumes seemed to edge into the twenties or thirties. Dieselpunk poseurs.) It's like we're verging on a Victorian phyle. I didn't have a costume, but the book I had on me was Great Expectations, so that ought to count for something.
I went to a couple of panels about the nature of Steampunk, and no one mentioned my own pet theory about its popularity.
A little longer ago than Jeter coined "steampunk", Vinge started talking about the Singularity, and Drexler popularized the idea of self-replicating nanomachines and some sf writers were gripped for a while with the idea that they couldn't talk about the far future without dealing with their inevitability. If there hadn't been a singularity or gray goo apocalypse, then why not? And if there has been one, then who do you write about and how?
This produced some interesting fiction by Vinge, Stross, MacLeod and others, as constraints often can. It seems to have become passé by now.
Maybe we have more pressing concerns. The human population is projected to hit 7 billion this year. But if you talk about overpopulation, you're a crank who hates humanity. Our energy infrastructure continues to depend on burning hydrocarbons. We know they'll run out at some point (or, rather, that the energy cost of retrieving them will eventually exceed the yield) and we don't know when that'll be. But if you talk about anticipating it instead of having blind faith that a technological miracle will save us all, you're a luddite crank. Burning hydrocarbons produces CO2, which predictably traps more heat energy in the atmosphere, creating more extreme weather and climatic conditions. Unchecked, it threatens the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect, in which permafrost and clathrates melt, releasing trapped methane, itself a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. But if you talk about conservation, you're a hairshirt-wearing martyr who hates civilization.
In the face of continued denial, it's hard to be optimistic about anything changing for the better anytime soon.
So how do you write about the future without it being another tedious environmental dystopia? How do you write fun high-tech adventure fiction like they did in the forties, and thirties, and all the way down, back to Verne?
You go all the way down, back to Verne. In 1870, when Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the global population was about one and a quarter billion. We hit two billion around 1925. With the number of people in industralized and industrializing nations as low as it was, it doesn't really matter if you fictionalize vastly increased coal consumption for ridiculous steam-powered devices -- there isn't the population density and time for it to have a significant global effect (not to discount local health and pollution consequences from mining and burning that much coal, but that's a different story.)
So you get your
rocketsairships and your robotsclockwork androids and your raygunspneumatic flechette pistols, and keep your mad scientists, and your brave and beautiful heroes and heroines, and your tales of derring-do.
And you don't worry that you're writing about a civilization that's writing a check the world can't cash.
Just like ours.
Title credit: Professor Steamhead.