Can You Write An Historical Story Ignoring War?

Alternate Peace

It’s not exactly insightful to say that historical fiction, alternate history included, is obsessed with war, and there are good reasons for that. War is both common, being able to live through a lifetime without ever directly experiencing combat is a privilege that most of humanity didn’t have, and incredibly dramatic, nations and ideals can fall and rise based on a single gunshot.

But every genre needs variety. If all alternate-history stories are war stories, then the genre can appear, as Arturo Serrano put it, as of only interest to war gamers. All about tanks and bullets with little interest in the cultures and societies that wars defended, formed and destroyed.

This article, while originally written before our panel discussion on “Guns or Butter,” will go out sandwiched on either side by that discussion which was about the question, “What has alternate history lost by focusing on military fiction instead?”

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Re-punking Dieselpunk

The “punk” genres of alternate history can claim both aesthetic and political stances. The “steam-“, “diesel-” and “atomic-” may suggest an historical look and feel; the suffix “punk” references that aesthetic’s historical stance toward power, that is, its political intentions.

All art movements are rooted in the culture and context of their time. When artists forget this, they become privileged, precious, ahistorical, appropriative and/or culturally adrift.

That is why, as a historian, I am not interested in or persuaded by an aesthetic which disavows the political. On the contrary, I would argue that any public-facing art — especially an art situated within the long twentieth century — is either inherently (if implicitly) political, or willfully blind or hypocritical.

I’m also a veteran of the late-1970s punk revolution. To me, “to punk” means to occupy the subaltern, to push back against the dominant, to hack the norms and counter-jam aesthetic presumptions, and — most importantly — to question or subvert the cultural politics and entitlements from which those presumptions emerge.

To “punk” an aesthetic therefore means to read the prefix “steam” or “diesel” or “atomic” against the grain, against the norm; to critique and/or subvert the dominant culture of those periods. This is what the original punk-rock did and what the original cyberpunk did: they turned the dominating aesthetic of 1970s glam-rock and 1950s utopian science fiction on its head.

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The World Set Free

In certain political science (or political shit-posting) circles there is a term “accelerationism”, referring to a belief that the problems of society should not be ameliorated but rather exacerbated in order to cause the collapse of a preexisting social order so that something else may be built on its ashes. The justification for this is simple: anarchy is a blank slate upon which any enterprising political elite can realize their dreams should they put the proper work into it and persuade the right people.

One such form of accelerationism comes forth in the writings of the Argentine Marxist writer J. Posadas, who advocated for nuclear war, which would destroy the capitalist order and, among the ruins, provide a way to build Marx’ classless utopia.

Posadas also believed in the necessity of contacting aliens who, by virtue of their technological advancement, must be more advanced according to Marx’ dialectical theory, a notion which has him painted as a loon by certain political science (or political shit-posting) circles on the internet.

However, he was not the first writer to put forth a similar idea.

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Year Zero in The Man in the High Castle

To the student of history, the premise of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-19, our review here)based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, isn’t easy to accept. The United States, in the real world an industrial titan and the “Arsenal of Democracy”, is defeated in World War II and replaced by two Axis puppet states. The show justifies its alternate history with a favorite dieselpunk trope: Nazi superscience. Specifically, the “Heisenberg device” atomic bomb, which is used to decapitate the American leadership in Washington DC in December 1945.

The “history” of Nazi-ruled America is more credible. Institutions like the FBI neatly fold into the New Order. Former soldiers, like John Smith (Rufus Sewell), join the SS. Jews and other undesirables, including the mentally and physically disabled, are exterminated with little resistance.

One political aspect of the show which was very much on-point came late in Season 3, when (spoilers ahead!) the recently crowned Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler, observes the celebrations of a Jahr Null, or Year Zero, in an alternate 1963.

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Revisiting Nostalgic and Melancholic Steampunk: Correcting the “Varieties of Steampunk Experience”

It’s been a long time since I left the steampunk scene and an even longer time since I should have. Yet as someone who writes a blog on historical film and literature should know, the past is inescapable. Hardly a month goes by when I’m not alerted by aggregators of academic journals — which I use for my offline life as a history and science educator — that my name has popped up in a paper about steampunk. Invariably these papers are referencing a piece I did over a decade ago in SteamPunk Magazine titled “Varieties of Steampunk Experience”.

Unfortunately, every single academic paper I have seen reference my piece has misinterpreted it, and misinterpreted it in almost exactly the same way. 

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Can You Be Right-Wing and Steampunk?

To keep up with all the responses to my “Who Killed Steampunk?” story, I’ve spent more time than usual reading Never WasTwitter feed in the last couple of months. I follow almost everybody Twitter recommends to me, as long as they look or sound relevant to steam- or dieselpunk, and I follow back almost everybody who follows Never Was. So I made no effort to tailor this feed politically.

What I get is half steam- and dieselpunk and half left-wing politics. I don’t see any tweets that suggest they’re from a person who is center-right.

This isn’t new. I asked eight years ago where the steampunk Republicans were. Nor am I the only one who worries steampunk has become an echo chamber. Others who have written on this topic include Professor Elemental and Moriarty Viccar, both of whom are left-wing.

I can think of three possible explanations:

  1. Twitter is left-wing.
  2. Steampunk is left-wing.
  3. Right-of-center steampunks don’t tweet about politics.
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The Gatekeeper’s Scythe

More than two years ago, I caused controversy with the rant “Requiem for Steampunk” in which I outlined what had gone wrong the genre. I wrote in declarative statements that what we call “steampunk” isn’t steampunk anymore by bookending the article with these two paragraphs:

Since it has lost the anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment aspects, “steampunk” is no longer steam “punk.” It’s something else now and I’m not sure what to call it… So either steampunk is dead, it’s dying, or it was never what it should have been and what is now called “steampunk” is a bastardization.

And:

If steampunk — and for that matter, dieselpunk, decopunk and so on — isn’t about flipping society right-side up with a splash of non-conformity and anarchy against the ruling class, we should find another suffix besides ‘punk.

Sandwiched between those statements was the thesis of my argument and how I came to my conclusion that steampunk was in a lot of trouble as a “social movement”.

I have continued to write and talk about the topic, including in a review for The Steampunk Journal and in an appearance on “Radio Retrofuture” with Bonsart Bokel.

So have others. Nick Ottens’ recent “Who Killed Steampunk?” is the latest entry in this debate.

I have come to the conclusion that if only I had written “Gatekeepers Are Killing Steampunk” and made that the title of my rant, I would not have caused so much controversy. I could still have heaped much of the blame for what’s killing steampunk on the people who are trying to control it and make it their own and I wouldn’t be the villain and scoundrel that I am accused of being today. (Although, let’s face it, I actually enjoy the “scoundrel” part.)

I suspect that a more mundane title would have also spared Nick much of the heat he has taken for his article.

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Who Killed Steampunk?

It’s getting harder to maintain that steampunk is just resting. It may not be dead, but it certainly isn’t as alive as it used to be.

I was never big on steampunk events and I’m not into steampunk music, so I can’t speak for those scenes. But when it comes to art, fiction and the online fandom, there has been a noticeable decline.

Type “steampunk” in DeviantArt, filter for “newest” and don’t tell me you’re impressed. The most recent Hollywood production with steampunk elements was probably The Three Musketeers (2011, our review here). Most of the steampunk blogs and forums I used to frequent are either gone or dead.

The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles used to be bustling with activity. Now there are barely a few new posts each day. Our own community, the Smoking Lounge, has seen better days. The Brass Goggles blog hasn’t been updated in six years. The once-lively steampunk community on LiveJournal has withered. Krzysztof Janicz took his English-language Steampunkopedia offline in 2010 (archived PDF here) and his Polish Retrostacja last year. SteamPunk Magazine promised a final edition in 2016 but hasn’t been heard from since. The Steampunk Tribune returned in 2017 after a four-year hiatus but hasn’t been updated in a year. Even The Steampunk Museum, which was founded in part to preserve the memory of the rapidly disappearing online steampunk scene, is inactive.

Exceptions include Kevin Steil, who is still going strong at Airship Ambassador, and Chris Garcia, who still edits Exhibition Hall.

What happened?

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The ‘Punk in Star Wars

Star Wars is the quintessential space opera with fans around the world. Rather than write the nth article about what makes Star Wars such a phenomenon, I am going to talk about how the movies have had an impact on mostly dieselpunk.

Stick around til the end, because your intrepid reporter managed to ask Anthony Daniels, the actor who has portrayed C-3P0 since the beginning of the franchise forty years ago, some questions while he was a guest at Comic Con Brussels. Continue reading “The ‘Punk in Star Wars”

Punk Is Dead. Long Live Steampunk!

I didn’t get into steampunk to be an activist.

What got me hooked was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 2003, then discovering it was based on a graphic novel (which was even better), and then discovering there was an entire genre of this stuff.

I was already into nineteenth-century history and I was into science-fiction. Putting those two together was brilliant.

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