An ongoing debate over steampunk’s viability has been underway for some time. In 2013, an IBM algorithm, the Social Sentiment Index, predicted that by 2014 steampunk would become a major force within the retail industry, a dominant influence on clothing, jewelry, and accessories. Well, not so much, as time has shown, except for those dedicated to the steampunk aesthetic who craft, sell, and purchase from a niche inside the overall fashion market. Does this mean, as some assert, that steampunk has failed or is dead? Not at all.
Moriarty Viccar, a contributor to The Steampunk Journal, states that large corporations, including IBM, misunderstand the steampunk ethos:
We’re not shallow, vain or egotistical (well some of us are and in some small doses that’s perfectly acceptable) and to give in to large corporations goes against the punk outlook of anti-establishment, not selling out and the DIY ethic. I wrote an article about how we’re too clever for big businesses. We’re not the sort of people who will queue up for a new Apple phone because we have the common sense to see that it’s identical to the last model. We won’t buy a T-Shirt for $165 just because it has a corset drawn on it (yes, that was a thing) and we’re shrewd enough to know when someone isn’t actually a steampunk but is trying to be one to sell something to us.
Don’t look for Forever 21 to feature a fall steampunk collection. Even if there were such merchandise, genuine steampunk aficionados wouldn’t have it. Instead, they proudly sport gear of their own making or bought at any number of maker faires and science-fiction conventions around the world. Steampunk may have experienced peaks and valleys, but it survives due to avoiding the Establishment.
A healthy output of related literature also provides evidence for steampunk’s continued survival. Any subgenre within science fiction and fantasy runs the risk of becoming “the same old thing” when authors hoping to score mishandle tropes stemming from any vogue. The joke within steampunk is “slap goggles on your character, put him or her in a zeppelin, and Bob’s your uncle.” No, successful art comes from genuine intention, not just the desire to generate bucks. Something about carts before horses . . . my kingdom for that horse? The best steampunk story, then, provides high adventure, a fresh handling of the subgenre’s conventions, and meaning beyond simple narrative.
Enter Josette Dupre, the protagonist of Robyn Bennis’s novel, who finds herself the first female airship captain in Garnia’s Signal Airship Corps. Matters are complicated, however, since Dupre must deal with a crew having no faith in her leadership abilities, and Bernat, a titled dandy with a secret mission to document every misstep Dupre makes hoping to discredit her.
Steampunk conventions applied freshly, airships, and high adventure: check, check, and check. Bennis includes enough technical detail that allows readers to envision how her world’s aircraft technology works, and her battle scenes portray the brutal realities of combat. Deaths often are grisly, not glorious, and the high winds and altitudes would dissuade most from life aboard these open-deck air machines.
Meaning beyond simple narrative: check. If bloody war scenes aren’t enough to illustrate a confounding fog of war that mirrors real-world ambiguities, Bennis adds Swiftian elements to bring home the impact. Why is Garnia at war with Vinzhalia or Branheim . . . not wait that was last year’s war? And then there’s Lord Bernat’s explanation of why Garnia is at with Vinzhalia: “We’re fighting them, sir, because they are a bunch of godless royalists who scheme to take our lands, rape our women, and destroy our very way of life.” How does this differ from Garnian monarchists? “A monarchist governs for the benefit of the commoners, selflessly blessing them with the superior wisdom found in those of noble birth.” Immediately, I think of Lilliput warring against Blefuscu, because Blefuscans break boiled eggs on the smaller ends, especially after Bernat explains how the Garnian god is better than the Vinzhalian god by using an analogy involving shoes. Surely you’d want your enemy’s to wear a better class of shoes, to worship better gods?
Bennis doesn’t insult us with a two-dimensional, “good guy/bad guy” tale. Being excellent steampunkers, she and Dupre challenge the Establishment. Any nobility present here stems from characters who persevere despite not only imminent risk of death and sustained dismemberment, but despite potential disapproval from unworthy, sexist aristocrats as well. That Dupre continues against harsh political and physical realities elevates her to heroic status. War is no empty plot device; it’s a complex and costly burden. Granted, I haven’t read much steampunk, but I’m interested in other offerings that bring this message home in similar fashion.
The Guns Above is the first in Bennis’s Signal Airship series. The privileged and clueless Bernat reminds me of David Weber and John Ringo’s Prince Roger who over the course of three books evolves from spoiled fop into responsible leader. Regardless of his fate, Josette Dupre will remain the true hero. How she will survive war, corrupt lords, and, most frightening of all, her mother issues remains to be seen.