Punking steampunk

Paul Raven @ 28-10-2010

The inevitable high-profile backlash at steampunk’s oversaturation of the cultural Zeitgeist finally arrives (and about time, too). Take it away, Charlie Stross:

It’s not that I actively dislike steampunk […] It’s just that there’s too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it’s in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We’ve been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it’s poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon.

If I was less busy today, I’d spin out a lengthy rant about the inevitability of this sort of cultural shift; it happens all the time in the world of music, for example (and it happens insanely fast nowadays, thanks to music being predominantly a digital domain populated by the young and computer-savvy). But for now, a brief summary:

Subcultural colonialism, in other words, works in very similar ways to the other, older sort of colonialism… though I don’t mean to imply its repercussions are anywhere near as serious. It’s a similarity of process rather than impact, you might say.

Stross goes on to point out that romanticising the Victorian era is a rather odd thing to do, given that it was extraordinarily grim for the vast majority of people. Personally I think that’s a large part of the impulse; I’m reading a rather excellent book on the era at the moment (Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt), and it makes the point that the early phases of the industrial revolution were marked by a wistful yearning for the pastoral/feudal England it had left behind… an England in many ways as mythological and idealised as steampunk’s glossy faux-Victoriana.

Because we know we can never go back, we feel free to reimagine the past as a haven from of the existential horrors of The Now; dreaming about a holiday you can never take is safe, because you can never be disappointed by the reality. Yesterday’s Now isn’t so scary, firstly because its bad sides are almost unimaginable from our current vantage point of Panglossian privilege, and secondly because our very existence implies it was survivable at a civilisational scale – two certainties that The Now doesn’t deliver.

The past is a poster on your bedroom wall. Hi-ho, atemporality.


Zero History, Counter(cyber)culture, Atemporality, Network Realism…

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2010

Way to make me feel out of the loop, folks! Seems like everyone‘s talking about Gibson’s Zero History right now*, and yours truly still hasn’t even gotten around to reading Spook Country. *sigh*

Still, the vicarious thrill of other people’s intellectual appreciation will do for now – here’s Alex Vagenas responding to ZH, and to Adam Greenfield’s own response to such (which we mentioned here a while back):

Leaving all the references and knowingness aside, it can be read, like the rest of Gibson’s work and certainly much of the rest of the cyberpunks, as a lament for a certain counter-cultural ethos. It evinces a nostalgia for something that existed or might still exist in potentia perhaps, not fully achieved, but definitely a romantic idea of some sort of subcultural autonomy. It is a theme that can be traced from Burroughs straight down to Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and Stephenson, via Pynchon of course, and more famously theorised by Hakim Bey. In the past, subcultures were visible and exposed. They became monolithic. The web has provided ways in which subcultures can circumscribe “temporary autonomous zones” for themselves and become more diffuse on certain levels, but they still remain searchable and cannot avoid the inevitability of commodification and co-optation. Zero History describes an even more cryptic form of that, however. Gabriel Hounds is a truly secret brand. It has withdrawn into actual off-the-grid circulation. It looks like Gibson is alluding to an ideal that can be tentatively realised on those terms only.

As much as everyone seems a bit sniffy (in one way or another) about Bruce Sterling’s atemporality riff (including Vagenas, earlier in the piece linked to above), there’s a vindication of sorts in the observable phenomenon that even its detractors end up having to talk about it on its own terms. Vagenas simplifies it down to “old post-modernism in new bottles” (my paraphrase), but po-mo (to me at least) has always implied a knowing and conscious bridging of cultural time; by comparison, atemporality (altermodernism?) is instinctive, unavoidable, something we do almost in spite of ourselves.

And what better way to pretend to ourselves that we’re not doing a particular thing than giving that thing a more palatable name? “Network realism”, maybe [via TechnOcculT]?

Network Realism is writing that is of and about the network. It’s realism because it’s so close to our present reality. A realism that posits an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World. A realtime link. And it’s networked because it lives in a place that’s that’s enabled by, and only recently made possible by, our technological connectedness.

Zero History is Network Realism because of the way that it talks about the world, and the way its knowledge of the world is gathered and disseminated. Gibson seems to be navigating the spider graph of current reality as wikiracing does human knowledge.

What many people—including me—have been bothered about with Zero History is it’s lack of futureness. Matt took Gibson’s comment that “We have too many cards in play to casually erect believable futures” to mean that “Science Fiction is losing the timeline”. Russell is depressed by the lack of future in SciFi and much else. And I wrote, reading the book, “The problem is not that we don’t have jetpacks, but that no one is writing about jetpacks.”

I think these are misreadings of Network Realism. This writing exists on a timeline, but it’s not a simple line back-to-the-past and forward-to-the-future. It’s a gathering-together of many currently possible worldlines, seen from the near-omniscient superposition of the network. The Order Flow of the Universe. Speculative Realism, Networked Fiction: Network Realism.

Even when we quite deliberately stop calling science fiction by its original association-tainted name, even when we slice it up into stylistically and/or thematically disparate (or interrelated) subsubgenres, even when its authors are interviewed in serious newspapers and never once asked about their favourite rocket ships or whether they’ve met an alien… we still can’t agree on what it actually is, or how and why it works, or indeed whether it actually works at all.

And that, I’m increasingly convinced, is the true source of science fiction’s uniqueness and longevity. If we ever manage to define sf in a way that everyone can agree on, it’ll probably ossify and die within months. And you might even argue that it follows logically (in a way that Darwin might recognise) that sf has become interested in atemporality because atemporality is the best survival strategy available to it.

Just don’t ask me which came first, all right? 😉

[ * Yes, including this very blog. Honestly, I don’t plan these things; the Zeitgeist gods of RSS and email and Twitter just dump stuff in my lap every day, and sometimes it just so happens that the batch will contain two or three shiny little nuggets that happen to be the same colour or shape or texture. When it happens, I can’t help but pluck them out, make a set from them. Guess you might call it some sort of… pattern recognition?** ]

[ ** OK, I’ll get my coat. ]


I guess “cavepersons” would be more politically correct…

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2010

… but then if you’re trying to revive diets and lifestyles last lived by human beings in the Paleolithic era, you’re probably not too worried about political correctness, AMIRITE?

I kid you not; the latest lifestyle fad to sweep the hipster set in New York (if two handfuls of people can be fairly described as “sweeping”) is the caveman – chasing bodily vitality by eating and working out like hunter-gatherer protohumans would have done before the invention of agriculture [via MetaFilter; image by cote]:

The caveman lifestyle, in Mr. Durant’s interpretation, involves eating large quantities of meat and then fasting between meals to approximate the lean times that his distant ancestors faced between hunts. Vegetables and fruit are fine, but he avoids foods like bread that were unavailable before the invention of agriculture. Mr. Durant believes the human body evolved for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and his goal is to wean himself off what he sees as many millenniums of bad habits.

These urban cavemen also choose exercise routines focused on sprinting and jumping, to replicate how a prehistoric person might have fled from a mastodon.

One notable New Yorican paleo is Nassim “Black Swan” Taleb, but I suspect even such odd-ball celebrity endorsements are unlikely to popularise a lifestyle that involves eating raw meat, or fasting for 36-hour periods that end in a strenuous workout before your next meal. That said, all it might take to smear it all over the gossip mags is getting some vapid Ashton Kutcher-a-like to try it for a week. Move over, Atkins…

What the paleos seem to be overlooking is that we’ve evolved considerably since the Paleolithic – pre-agricultural man’s body was (if my understanding of anthropology is correct) very different to our more modern meat, albeit in small ways. To truly live like a Paleolithic man, you’d probably need to have your body modified extensively so you could cope with hardships that we’d consider beyond the pale… I wonder how many of the paleos sleep through the New York winter without the benefit of central heating in their loft space, for example?

I’m put in mind of one of my favourite series of sf novels, namely David Zindell’s Requiem for Homo Sapiens, wherein a team of researchers have their bodies retrofitted for the Paleolithic lifestyle in order to seek out ancient spiritual knowledge which may or may not have been hard-coded into humanity by some higher power or another*. By comparison, the paleos in that article are just flirting with the idea… but perhaps, as body modification technology moves beyond simple aesthetic hacks and into the realm of proper re-engineering, people will start revisiting the body-plans and lifestyles of our ancestors more completely, whether for fashion or survival.

[ * That’s a massive oversimplification of one narrative thread of the series, by the way, which drastically short-sells a set of books that I’d recommend without hesitation to anyone who loves a bit of brain-bending high-concept science fiction with added Big Maths and Illuminati references. ]


Harry Potter fandom – the new folklore?

Paul Raven @ 29-01-2009

OK, try getting your head around this one. According to a PhD student in Folklore, the fandom that kids construct around franchises like the Harry Potter series is a global phenomenon which is not (contrary to what many harassed parents might believe) principally driven by official merchandise.

To which your response may well be “so what?” But think about it a little more – if the internet is destined to produce a global culture based more closely on the ritual and oral model ( as some nay-sayers would have us believe) this theory deep-sixes the corollary that said culture will be entirely corporate in nature.

“They weren’t obsessed with having official merchandise,” Small explained. “They were using their imagination and folk traditions combined with popular culture to express who they are.”

Young Harry Potter fans use acting, art and creative writing to express themselves and who they are, and these activities, too, are often a combination of pop culture and folk traditions, Small said.

Granted, this is one small research paper in a maelstrom of branded plastic crapola, but it has a ring of truth to it. Thinking back to my own childhood, sure, I had some Star Wars figures, and I re-enacted plenty of scenes from the films. But when I needed more extras, I drafted in whatever was handy, or made something to suit.

And in a future world where the barriers to creation are lower (think of Second Life, for example, where anyone with the patience and a broadband connection can be an architect), the concept of highly active and productive fandoms becomes a lot more plausible – fandom as genuine motile subculture, no less.

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End featured warring factions of fandom; can anyone think of any other novels that tread into this territory? [via Techdirt]