The ins and outs of science fiction/fantasy fandom don't really interest me that much, simply because I cannot invest in them. There is no time for me to, say, go to a meeting for Joss Whedon fans and see what's new in the world of nerddom. Thus, I am usually thrown for a loop whenever I go to a con and see what is in that year. Usually, it doesn't interest me in the slightest. For instance, the paranormal romance genre has been huge for years. Badass chicks, their vampire boyfriends and werewolf exes, that kind of thing. Can't get into it. The urban fantasy I like is more akin to China Mieville, whose work is nothing like the average stuff you see shilled at cons (thank God).
The steampunk thing is big now. I saw all these people at Balticon last year dressed as "clockwork wenches" and "airship captains." Didn't think much of it, beyond mild irritation. Con attendees like to latch onto these fads (like the aforementioned paranormal romance) and drive them into the ground. It gives me the impression that the crowd is not really there to celebrate the great breadth that genre literature offers, but merely to indulge in these very niche fads. Again, it caused only mild irritation.
I don't know much about steampunk, i.e. the retro-future genre that presents advanced technology through the use of steampower (something that pretty much died after electricity was harnessed). A major component is the use of anachronistic tech. While steampunk has been used in shows like Wild West West, it's primarily a Victorian England-based genre, and I can see why people like it, because it enables them to dress in really fancy costumes. There's also an element of fun in creating the anachronisms steampunk presents. For my part, I really liked The Adventures of Brisco County Junior TV show, Chris Bachalo's Steampunk comic series from the 1990s and Katsuhiro Otomo's gorgeously mindless movie Steamboy. Seeing modern technology as filtered through the 19th century has a fun appeal, and I enjoyed the aforementioned properties with the same detachment I would for any genre that has produced no great works of art.
So it was interesting to find that there are people who hate steampunk.
Or rather, hate the adoration it has in fandom, with countless books being churned out about Victorian ladies with clockwork heart transplants and gear-driven cyborgs. Catherynne Valente did a wonderful trashing of the genre in a blog post last year, in which she points out the heavy colonialist undercurrents. I agree that watching a bunch of fanboys walk around dressed as the men who massacred the Zulus is disconcerting. Fuck the British Empire. Between sucking India dry, turning Africa into the mess it is today, murdering the Chinese because they refused to smoke opium, and sentencing their own poor to some of the worst working conditions human beings ever had to suffer, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger bunch of tyrants than Queen Victoria and her multitudinous spawn. According to Valente, this whole fad speaks to an interest in a "simpler time" with "nobles" and "ladies". In other words, the same kind of Eurocentric revisionist nonsense that led to the fantasy genre portraying the Dark Ages as a bucolic idyll, and championing monarchy, the worst form of government ever devised. Valente also hates the genre because it inspires lazy writing, the same as paranormal romance does.
And she's not the only one who has spoken out against it. These complaints seem to come primarily from the WisCon types, reflecting the changing face of genre from its notoriously white male dominated history. Half a century ago, Tolkien released Lord of the Rings, one of literature's great monarchist works. The entire trilogy is a paean to the glories of hereditary privilege. The thing was, at the time, there was nobody to point out to him how backwards this thinking was. There was nobody to emphasize why the Windsors, descendants of absolute monarchs, had become a ceremonial bunch of tax-wasters. Nobody raised a stink about the dubious politics.
Lord of the Rings is what it is. I don't like the trilogy more for its meandering plot and paper-thin characters than anything else; Tolkien was a man of his time, and his politics reflect this. However, he started an avalanche in fantasy fiction that lasted until, well, it never ended, with princes and princesses defending their lands against ravening dark-skinned hordes, while protecting the traditional heirarchy. The hero has to marry a princess, because God forbid he marry a regular woman. Farmboys ascend to the throne, as if there's anything wrong with being a farmer. Fantasy is still rife with monarchist work because no one ever challenged the godfather of fantasy during its nascent phase.
With this in mind, I find it pretty amazing that somebody will raise a stink when they see a cosplayer wearing a pith helmet. For so many years, no one challenged the fetishizing of monarchy; now, people will challenge the fetishizing of colonialism. It means that the discourse in fandom has truly expanded to include marginalized people. Keep in mind, steampunk is a kind of historical fantasy. The seminal work of historical fantasy is a book where the South wins the Civil War. I don't know if your average steampunk nerd desires genocide anymore than I know if Harry Turtledove thinks slavery is a good thing, but hell yeah somebody should point out the oppression inherent in that.
I don't think steampunk is unsalvageable. Michael Moorcock wrote plenty of steampunk works which did not celebrate colonialism. A friend of mine is the founder of Steampunk Magazine, and he's a card-carrying anarchist, as are many others I know who like that aesthetic. Their interest seems to stem from a desire for a more rugged time; not a primativist world, but a pre-artificial intelligence world. A world where humans could build amazing things with their hands. And, of course, they like the gorgeous fashions. There is plenty of potential to write books about anachronistic technology that do not embrace oppression; a clockwork soldier could crush Buckingham Palace as easily as defend it. There is also the ability to write books that matter. The great steampunk novel has not been written, but it could be, and will probably be so good nobody will even think of it as steampunk. (Now that I think about it, that kind of sounds like His Dark Materials.)
Next month I'm reading at ConDor, a convention in San Diego. I'm excited. I have noticed that their list of possible panels is covered in steam. I'm interested to see whether this manifests as a harmless fashion thing, or something that would make me a lot more uncomfortable. Anyways, that is why the "I Hate Steampunk Brigade" is my favorite backlash. As Galadriel said it: "The world is changed."