Your Steampunk Ain’t Punk
With Dishonored 2 coming out today, there’s an opportunity to interrogate its genre. Fact: I love steampunk, but it ain’t any kind of punk. It inherits the suffix from an actual punk genre of speculative fiction, but masquerades in its punkness. It’s as punk as white bread in a walnut-stained breadbox with brass fittings.
Steampunk is a genre of speculative fiction whose aesthetic and technology are typically inspired by late 19th century steam power, as the name suggests. There’s airships, and steam cannons, sometimes robots, and always goggles. Steampunk has goggles for days. It draws on themes and dress from Victorian England and the American wild west, featuring airship captains, detectives, and scores of inventors. Its cosplay community reflects that, from dapper goggled Pinkertons to grease-stained steam mechanics. It’s everywhere in pop culture, from literature to videogames, and its powerful visuals have found a great home in comics, like Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio. Steampunk is rad, and it’s ubiquitous. It’s a real thing now.
While there’s some discussion about whether Dishonored is really steampunk, given its lack of steam boilers, replacing them with electricity drawn from whale oil (whalepunk is also an option), it definitely fits the steampunk aesthetic, borrowing themes and fashion from the Victorian era, and presenting more of a swords and flintlocks level of technology, which isn’t what we’d expect from a cyberpunk setting. It also centres steampunk themes, themes of exploration, the self-made man, and feudalism rather than cyberpunk’s more working class focus. The developers and designers describe to it as steampunk, which is good enough for me.
And steampunk ain’t punk. In the interest of avoiding going too deep down the rabbit hole of “What is punk?” when talking about music, media, and activism, and the larger question of “Who is punk?” and the even larger question of “Who gets to declare what’s punk and what isn’t?” (declaring something to not be punk is either the most punk or least punk thing to do), I want to focus on a single theme. The common theme of punk media is resistance, specifically to oppressive ideals and social norms. Punk movements and music have constantly pushed back not just on norms of fashion and music, but against authority and on systemic and oppressive structural justice issues.
As a genre, steampunk’s colonial ideals leave little room for that resistance. While early novels, like Gibson and Sterling’s the Difference Engine, showcase working class advocates and laud the achievements of Ada Lovelace, much of the steampunk genre is defined by its tales of the exploration of strange lands and technology as power. It embraces Victorian and 19th century American upper class not just in style but in structure. Lord such and such. Captain so and so. In doing so, it inherits a share of their burden, but doesn’t often address issues like feudalism, oppression, or exploration as manifest destiny in any depth.
The world of Dishonored is no exception. It centres royal and imperial power in the first game, casting the player as Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the empress turned assassin in the wake of her fridging, the servant of ambitious men and the shepherd of her daughter’s inheritance. Dishonored 2 focuses on her daughter Emily, now grown up, and Corvo himself, as they once gain pursue the throne from a usurper. All of this happens against the backdrop of a city besieged by plagues that’s basically the worst part of dark London. Corvo and Emily aren’t trying to resist a feudalistic power, they’re always trying to restore their own feudalistic power in the face of other ambitious people.
When compared with cyberpunk games and stories, cyberpunk being arguably the progenitor of *punk genres, the differences become apparent. Cyberpunk is working class fiction, with working class or lower class characters. Its narratives centre on resistance, often to oppressive corporate dominance. Instead of steampunk’s world of infinite possibility, or Dishonored’s reclamation-focused story specifically, cyberpunk offers a future (arguably a present now) of infinite competition, where ordinary people have to take extraordinary measures to get through their day. The decadence of steampunk is replaced by scarcity amid decadence in cyberpunk, seen in the lifestyles of characters from Hiro Protagonist from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, to Jill from the cyberpunk bartending game VA-11 HALL-A, to essentially every Shadowrun character ever.
Resistance in literature and art matters. The stories we read and tell affect our outlook, our aesthetic, and our interactions with authority and structural oppression. They shape our communities, our fandoms, and the ways that we spend our time and money. Steampunk dresses up in the cloth of resistance, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At best it gets at grit while skipping around grappling with structural issues that inhere to cyberpunk. Corvo isn’t just a badass assassin sticking it to the people who betrayed him and his empress, he’s an agent who acts to decide the future of the realm and to reinstate autocratic imperial power. His problem isn’t with empire, it’s that it’s not the empire he wants.
So it ain’t punk. Now, that shouldn’t keep steampunk from being somebody’s problematic fave, and I’m going to play the hell out of this game, but what I’d love to try and do is disentangle it from this faux-punkness. I think pulp fiction has the answer for this. Not the Tarantino flick, but the genre of stories and comics. Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, the Shadow and the Phantom are all examples of pulp stories, named for the paper of the magazines they were printed in. They’re low-stakes stories, and one of the takeaways from them is that they’re bounded. The world outside them doesn’t matter, and they traditionally deal with straightforward themes like the exploration of colonially-imagined places, or punishing the guilty (or in the case of the Phantom, literally both). Their limited scope doesn’t shield them from criticism, but it does serve to contextualize it. Steampulp also has a pretty nice ring to it.
If the first game was any indication, Dishonored 2 is going to be a great game. It’s going to be a hell of a ride guiding Corvo and Emily on their journey. It’s got incredible worldbuilding and visual storytelling, gorgeous art direction, and looks to have really fun gameplay. But like all steampunk, it ain’t any kind of punk.