Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Land Leviathan

Steampunk = Wank
Presenting that venerable gentleman Mr. L. Burton's indubitably hasty treatise upon why the Steampunk genre must be regarded as wank.

Steampunk was arguably created by Michael Moorcock in the late 1960s in his thoroughly readable Sir Oswald Bastable novels wherein the eponymous hero had a series of Victorian style adventures in hot-air balloons and the like. This was of course entirely in keeping with the 1960s countercultural fascination with Victoriana, vaguely Edwardian shite, science-fiction and so on. If it hadn't been Moorcock, someone else would have done it, and it's probably telling that Moorcock himself has on occasion appeared ambivalent or even sceptical regarding the success of the baby he prefers to call steam opera. In a 2009 Guadrian review of Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection he wrote:

Steampunk reached its final burst of brilliant deliquescence with Pynchon's Against the Day and his Airship Boys. Once the wide world gets hold of an idea, however, it can only survive through knowing irony. Its tools, its icons, its angle of attack are absorbed into the cultural mainstream. The genre has started to write about itself, the way Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles addressed the western. Steampunk no longer examines context and history but now looks ironically at its own roots, tropes and clich├ęs.

Steampunk, generally speaking, updates Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, speeding them to thriller pace whilst retaining their settings, themes, and literary styles. Its recent incarnation seems to have been spawned by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's collaborative The Difference Engine, essentially a cyberpunk novel set in the Victorian era which transposes all that fetishistic technology for steam driven ancestral equivalents.

Fine... whatever...

Given the unwritten law defining the point at which a phenomenon has definitively hit rock bottom as proportional to the sum of cultural units distinguishing the Sex Pistols from Gary & the Gonads, the redundancy of anything declaring itself steampunk without either qualification, apology, or due embarrassment was recently heralded by the arrival of the steampunk What I Really meme reproduced below.

The What I Really meme, for those presently mouldering in blissful ignorance, is a frequently copied internet image comprising six illustrations exposing the side-splitting disparity between one's occupation, and the details of that of which others believe one's occupation to be comprised. To hilarious effect.

Personally I find the chucklesome gulf between perception and reality tends to be all the more amusing when the images demonstrate some conceptual variance as opposed to being, for example, a random assortment of cock-obvious images snipped off the back of a steampunk themed cornflakes packet, or have I fucking missed something? I can see perhaps what the artist's friends and mother may be getting at, but does society really view this person's occupation as frowning whilst wearing a fancy jacket and having a metal arm? I mean does it really? Or would that third panel be better served with a blank space given that society, by whatever definition, probably doesn't give a shit and has better things to do?

Okay so Michael Moorcock's efforts were decent, and both Stephen Baxter and Mark Hodder have bothered to write genre novels that go somewhat further than tittering over brass spacecraft with union flags painted across the heavily riveted prow; but now there are steampunk clothing outlets, lifestyle magazines, comics, action figures, bands, conventions, and doubtless comedians soon taking to the stage in flying goggles to crack jokes about most diverting occurrences befalling one on the way to the dirigible emporium. Aside from a few writers, steampunk is looking a lot like the biggest pile of cock to knob-cheese up our cultural bandwidth since Doctor Who nosedived in 2005. It's a one-trick literary subgenre, not a youth movement, unless the 153,954 who like the Steampunk facebook page really do wax up their moustaches every weekend and get hammered on absinthe and drawing room techno. The entire schtick is so hopelessly mannered that you could bang out your average steampunk novel on a child's origami fortune teller, never mind that generic coal-fired Babbage engine.

The comically Victorian + technology = steampunk and so we end up with The D'Israeli Undertaking, The Mafeking Modem, and The Splendiferous Escapades of Mr. Quentin Internet because this is a genre in which everything is worked out in advance and which succeeds (supposedly) through parody and collage and not a whole lot else. It probably shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that more than one former author of dispiriting TV tie-in fiction should have recently added the genre's proverbial string to his soulless, workmanlike bow, because once you've read the novels by the fuckers who actually can write, you're left with people who regard Terrance Dicks as some sort of literary gold standard.

It feels like Star Wars all over again, the tide of balls-achingly easy populism sweeping away anything that is thoughtful, at odds with the norm, anything that strives to do more than just romp along like an E.E. 'Doc' Smith hero with an issue of Dazed and Confused stuffed in his back pocket; and perhaps this is itself a clue as to the success of this phenomenon. It's a return to ripping yarns and morally unambiguous superheroes, the comforting familiarity of Victoriana spruced up with a touch of console game and a knowing wink just to confirm that this is where the cool kids hang out, the cool kids as opposed to all those nerds and sad sacks with their Isaac Asimov and hilariously intact virginity.

Of course, this is all an overreaction on my part - hyperbole being my job - and has no bearing on authors such as Michael Moorcock, Mark Hodder, or Paolo Bacigalupi - who has of late been cropping up in steampunk must-read lists for no good reason I can think of. It's bollocks and it will all blow over in due course I'm sure, but until then, a little less mindless recycling for its own sake and a little more use of critical faculties can hardly be a bad thing; and if this rant has dissuaded just one person from turning their hand to an already overpopulated subgenre, then good.

On which note:

Michael Moorcock The Land Leviathan (1974)
Including one slightly peculiar novelisation of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, this is my tenth Moorcock novel, and the number strikes me as strange seeing as he was never an author whose works I sought with particular fervour. The book stores of my childhood  bulged with a million Moorcock titles, all involving elves with swords so far as I was able to tell. This was off-putting because I've never truly warmed to elves. They seem like the self-absorbed teenagers of the faerie realm, all very pretty but otherwise lacking the honesty of gnomes. In any case, I was probably misled by wispy cover paintings and the name Elric sounding a bit like it could be headed in that general direction.

More recently I got the habit of picking up the odd second hand Moorcock title if it appeared to maintain a respectable distance from anything involving dragons or magic and was cheap. I'd read his Constant Fire in a second hand copy of the New Worlds anthology and been impressed at the sheer insanity of the tale, so had come to view him as a good risk. This caution now seems strange through the benefit of hindsight and my having noticed that I've reached double figures with the man's work, and actually, it's all been pretty great.

The Land Leviathan continues the tale of Sir Oswald Bastable from The War Lord of the Air, a man lost in alternate histories full of Victoriana that we would now recognise as steampunk but for the fact that Moorcock has purposes other than smirking at the reader whilst wearing aviator goggles. The Land Leviathan, like its predecessor, uses the trappings of empire to criticise the hypocrisies of the era and mindset it parodies, and impressively goes for the big one in terms of moral redress - a world in which a new African empire modelled to some extent upon that of Rome crushes the United States in response to centuries of slavery imposed upon the black race.

Read that summarising sentence again and take a moment to consider just how kak-handed and painful this could have been in the hands of a less able writer. Not only does Moorcock succeed in dealing with issues of great moral complexity, naming names without the suggestion of anything reduced to a slogan, but he makes it compelling, saying everything he needs to say in a novel that's barely much over the length of a novella. The Land Leviathan is unassuming and genuinely wonderful, and its author just went up a level in my own personal league table.


  1. My second hand copy of The Warlord of the Air (£1.75) from The Book Barn now moves a little higher up the to-be-read list. I used to avoid Moorcock as a kid for all the same reasons but now find his; anything other than elf-wank stuff, high on my look out for list.

  2. Oh yes, Warlord of the Air was great.