An intriguing Steampunk release from earlier in the year was first-time novelist Lev A.C. Rosen's All Men of Genius, which seems to have absorbed the lessons of classic Steampunk but also be fully aware of the modern variety. It's aware of a need to be entertaining and of using the subgenre as social commentary, but also of creating compelling characters and situations. In the book, the budding genius-level inventor Violet Adams wants to attend the prestigious but all-male Illyria College, founded by the late Duke Illyria, the greatest scientist of the Victorian Age. So what does Violet Adams do? She disguises herself as her twin brother, Ashton, and gains entry. What follows is part farce, part adventure, and fun on a lot of different levels"”including killer automata, deadly legacies, and a lot of plot twists and complications.
Omnivoracious asked Rosen if he'd give us his take on Steampunk and how it relates to All Men of Genius. This is what he came up with"¦
Steampunk: Lev A.C. Rosen's View
What is Steampunk? The question gets asked a lot by people just coming to the genre. Those familiar with steampunk tend to take a "I know it when I see it" approach, and that's because like many developing genres (although the term has been around since the 80s at least, I think of it as a genre still in flux), it's still drawing inspiration from and blending with other genres. Many books, films, and video games have steampunk elements. Does that make them steampunk? I think it depends on what steampunk means to the viewer.
To me, steampunk is a postmodern re-imagining of classical Victorian science fiction, the kind written by Verne and Wells. It's someone from the modern time period looking back and saying "okay, if I were living in the 1800s, and were writing sci-fi, how would I do it?" Of course, the modernity of a contemporary writer can't be erased, and most classic Victorian literature would be considered too dense by the average reader today, so that lens of "what would it look like?" is colored by a modern sensibility. This sensibility can be tongue in cheek, and a little funny, or it can be serious and commentating. I tried to do both while writing All Men of Genius.
All Men of Genius is inspired by two classical comedies: Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. That isn't to say it's a mash-up--at least 95 percent of the words are my own. But steampunk, as a genre, has a postmodern sensibility of combining the old and the new, of patchwork metal and fusing apparently disparate elements, and I was really thinking of writing as my steampunk act--not because of the nature of what I was writing, but because I was cobbling together plays from two different time periods, plus many references to classical science fiction, all while trying to make it a whole new work.
Steampunk elements have crept into many facets of culture, including fashion, art, popular television, and even books that weren't written by me. I think its appeal can be attributed to the aesthetic of the machine. The idea that today, with tiny microchips powering everything, it's difficult to get a grasp on how things work, whereas if you see a giant machine with moving parts, you can quite literally see how they work, and that makes the technology more human.
Also, everything is so visible today --the process of creating a new wonderful machine or breakthrough happens in a thousand tiny steps, not in one giant one like it used to. I think that as a culture we miss that one giant step--that huge reveal--the lack of knowledge that made science seem magic. I discuss this in the book as well, but I think the popularity in steampunk comes from that--a desire to find science less real and more magical.
Some say that the cleanliness of much of science fiction makes it alien to them, whereas steampunk, with its rust and dirt seems a more human sort of science fiction. And that's part of the appeal, too, I think. I tried extremely hard to make every character in my book completely human--I gave them all a history that got them to where they were, even the more minor characters. I think that the humanity of the characters gives the book, and the steampunk flavor, a rougher feel, one where every tiny piece is its own gear, spinning in its own way--or a better metaphor might be a Rube Goldberg machine. Each piece doing its own thing while setting off something else. You might not need every part of the machine for the final end, but the getting there feels like more of an experience.
I've been told steampunk is fetishization of gears (which I think was meant to sound like a bad thing, but I do like gears), or goth with more brown, and I think it can be that for those who want nothing more. And if it makes them happy, then more power to them. But for others, steampunk is a complex exploration of nostalgia and modernity, of wanting to stride bravely into the future without losing sight of the past. I think it's an ideal, in many ways. A way of having everything the way you want it. And gears, too.