Vulgar Display of Genre (or, five rambling points in search of an overarching argument)

Some loosely connected thoughts of mine, converging at weird angles.

1. So there I am toddling aimlessly along and I find a review of a series of apparently rather good novels set in a steampunk Russia. My first thought is, ‘ooh, they sound rather interesting’, followed nearly immediately by the ever-so-slight feeling of terror that some of the locations, concepts or tropes I’ve been hacking away on in Ghosts… might somehow appear in these books and any effort I’ve spent on writing will be doomed, doooooomed, DOOOOOOOOMED. Which is faintly ridiculous; it’s set at the other end of a rather large country, in a different century, plus of course there’s not anything particularly steampunk about my writing in the first place. Although, that of course depends on how you define steampunk. It’s a term that – to steal a quote from somewhere, possibly the comments section in that very review – defines an aesthetic rather than a genre per se. If we approach steampunk as ‘speculative fiction with anachronistic technology’ we start to disappear down a definitional rabbit hole rather quickly.

2. In his quite interesting blog, Jay Kristoff has started a history-cum-definition of Steampunk. One portion of it goes as follows; ‘[this definition]… does leave out one of the most important parts of Steampunk to my mind; the word “punk” and all the associations thereof. But truth be told, the “punk” has really only been incorporated into Steampunk in recent times (despite the handle having been around for over thirty years), and not everyone involved is certain about the necessity of its inclusion.’

All perfectly reasonable, but it sure sounds like steampunk suffers from what I have come to know as ‘scope creep’. It’s bound to happen, of course; it’s a label, and you don’t need to have a licence to make, use or mis-use labels. All genres are going to suffer from this, but most are sufficiently broad and robust to withstand such challenges. Steampunk appears to be either overly narrow or misleadingly broad, which I can’t imagine working well. But, what does it mean for a label to ‘work’, anyway?

3. Back in the bad old days of first year uni, a ponytail-wearing Sociology lecturer compared theories to using a flashlight in a moon-lit forest. His proposition, extrapolated a little, was as follows: turn on the flashlight and you’ll see exactly where the path is. You’re unlikely to trip, and you’ll reach your destination safely. But, you won’t understand what else is in the forest except that you see in the torch-beam. Turn off the light and your eyes adjust to the moonlight. You see shapes in the darkness that you wouldn’t have been able to perceive before. You may stumble and fall a few times, but you might also come across some interesting things that those path-bound flashlight-wielding types won’t find. Neither approach is truly wrong or right; it depends on whether your goal is to reach a particular destination safely or explore the forest. Increasingly specific labels may work like the theory-flashlight; enlightening (no pun intended, seriously) yet limiting.

4. Another mini-parable, although the details on this one are a little iffier as I heard it second-hand. Essentially, someone I know was chatting to a friend’s 13-year-old son not too long ago and the young whippersnapper talked about his favourite bands, which included early ’90s Pantera.

Now, it’s both slightly confounding that there are 13-year-olds listening to Pantera nowadays. Doing some quick math, I would have been about the same age myself when the above album came out originally (albeit would have been knee-deep in Faith No More worship at the time; I am not the man to send your Pantera questions to, I will not have the answers you seek) – but what’s interesting to me here is that the kid described the band in modern terminology. Here’s where the story breaks down and I expose myself as a old fuddy-duddy; I’ve forgotten the term because it means nothing to me. ‘Grindcore’, I think (?). Anyhow, it’s a term that’s probably been created in the intervening years; labelling Pantera as such has some equivalence to labelling the Eagles as proto-alt-country or Jules Verne steampunk. You can do it, sure, but it creates narratives and connections that wouldn’t exist if you used another label (Eagles = soft rock, or simply Eagles = radio-friendly bogan tunes).

5. What good are labels if they obfuscate as much as they explain? Do all labels do this? Are sub-sub-genres useful for anyone beyond those already in the know – and even if they are in the know, would they all necessarily agree with the labelling, or instead split it into endless fractal descriptions?

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