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So What is 'Steam Opera'?

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  • So What is 'Steam Opera'?

    I'll quote our own Michael Moorcock from his review of Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection.

    "If rural nostalgia fuels the continuing appeal of Trollope or Tolkien, then its urban equivalent is most commonly found in Dickens pastiches such as Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke, in Holly Black’s gritty fairy stories and in the steampunk genre. These days, you can barely pick up a speculative fantasy without finding a zeppelin or a steam-robot on the cover. Containing few punks and a good many posh ladies and gents, most of these stories are better described as steam operas."

    Read the whole review here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009...jedediah-berry

    Just as a there are horse operas (Westerns) and space operas (some types of science fiction) I take Mike to mean something with some of the trappings of steampunk but softer around the edges. Which is not to say that folks here can't write out and out steam punk, but if you do some SF set in the Victorian age, that isn't automatically steampunk. Goggles do not the punk make.

    Opinions?
    Last edited by Reinart der Fuchs; 10-12-2012, 04:34 PM.

  • #2
    Yeah, you might be right, but I'm not sure if that isn't just what steampunk is anyway... What steampunk novel ever featured any punks in? It's not really a literal term to begin with. I think the punk describe the attitude of the authors, taking back SF even further back than cyberpunk did to its proto roots rather than a particular punk narrative. I could be wrong tho... As we've already discussed elsewhere there seems to be very few (a dozen at most) genuinely inventive steampunk novels and most of them were written well before the term was widely adopted. I wonder if it's really necessary to invent yet another sub-genre to sub-divide such a minuscule scene? To my mind steampunk just means a load of Victorianesque trappings in some science-fantasy setting, which is pretty much what you and Mike describe as steam opera. I guess steam opera might refer to stuff that is more fantastical or adventure focussed than harder steampunk novels, like Transatlantic Tunnel or Diamond Age?
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    • #3
      Methinks opera is "any old story" while "punk" infers a rebellious streak. While the Warlord of the Air was anti-empire, a.k.a. punk, many steam-tech novels are more enamoured with the look and form of posh victoriana than they are with social upheaval.

      My problem with "punk" is that that punk was such a conformist "alternative" it was practically a self-parody. But I'm just an old prog rocker - so I'm biased!

      PS: The Ramones were shit. Seriously - kids of today: stop wearing T-shirts for bands you don't know. Though if you do source a good Stranglers top, tell me where. They were top.

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      • #4
        As far as I can tell, most US genre fiction novels in 2012 that may be classified by demographic bean-counters as "steampunk", "vampire", "werewolf", or "witches and warlocks" books are all the exact same thing: bodice-ripper fairy tales feathered with soft porn and phony gore, written in the service of right-wing diversion machines.

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        • #5
          Clearly, the rise of Operapunk is called for.

          P.S. Hey Ho, Rothgo! Ferment in the carboy. What we want, you know it's true. We're all hopped up and ready to brew!
          Last edited by Heresiologist; 10-13-2012, 12:26 AM.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Heresiologist View Post
            Clearly, the rise of Operapunk is called for.

            P.S. Hey Ho, Rothgo! Ferment in the carboy. What we want, you know it's true. We're all hopped up and ready to brew!
            Or possibly Punkopera?
            Papa was a Rolling Stone......

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            • #7
              Originally posted by The English Assassin View Post
              Yeah, you might be right, but I'm not sure if that isn't just what steampunk is anyway... What steampunk novel ever featured any punks in? It's not really a literal term to begin with. I think the punk describe the attitude of the authors, taking back SF even further back than cyberpunk did to its proto roots rather than a particular punk narrative. I could be wrong tho... As we've already discussed elsewhere there seems to be very few (a dozen at most) genuinely inventive steampunk novels and most of them were written well before the term was widely adopted. I wonder if it's really necessary to invent yet another sub-genre to sub-divide such a minuscule scene? To my mind steampunk just means a load of Victorianesque trappings in some science-fantasy setting, which is pretty much what you and Mike describe as steam opera. I guess steam opera might refer to stuff that is more fantastical or adventure focussed than harder steampunk novels, like Transatlantic Tunnel or Diamond Age?
              That's pretty much my take too, EA, that Steam Opera is a more popularized version of Steam Punk, sort of like what space opera is to Science Fiction. Everything from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to The Wild Wild West has been labeled steampunk over the last few years. Genuine steampunk is mostly attitude and agenda, I think.
              I recently read all the stories in The Mammoth Book of Steampunk and found most of the tales to be ripping adventures in a Victorian/Edwardian science fiction setting. The majority of then had little in common other than technology too advanced for the period. There were a lot of Zeppelins though...

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              • #8
                My question would be, would it have to be in a type of Edwardian/Victorian realm to be fitting for this competition or could it be a fantasy world with some out of the ordinary technology? Also, does magic have a place in "Steam"? I don't read much outside of my narrow genre of heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery likes so I need a little direction if you don't mind.
                .
                My schedule is limited by I hope to have something in the competition again this year although it might not be very polished.
                Check out J. Wade Harrell Fantasy World blog:

                http://jwadeharrell.wordpress.com/about/


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                • #9
                  Originally posted by The English Assassin View Post
                  Yeah, you might be right, but I'm not sure if that isn't just what steampunk is anyway... What steampunk novel ever featured any punks in?
                  You know, Blaylock and Powers never meant it totally seriously. They did not want to create a 'sacred word' or a genre strictly speaking. They just coined the term steam punk because it was a counterpoint to the 80s biggest hype in science fiction: cyberpunk. And they just meant that with huge dose of humor as they were writing stories passed on the 19th century.

                  Anubis Gates, from Powers, which perhaps you all know that is I book I love, is full of London 19th century punks, beggars that live in the underground.

                  But as I have been said, steam punk became formulaic like most fantasy Tolkien imitators around. It does not mean that there are not good things in the genre. It bores the hell out of me the fact someone only reads steampunk, because frankly this person wants to read the very same thing on and on.

                  But I am totally glad that there is a steampunk genre, because it was that put me back reading and I had the great idea of acquiring The Nomad Of Time which lead me to finally buying many of Moorcock's books, something I have always wanted since I read Elric of Melniboné.

                  But as said: I love the 19th century, steam technology, 19th century writers, inventors, scientists and etc. The fictional London that is recurrent in steampunk is, and now I paraphrase the great Portuguese science fiction author Joao Barreiros, "one of my favorite fantastic worlds".
                  Last edited by zlogdan; 10-18-2012, 02:06 PM.
                  "From time to time I demonstrate the inconceivable, or mock the innocent, or give truth to liars, or shred the poses of virtue.(...) Now I am silent; this is my mood." From Sundrun's Garden, Jack Vance.
                  "As the Greeks have created the Olympus based upon their own image and resemblance, we have created Gotham City and Metropolis and all these galaxies so similar to the corporate world, manipulative, ruthless and well paid, that conceived them." Braulio Tavares.

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Peacemaker View Post
                    My question would be, would it have to be in a type of Edwardian/Victorian realm to be fitting for this competition or could it be a fantasy world with some out of the ordinary technology? Also, does magic have a place in "Steam"? I don't read much outside of my narrow genre of heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery likes so I need a little direction if you don't mind.
                    .
                    My schedule is limited by I hope to have something in the competition again this year although it might not be very polished.
                    Peacemaker, I would say magic is definitely usable. Some steam opera books have vampires and dragons, wizards and the like. As far as setting goes, most steampunk/opera that I've read is set in a semi historical setting, usually 19th century, but I think a fantasy world that utilizes advanced technology would be fine. Keep in mind that part of the fun of the yearly challenge is stepping outside of one's comfort zone. I'm more comfortable in a standard sword & sorcery setting myself, so I know what you mean. here's a link to the wikipedia article about steampunk. Might give you some ideas.

                    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk

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                    • #11
                      Given that Thongor asked the very question PM, I guess we can assume that nobody's going to be overly constrictive in interpreting what "Steam Opera" truly means.

                      And as mentioned above, Kim Newman for one has done a grand job of intertwining the supernatural with "super-advanced Victorian technology". I'm sure there are others, though I ain't too well read on the steam-punk genre.

                      I personally would easily go with "super-advanced <blah> technology" - be that Victorian or Egyptian or whatever. I do think that the tech should be a strong background element in order to qualify. But that's just my POV - it's Thongor's bag.

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                      • #12
                        The discussion here has led me to do quite a bit of reading on steampunk, which I'm finding fascinating. I'm learning that, as we've discussed, the genre is seriously hard to define. Alternate history with steam powered versions of future technology seems to be the primary definition, though I think that would be closer to steam opera without the 'punkish edge' we've talked about. However a lot of folks are referring to any sort of Science Fiction or fantasy set in the Victorian Age as steampunk/opera.

                        Another popular sub genre of steam punk is the reimagining of various contemporary or futuristic series into Victorian Age counterparts. Things like DC Comics' Gotham by Gaslight or the recent rash of steam punk Star Wars variations. I've seen a really cool steam powered R2 D2, and the ever popular Steampunk Boba Fett shops at my local comics store. (Very nice fellow.)

                        To go back to Peacemaker's question, if you told a heroic fantasy story about a world of elves and dwarfs, but that world had trains and airships powered by steam, many would call that steampunk. As Rothgo has noted, technology seems to be the, ahem, driving engine behind steampunk/opera.

                        And, as zlogdan has pointed out, the term steampunk was just sort of tossed out there, much in the way that Fritz Leiber offhandedly suggested the label sword and sorcery for the type of fiction he and a few others were writing.

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                        • #13
                          There are lots of elements that are used within the steam punk genre that I really find great, let's sum them up:

                          - steam powered machines, computers
                          - Zepellins ( Love them :-)
                          - London
                          - American Wild Western
                          - Aliens
                          - Beggars in the underground
                          - aliens
                          - magic
                          - secret societs
                          - alternate history
                          - 19th century
                          - crazy scientists

                          That said, I must confess what I read so far that fits within the genre was quite good, but I did not read much, and as it was stressed by EA, mostly, the classic stuff is superb. I cannot tell much about the new writers, except perhaps China Mieville, which I have a book here, Perdido Street..., but I did not read it yet.
                          "From time to time I demonstrate the inconceivable, or mock the innocent, or give truth to liars, or shred the poses of virtue.(...) Now I am silent; this is my mood." From Sundrun's Garden, Jack Vance.
                          "As the Greeks have created the Olympus based upon their own image and resemblance, we have created Gotham City and Metropolis and all these galaxies so similar to the corporate world, manipulative, ruthless and well paid, that conceived them." Braulio Tavares.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            I've got a much clearer idea after reading this thread. Here's what I was using as a guide beforehand for the elements involved:

                            Steam:
                            jazzed up retro-technology. Like Victorian tech (steam, clockwork etc) but can be anything from da Vinci to Wells, often with a big dose of Victorian or Western nostalgia thrown in.

                            Opera: romantic, melodramatic adventure, set in space on vessel(s)

                            Punk: dystopian and cynical in tone, usually featuring a loner or group vs an oppressive Government, Corporations (or both).

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Kirowan View Post
                              I've got a much clearer idea after reading this thread. Here's what I was using as a guide beforehand for the elements involved:

                              Steam:
                              jazzed up retro-technology. Like Victorian tech (steam, clockwork etc) but can be anything from da Vinci to Wells, often with a big dose of Victorian or Western nostalgia thrown in.

                              Opera: romantic, melodramatic adventure, set in space on vessel(s)

                              Punk: dystopian and cynical in tone, usually featuring a loner or group vs an oppressive Government, Corporations (or both).
                              Great definitions!
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