What, exactly, is Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, and its sequels? The obvious answer would be “steampunk”. Alternative Victorian setting? Check. Airships? Check. Steam-power? Check. Flamboyantly-named characters? Well, uh, I suppose so.
I don’t think I ever set out to actually write a steampunk novel, though. Naturally, I was aware that the tropes I was using – all those above, plus many more – ensured that the book, if it ever saw print, would be filed under “steampunk”. But I wasn’t writing for a genre or a market; I was writing for a hoped-for readership who were, well, a bit like me.
Steampunk seems to be one of the most hotly-discussed sub-genres in SF/Fantasy. There are endless internet debates about what exactly steampunk is… I read one that asserted, no ifs ands or buts, that any novel could have as many airships, steam-powered robots and monocles as it liked, but if there was even the slightest whiff of the supernatural, then it just wasn’t steampunk.
Which is a bit frigging stupid.
A lot of people profess to hate steampunk. A lot of people will read nothing else. Steampunk is a whole sub-culture gone mainstream – there’s a steampunk Wall-E advertising chips on the TV, Justin Bieber did a steampunk video. Steampunk has gone from being the literary sub-genre the name was coined for to a lifestyle, a sub-strata of Goth, perhaps. I interviewed a self-confessed steampunk last year. I asked him what he read.
He didn’t. He liked the monocles and the breeches and the shiny boots. The books barely crossed his radar.
I hope steampunks like the Gideon Smith books. There is a lot of stuff in there that will appeal to them. By the same token, I hope people who profess to hate steampunk will give the books a chance too. Hopefully, there’s a lot of stuff that will appeal to them, as well.
Which got me thinking… are the Gideon Smith books happy to be pigeonholed into a sub-genre of a genre that is already pigeonholed as a sub-genre of fiction? If so, are they in the right sub-genre?
One of the big threads running through Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is that Gideon is an admirer of the penny dreadful magazines of Victorian times, the lurid adventure papers which delighted the masses across Britain. The turn of the century saw the penny dreadfuls morph, especially in the States, into the pulps – named for their cheap paper stock, but identifiable for their plot-driven stories of adventure, crime, horror and SF.
Eight or nine years ago Michael Chabon edited the McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, a bid to revitalise the old pulp-style story. It was a great anthology, and plucking it off my bookshelf the other day, I thought, Hmm. Maybe Gideon Smith is pulp.
Maybe Gideon Smith is Nu-Pulp.
If I was going to drag anyone else kicking and screaming into this made-up-on-the-spot sub-sub-sub-genre, who would I hijack? Well, I’d haul Adam Christopher in, for his noirish hard-boiled superhero thriller Empire State. And George Mann – who has already the steampunk gang badge on his jacket – especially for his Ghosts of Manhattan. Paul Malmont’s Chinatown Death Cloud Peril? Welcome aboard.
Of course, none of these fine writers have asked to be press-ganged into the Nu-Pulp, and probably wouldn’t want to be. But there you go. Perhaps I’ll never speak of this again, and you can consider this an over-long, rambling equivalent of Amazon’s “like that? Buy this!” recommendations.
Then again, if Nu-Pulp is the Next Big Thing, remember where you heard about it first.