Because science fiction is the literature of ideas, when it wants to be, science fiction criticism can head off in some really interesting philosophical directions. Michael Moorcock’s essay Starship Stormtroopers explains that imaginary worlds aren’t just escapist dreams. Which fantasies authors choose to create, and their readers choose to live in, say something about us. “By and large the world we got in the thirties was the world the sf writers of the day hoped we would have — ‘strong leaders’ reshaping nations.” So never mind that Moorcock was in an angry leftist mood when he wrote that in 1977, condemning an entire generation of SF authors as crypto-fascists – the general idea is good.
That’s the tradition Charles Stross writes in when he attacks steampunk for glorifying Europe’s imperialist and worker-oppressing past. Steampunk, he argues, is at best a silly fashion, at worst morally bankrupt.
But Scott Westerfeld replies that this picture of steampunk is outdated. Current steampunk novels do precisely what Stross claims they don’t: Tackle honestly the dark side of life and politics in the past. Stross just hasn’t been paying attention. The genre is way ahead of him.
I haven’t read much steampunk, and don’t know what to think. But, see, this is what I love about science fiction criticism: One moment you think you’re discussing a fashionable nostalgia for pocket watches. The next it turns out you’re dealing with the entire moral legacy of Western Civilization. And nobody finds that odd. So wherever this discussion is headed, I’m all for it.