The Guardian sat up and noticed Steampunk this week . The article itself is so cursory that it's barely worth reading, but there are a lot of interesting comments, including one by Lyndon Ap Gwynfryn which echoes my own growing doubts: "Steampunk is the stupidest of all subgenres of speculative fiction... To retrospectively associate contemporary Victorian science fiction, which was forward looking and progressive, with a self consciously anachronistic and frivolous genre like steampunk is deeply insulting to great writers like Wells and Verne."
But me and Mr Ap Gwynfryn are clearly pretty much alone in feeling this way, (although one of the other comments says, rather perceptively, "Zzzzzzzz") There's no point in complaining: the rise and rise of steamy punky things now seems unstoppable. I can't help wondering, though, why Victorian/Edwardian is the only form of retro sci-fi that seems to appeal to YA authors. What's happened to the 1950s 'Golden Age' stuff, which you'd think would offer pickings just as rich to a backward-looking world-builder?
I don't mean the plots (virtually all sci-fi, with the possible exceptions of cyberpunk and that nice Mr Ballard, has basically been re-running the same plots and tropes since about 1930*). Nor am I talking about the historical context - who cares about that any more? It's the imagery which I think could fuel a whole series of YA best-sellers. Skylon-shaped rocket ships, spiny ray guns, perspex-bubble space helmets, flying cars with fins and chrome radiator grilles, square-jawed space-rangers, heroines with beehive-hairdos and cantilevered bras, mad scientists, Nazis... What's not to like? The movies revisit this look from time to time (Robots, Monsters vs Aliens, bits of the Star Wars prequels), kids' TV loves it (Atomic Betty; the excellent Secret Show) picture books for younger children still use it (Simon Bartram's Man on the Moonfor instance) and the tabletop gaming community have clearly brought it on board (check out the lovely 28mm robots from Hydra Miniatures which I've used to illustrate this post).
So why do we not keep hearing about people rebuilding computers and i-pads in sleek 'fifties housings? Why are there no no festivals or conventions where like minded 'Atompunks' (as I think they should be called**) can dress up in one-piece nylon numbers and compare the size of their Art Deco disintegrators?*** Above all, why aren't there scores of books for older children and young adults?
As with Steampunk, 'Atompunk' offers us arty folk the opportunity to write science fiction without actually needing to know any science. Robert Heinlein may have known his stuff when he wrote all those 'juvenile' space-operas back in the day, but he was awfully right-wing, and who needs to understand gravity and thermodynamics anyway? This is meant to be fun, so everything works by, you know, atom-power, or some kinda space-diesel. But it's not just whimsy: the mid-twentieth century flavour of this imaginary era will allow for all sorts of moralising and serious social comment. Beneath its shiny exterior lurks Sexism! Racial Prejudice! McCarthyite witch-hunts! IT'S ALL, LIKE, A METAPHOR FOR OUR OWN TIMES! (Naturally the heroes and heroines will be having none of it, and will all share our own, more enlightened views.)
The idea for all this first occurred to me some years ago: I was still writing the Larklight books then, and I spent a pleasant afternoon plotting out a sort of Larklight:The Next Generation, which would swap all the Victorian motifs for Dan Dareones. Having done so, however, I didn't want to spend six months actually writing the thing, so I'm passing the notion on to anyone who's interested. Strap on your jet-pack and rocket boots and set a course for the Lunar Academy: you could become the JK Rowling of the Jet Age!
*Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind.
**I just made up 'atompunk', but sure enough when I googled it I found that it actually does exist. Sigh...