Understanding Steampunk

I went to AnachroCon’s Time Traveler’s Ball as a paying guest, hoping for a chance to work on my photography skills. What I left with is a better appreciation and understanding of the steampunk phenomenon.

[Wikipedia] The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

The basic concept makes sense … take Victorian-era sensibilities and fuse them with the speculative fiction elements of sci-fi. If the 1960’s saw aliens in jumpsuits and miniskirts, then the 1860’s would see the future as gear-driven and piston-powered. But why do these ideals of Victorian sci-fi hold so much attraction to the citizens of the 21st century? Here’s a list based on one man’s opinion …

  1. The 21st Century Ain’t What We Were Promised … this century is starting out pretty lame. Even if we had a flying car, it would have likely been built by Chrysler or GM. Hundreds would have been killed by falling auto parts, and the companies would have gone out of business faster than their current rate of decline. We’re nowhere close to Jupiter in terms of space travel … heck, we can’t even get back to the moon or keep a shuttle in the air. Everything we were promised from voice recognition to hovercrafts is coming up short.
  2. A More Civilized Time … Let’s face it, good manners never die. Our future replaced duels of honor with drive-by shootings, ballroom dancing with Crank That (Soulja Boy) and elegant air travel with coach seats on bankrupt airlines. Civility seems to be dropping faster than an airship in the sights of a hand-crank Gatling gun. Can we have cool guns and men being polite to women?
    “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized time”Obi-Wan Kenobi

    Even modern sci-fi looks back to this time. The culture of Firefly has horses and ballroom dancing, Star Wars has honor duels with swords (ok, glowing swords) … it’s still appealing. It’s true that it takes longer to undress the woman whose honor you just defended in an airship  canon duel, but she deserves the attention.
  3. Form Follows Function … magic is for fantasy worlds. A phazer is just two AA batteries away from a magic wand (don’t even get me started on the sonic screwdriver). Sci-fi turns magic into science with technobabble and some loose understanding of high-end physics. Shows like Battlestar Galactica stay as close to Newton’s Three Laws as possible, excluding any appearances by angels dressed like fighter pilots. Good steampunk looks like it works. There’s a handle, some pistons and tons of gears. Even if they are taking similar liberties with the physical world, there is an attempt to make it functional. A blimp really flies. Gears really turn. It’s a thing that was built, not just dreampt.
  4. Science is Appreciated … the Victorian era was all kinds of crazy for science. People were in love with the weather, keeping measure of the climate with elegant devices. Science was a hobby, a passion … something to be relished rather than feared. Some of it was pretty crackpot, but that happens in the modern era (I’m looking at you, crazy vaccine people). Every discovery opened an eye into the workings of the world, as if you would open an atom and see the gears turning before your very eyes. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa was extremely well documented because of the number of people who were able to make measurements. Today we’d want an iPhone app.
  5. An Unexplored World … Google Maps take a lot of fun out of exploring the planet. I love being able to find the best route from work to a Thai restaurant from my T-Mobile G1, but that diminishes the entire experience of going to Thailand or exploring anything in between. Modern conveniences are fantastic, but the fantasy world needs an element of … well, fantasy. The known world isn’t as interesting as the unknown. In the 1800’s the unknown could be at the center of the earth, hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea or floating above the next set of clouds.

So when you see more goggles than Google at your next sci-fi convention, I hope my tiny glimmer of insight helps you understand why people slave so long over brass and leather to take the past into the future.

2 Replies to “Understanding Steampunk”

  1. An alternate theory is that steampunk puts the tools and advances of science and technology into the hands of skilled craftsmen. In a world where our gadgets and vehicles are sterile and bland, who wouldn’t appreciate a little hand-crafted flair?

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