Steampunk is, I believe, a reaction to the last 80 years of industrial design.
Machines used to be self explanatory, to an extent. You could look at something chugging away, and see how the various pieces functioned. Ordinary people could repair their own auto mobiles. When they first came out, Mr. Ford’s machines were sold not just as a mode of transportation, but as an efficient source of power for the home, farm or small business. When you got a car, you got the parts and instructions that allowed you to put the thing up on blocks and use it to power a lathe, a well pump, or any number of useful devices.
When we think ‘Steampunk’, we have a mental image of a factory floor from a hundred years ago, with giant gears grinding away, driving belts that loop around exposed pulleys and drive shafts that power clacking cogs or saws or incomprehensible Jacquard loom–like devices that weave, pound, stamp, and sort various other items through a cavernous gallery lined with vents spouting live steam, exposed glowing busbars and crackling Jacob’s ladders, all covered with a fine layer of coal dust.
Thousands of these factories really existed, using first generation, improvised technology. They steamed and roared and clanked out their products at a furious rate, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of people in the process.
Over time, people who weren’t factory owners said “Surely it is possible to accurately pour boiling Mercury into a vat and not have to rely upon a six year old child using a paper funnel”. And machinists and inventors would re-design these systems (usually because the government forced them to do so) and the quaint and picturesque six year old child would be replaced by something a bit less prone to dying.
Thus, over time, these changes would accumulate. Machinery became more aerodynamic. Less prone to failure. Sealed away from human incompetence and the elements. Sub–systems became more electronic and less mechanical.
Today we are approaching the end result of this design process, which is embodied by the iPhone. It is a complex device with, to the casual eye, no moving parts at all. All very well, but to the majority of the people who own one, it might as well be magic. Not one person in a thousand knows how their phone works, and the rest probably don’t even think about it.
However, people like to know how things work. A part of our monkey brain enjoys figuring out and being able to comprehend cause and effect.
A device that has been reversed engineered so that you can see all the parts and understand what they do is very satisfying to people. I believe that the Steampunk esthetic plays to this. Steampunk presents us with amazing science–fiction devices, but does so in a such a way that we kid ourselves that we understand how they are done. Look over there! It is a mechanical man! From the cast iron door on his stomach and the black smoke pouring from his metal hat, it is obvious that he is powered by coal! Anyone can understand that. An exposed set of rods and pistons hiss and thump along his limbs, obviously providing for his movement. So simple! Through the ornamental glass plate we can see the gears turning and the pistons rippling as his engines of cogitation grind through his assigned tasks. Ah, the green light went on! He’s obviously just solved a tricky ethical quandry. Nonsense? Yes. But nonsense presented in such a way that the viewer thinks he or she understands what is going on.
Compare this to the smooth, plastic manikins that are supposed to impress us by being able to climb stairs without falling over. Every moving part sealed behind proprietary layers of plastic. Mysterious. Boring.
That is, in my opinion, is the essence of steampunk. It harkens back to a time when a mechanic was proud of the way he had solved a particular problem, and wasn’t afraid to let people see how he had done it, because most people were educated enough to be able to appreciate it. Steampunk lets us think we’re smart, because it shows us the simple things we recognize (pistons!) leaving us free to ignore the larger questions (so how does an coke furnace with feet and an iron mustache know enough to save the professor’s daughter?) because we’re too busy being entertained.
It takes into a place where we can suspend disbelief while still having a good time.
Posts Tagged "steampunk"
Steampunk is, I believe, a reaction to the last 80 years of industrial design.Read More...
Steampunk is cool because . . .
5. The birth-pangs of Industrialization sacrificed the lives of millions of workers in the service of the machinery of capitalism; mill workers, coal miners, piece workers, painters of ceramics, sewers of seams, and countless more, slaved from childhood to premature death at 14-hour works days, six days a week. Their labor should by rights have led us into a better future than the one currently ruled by the internal combustion engined. With Steampunk, the visionaries of fiction offer us, instead of diesel fumes and engine noise, the stately dirigibles, the brass and rosewood machines, the clever and comprehensible gears and wheels, to show us what we might be, and what all this civilization is for.
4. Steampunk offers us a chance to rabbit down legs of the trousers of time that we didn’t take; legs that seem a lot more fun than the current messes we are entangled in. Steampunk, in all its endless iterations, hearkens back to an age when we were able to be naive enough to believe that civilization meant more than exercising control, when there were still vast unspoiled wilderness to explore, amazing discoveries to be made, and when progress trotted along at a comprehensible pace, rather than flipping pages on the world every five years as it does today.
3. Steampunk hearkens back to an era when human interaction was governed by a certain ceremony, and one’s station in life was defined as much by one’s mastery of a code of conduct, than one’s birth or one’s job. Formality as a lifestyle, can be stultifying, but what we sacrifice for our present-day uninhibited insouciance is the grand gesture, the bow, the salute, the action that gives an exalted meaning to the things we do.Read More...
The last few days I’ve been pondering what I could write on this week’s theme of Steampunk, about which I know very little but would like to learn more. Fortunately, a brief dalliance with Google revealed I have read one book which at least part-qualifies, and even better, it’s one of my favourite books: NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman (published as The Golden Compass in the US). So I’m going to write a bit about what I love about NORTHERN LIGHTS and what (I think) makes it Steampunk-esque. Less fortunate is the fact that I have lent my only copy of it to a friend who is now in Egypt. That’s my excuse for any mis-remembering, anyway…
I read NORTHERN LIGHTS first as a teenager and have revisited it several times since. There are so many awesome things about Pullman’s trilogy, but what grabbed me about the first book was its world aesthetic. For a start, it has zeppelins, which are clearly the most excellent mode of transport ever invented, and I’m now feeling quite sad that one got cut from OSIRIS in the editing process (next book, next book…). There are strong elements of fantasy in Pullman’s work – witches who don’t feel the cold, armoured bears, animal daemons who express part of a human’s soul, and of course the alethiometer, a truth-reader which heroine Lyra must learn to decipher. But the alethiometer, whilst it is magical in concept, is in fact a scientific measuring device. And then we have theories of parallel worlds, which resonate with contemporary quantum physics theories. (more…)Read More...
So… what IS the deal with steampunk, anyway? Why has it become so popular? So many fantasy books incorporate elements of steampunk these days that it’s become the new de rigueur sub/side-plot, the way it’s always been with romance. When writing fiction, there has always been a moment when you’re encapsulating your simple and straightforward story to an agent or editor, and you’re saying, “See, there’s this elite squad of international mercenaries who funnel back in time in order to save and secure the Library of Alexandria, but they fall foul of an alien attack squad who have the same goal, because their alien overlord wants a library of all Earth’s knowledge, and man-OH-man do they FIGHT!”
And the agent nods, scratches her chin, takes a few calls (of course) and then says, “Nice. But have one of the aliens be scorching hot, I mean Audrey Hepburn or Milla Jovovich, and she and one of the mercenaries start to think maybe they should be working together to save the library, and also get naked a lot.”
That’s the way it’s always been. Stories need a touch of romance. I’m cool with that. I like romance, and I like women easily as much as I’d like to save the Library of Alexandria, so we’re good. (more…)Read More...
o hold the t.v. to my lips, the air so packed with cash
then carry it up flights of stairs and drop it in the vacant lot
To lose my train of thought and fall into your arms’ tracks
and watch beneath the eyelids every passing dot
I belong to the blank generation . . .
–Richard Hell and the Voidoids
When I learned I was to write a blog post about all the –punk genres (cyber, steam, bio, splatter), I panicked. Here, I am entirely ignorant. But I do know about punk music, so my mind turned there instead. Why is the word ‘punk’ attached to these genres?
First I must address the question of whether or not the ‘punk’ of steampunk actually has anything to do with the music. I’ve seen arguments that it doesn’t—that punk is a much older word. No argument that it’s a much older word: I remember my dad being dismayed that punk music was called ‘punk music’ because of what ‘punk’ had meant to him in the Navy. But truly I think arguments that ‘punk’ is referring to something pre-1970s are reaching a bit too far. The term ‘cyberpunk’ was coined in 1983, a mere decade or so after the advent of Television, The Stooges, and the Ramones, an earthquake in terms of contemporary culture. I think the term was meant to build upon that, both for shock value and for aligning itself with punk values. (more…)Read More...