by  David MacDowell Blue

A year or so back, my brother called up and asked about something new he had come across.  Something called “Steampunk.”  As it happens, I knew what this word meant and made the most obvious observation for someone of our generation.  Namely, I compared it to the old t.v. show The Wild Wild West, a blend of Western and James Bond with plenty of Jules Verne touches.

In many ways, Jules Verne evolved into one of the spiritual fathers of Steampunk.  He and H.G.Wells coupled with Arthur Conan Doyle (inventor of Professor Challenger as well as Sherlock Holmes) and early filmmaker George Melies.  But they are hardly alone.  Steampunk as a genre often seems the stuff of antique science fiction, the imagining of the future as those of a different age might have.  Imagine the First World War wherein the submarines resembled the Nautilus, or the airships had more in common with Robur the Conqueror’s Albatross.  Or consider Charles Babbage.  In 1837 he described an idea he dubbed an “analytical machine,” for all practical purposes what we would a computer.  His efforts to build one ended with his death in 1871.  But what if he had succeeded?  Suppose computers with tiny gears and spinning wheels had become commonplace by the turn of the century?  What might the internet have been like in an age of Queen Victoria and Theodore Roosevelt?  From such speculations, the genre of Steampunk came to be.

More, the whole idea has taken off in recent years.  Several anime movies now clearly fit into the steampunk genre.  Novels of the type emerge and sell often quite well.  One reasonably famous example recently was Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, a retelling of Jane Austen’s classic to include such touches as a domed underwater city.  Alan Moore’s A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is clearly steampunk, combining the Martian invasion from War of the Worlds with the cast from Sherlock Holmes, the Pallisers and many other Victorian (and Edwardian) fictions.  There was even a t.v. series about young Jules Verne and his adventures with one Phineas Fogg, fighting enemies with subterranean drilling craft and jetpack-flying vampires!  Likewise, art and fashion have followed suit.  Artists have rendered how such science fiction classics as Star Wars or Doctor Who or Star Trek might have seemed in a steampunk world.  But there is more to this than imagining Darth Vader with a Prussian-style helmet spike or Captain Kirk in ruffled shirt and waistcoat. 

Like all genres, Steampunk cannot help but be part of life thrown into sharp relief.  The details involved spring most obviously from an interest in things Victorian, or at least 19th century.  When one takes a good hard look at our world, it takes little enough skill to figure out why, eventually.  That is the age that gave birth to us.  Our clothes (especially men’s formal wear) are derived from that era.  Many continue to insist Victorian values about charity (i.e. moral disapproval) and religion (uniform but never taken too seriously) are the natural order.  Likewise we continue to work out a sense of guilt involving sexuality coupled with the kind of stylized deviations/fascination that is often the fruit of repression.  We also continue to live out some of the most fundamental tensions familiar to readers of Frankenstein or Alice in Wonderland, that between the rational and the mystic.  No coincidence that the same time period produced Charles Darwin and Joseph Smith, both Louis Pasteur and Aleister Crowley.  The very power and success of the scientific world view (so praised and heralded by Verne) naturally stirred up its shadow twin, the occult or at the very least the paranormal.  Dracula, the most famous vampire novel yet written, is filled with the “high tech” of 1897-blood transfusions, railways, telegrams, shorthand, typewriters, etc.  No surprise that a German poet-philosopher of that time gave a name to the two sides.  He called them Apollonian versus Dionysian, after the ancient Hellene Gods of Light and Wine respectively.

We continue to try and work our way through such issues.  It shows in the ongoing (and fierce) debate over teaching Evolution, in the popularity of holistic and/or herbal treatments for disease at the very time when technological medicine works miracles (and commits atrocities).  And, as ever, the tellers of tales and singers of songs are among the explorers and heralds.  Steampunk is not about revisiting the past, nor recreating it (no more than the Gothic is about celebrating death or sadness).  Read the stories and look at the art.  What you see is a re-imagining.  Not a copy, but a new interpretation which seeks to combine the right and left hemispheres of the brain, to bring a new dynamic between male and female, to reconcile past with future.

Plus the goggles, petticoats, rivets and sea monsters are all good fun.

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