Thursday, September 18, 2008

I wish I was more into steampunk

This post from Fantasy Magazine lays out the most coherent and compelling case for the popularity of steampunk I've yet come across (thanks, SFSignal). When you read it, you almost feel stupid for not writing steampunk. Except--and this will just be the latest in a long line of my sci-fi heresies--I'm not all hat wild about steampunk.

Steampunk is fun for a goof, I suppose, but I guess I simply have too much of the dismal science in me. Steampunk, to me, has always been more fantasy than sci-fi. As wonderous as Charles Babbage's grand mechancical computers were, they really were hideously impractical. To my mind, the greatest technical achievements were those that made new things possible, largely by virtue of making them practical. Steampunk is the inverse, it revels in its impracticality, in the grand operatic largesse required to make these machines and indulge in the modest wonders they produce.

In the graphic novella Ministry of Space, writer Warren Ellis imagines an alternate history where the British, not the Americans, rescued Von Braun from Germany after World World II. It was the British that embarked on a space program to revive their war-torn economy and, as they "had opera in them," the Brits indulged Von Braun's mad bluster and brutish vision of putting men into orbit in the 50s, on the moon by the 60, and Mars by the 70s. All it took was one of the greatest cover-ups in history to pay the hideous cost. Ministry deftly examines both sides of the issue--space is a grand dream, but not a practical one. When its dark patronage failed, it could not be sustained.

That's the same issue with steampunk. Its dreams and devices are glorious, but they really only empower their mad creators--the dukes and princes with endless ennobled coffers to pursue these personal accomplishments, rather than some larger goal, some greater but simpler service to the world.

Maybe I just lack the imagination to truly embrace steampunk.

Or maybe stemapunk just lacks the imagination to conjure a world that could truly have been.


  1. You must see this video - Merlin Mann's steampunk DIY:

    Audio is slightly NSFW. My favorite line is how his steampunk glasses don't do much for his "little v - vision", but are great for the "big v Vision" he's going for ... :)

  2. Steampunk boils down to 2 things: aesthetics and hope.

    If you're fine with being told "asthetic choice" means having 8 colors of ipod to chose from, you're not going to be impressed with steampunk. Just as the severe asecticism of current design is a reaction to the dripping gaudiness of previous eras, steampunk is a counter-reaction demanding a return to beauty as well as function.

    As for hope, well, it's always trendy to say the future is a ghastly place and nothign good will come of it. Hell, Roman writers who survived Sulla's regin of terror bitched that sure, sure, when they were boys head bounty lists were posted in the markets, but children respected their elders!.

    Don't be a sheep. Among Cory Doctrow's faux-revolutionary hipsters, it's incredibly trendy to say anything suggesting hope is trash while papercraft fingerpuppets are sublime. There's something seriously fucked up in that world view.

    That kind of talk will get you ostracised among the trendy these days, though, so it gets hidden behind a brassy layer of pretty asthetics and high morals.

  3. Right now I'm writing on my laptop. I doubt you'll be surprised if I tell you I know 30% of how to use it, and probably 10% of how it works.

    Familiarity breeds convenience breeds contempt. 100, 150, 200 years the world was nowhere near as convenient as now - it was this lack of convenience that forced people to strive, it drove the pioneer spirit.

    From 1850 to 1950 was the age of innovation. Look at all things they invented... and look at what we have done since. Very few no ideas, only improvements in what came before.

    Steampunk is about returning to the time when people would dream of something and try to build it, a time I hope is not completely lost.