The Technological Imperative

PrintE-mail Written by CB Harvey Monday, 14 November 2011

Exile On Augusta Street - by CB Harvey

Our steampunk adventure continues into the night sky. The wind whipping about us, we ascend still higher, watching the stars detach themselves and resolve into the shapes of fellow airships. Those other craft pierce the clouds, gliding gracefully, inexorably to their unspecified destinations. Truly such human achievement is a beautiful, awe-inspiring sight.

The chief allure of steampunk is not difficult to discern. Its appeal surely obtains in the machines that populate the future-primitive environment. What we might term ‘trad’ steampunk offers up Victorian settings replete with extraordinary dirigibles, brass automatons and the suchlike. Those variants such as diesel punk and clockwork punk afford their own machinic pleasures, the clue to their appeal evident in their monikers: they do exactly what they say on the tin. What brings these otherwise disparate sub-sets together is the importance of machinery to the unfolding narrative.

Often the technology in question takes the form of transportation. The airship is a common one, of course, from the spectacular opening cut sequence of the video game Arcanum to the Hindenberg III docking with the Empire State Building at the beginning of the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But there are others, too, including Captain Nemo’s limousine from the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (something missing from Verne’s Nemo adventures and the Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill comics that riffed off Verne’s work), to the wheel-like contraption the eponymous Steamboy travels in.

Beyond transportation examples of steampunk are often replete with weapons capable of performing extraordinary tasks. The Hellboy comics and films feature a dazzling array of eccentric weapons while Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing relies on a crossbow to dispatch vampire adversaries. Sometimes the technology in question is both a form of transportation and a weapon, such as The Wanderer, the train from the television and film iterations of Wild Wild West, or the dirigible fleets featuring in Stephen Hunt’s Court of the Air series of books.

But the technological imperative is only half the story. Steampunk couldn’t be steampunk if it were just down to the technology itself. It’s the context from which the technology is derived that gives steampunk its peculiar flavour and in turn supplies its distinctive allure. If we swoon at the sight of majestic dirigibles piloting above a Victorian milieu or thrill to Van Helsing’s exploits it is precisely because such technology is beyond what we associate with the era. In most steampunk examples the time period of the story provides a crucial means by which the technology utilised is qualified. This is as true of Arcanum, which is ostensibly set on another planet but deploys numerous elements of Victoriana, and The Golden Compass’ parallel universe, as it is of those stories more obviously set in a version of the recognisable past.

But often such technology isn’t itself portrayed as anachronistic – in fact quite the reverse, although it may well be capable of performing anachronistic tasks. In fact, the point of steampunk is often that the machines in question have been fabricated from materials appropriate to the era in which the story is set. Nemo’s Nautilus, Van Helsing’s crossbow, the bizarre machines Steamboy encounters in his travels, all seem to have been contrived from materials appropriate to the era of the story. As a result, all of them at least seem as if they could have been constructed by one of us, if only we had the appropriate know-how.

Farah Mendlesohn, the renowned British writer and academic, has suggested that part of the appeal of steampunk lies in the fact that we as audiences – readers, players, listeners, viewers – can perceive and therefore understand the operation of the technology portrayed. In a world where computer and mobile telephone technology is hidden from view and from comprehension by black and grey boxes, the transparent, obvious operation of pistons and of cogs offers a reassuring alternative.

Indeed this seems a plausible explanation. In addition, there is surely a quality of nostalgia on the one hand and superiority on the other involved in seeing steam or comparable technology repurposed. Protagonists like Allain Quatermain or Van Helsing act as our avatars in the adventure and when they dispense with an adversary it is often from a distinctly modern perspective, often using old technology in new ways. Vicariously we not only get to be heroes but also get to look down on our forebears. If only, we think, our ancestors had been as clever as us.

This is not to diminish those other elements that render steampunk so entertaining beyond the technology on display. ‘Trad’ steampunk is populated with archetypes borrowed not only from the stories that originally fed the sub-genre such as HG Wells and Verne but from the wider cultural pantheon, from blustering colonels to clunking automatons to lovable rogues to plucky orphans. As well as lesser known writers, settings are similarly borrowed from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley and, as critics John Clute and Peter Nicholls have observed, Charles Dickens. Contemporary steampunk stories told in different media often combine these elements into narratives considerably more busy than the novels and films they pilfer (and which are not always so beguiling as a result).

The best steampunk seeks to subvert these elements in the same way it seeks to subvert technology and the grand, recurring theme of Empire. Without these elements, the technology that drives steampunk is deprived of context. We need moustachioed admirals to bluster, intrepid aviatrixes to offer steely words of encouragement, angry radicals to fulminate at injustice. Without adventures and adventurers such technology is little more than cogs and pulleys.

Having risen so high, let us now steady our nerve, adjust our dirigible’s rudders a-starboard and pilot a spiralling course downward. The steampunk landscape unfurling below us is filled with many new wonders we have yet to document, some of which only now hover into view.

Tally ho!

CB Harvey is a writer and academic living in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. His sideburns are currently looking very steampunk, thank you.

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