Future Primitive

PrintE-mail Written by CB Harvey Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Exile On Augusta Street - by CB Harvey

What the Blue Blazes is this hulking, clunking thing coming towards us? Behold its visage, caught in a wide, unblinking stare! See the pistons animating its thunderous legs, cogs swinging its great iron arms to and fro in an inevitable march? With a tremendous exhalation of gas it turns one way and shows the face of scientific certitude that belonged to Jules Verne. It turns another and it offers up an altogether quirkier expression that cannot help but remind us of that old romantic HG Wells. If you squint, ladies and gents, you might see that from another angle it looks for all the world like the Steam Man of yore, winning the West in the Dime Novels popular at the hinge of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The great creaking monster relentlessly crashes across a landscape of literature, graphic novels, video games, films, RPGs and LARPs. Unstoppable and unmistakable too, precisely because it’s such a mish-mash. Ladies and gents, I venture that to be so many things at once it can only be one thing: steampunk.

Where the behemoth comes from is a matter of conjecture. It seems to herald from two places at once, simultaneously approaching from out of the smoking depths of the past whilst also emerging from the murky uncertainties of some untramelled future. And as any devotees of the creature’s perambulations will testify, that’s only the bloomin’ point, so it goes: the clashing of past with future to produce something simultaneously recognisable yet wholly unique.

Certainly a great deal of contemporary steampunk seems to be wrought from some of the same materials that Verne used to build his Nautilus and Wells his Time Machine. There were many imitators from the same period too, whom posterity chooses not to recall. Perhaps this is because their approach to the British Empire is often so assuredly triumphalist, at odds with our contemporary understanding of what the Imperium meant to the people subjugated by it, both at home and abroad. Perhaps it’s because their writing wasn’t nearly so good, nearly so convincing, as the two grand masters’ works. Or perhaps these lesser writers’ iron-clad DNA is present in some of the more reactionary, contemporary renderings of steampunk, especially evident in Hollywood’s clunking fists.

For American chroniclers there’s sometimes an oily whiff of the Steam Man and similar, adventures that populated the pages and imaginations of the US public in the days when the horse galloped alongside the railroad and vied for position with the new-fangled motor car.  In common with other less sophisticated stories of this era they too were colonialist in their tenor, describing the defeat of the savage Injuns by superior White Man technology and know-how; more often than not they were overtly racist in their attitudes and descriptions. Such Dime adventures have come to be described as ‘Edisonades’, because they took the real-life figure of Thomas Edison and created fictional inventor-adventurers in his romantic image to be the heroes of their melodramas.

Critics argue over the extent to which steampunk owes its lineage to Verne, Wells and the Edisonades, and to others like Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Charles Dickens. Certainly in its contemporary incarnation steampunk has tended to critique the role of Empire, exemplars including Michael Moorcroft’s seminal 1971 novel Warlord of the Air. This approach is apparent, too, in the work of the novelist KW Jeter – the man, in fact, who coined the term ‘steampunk’ in 1986 to describe the kind of novel he and certain of his contemporaries had been writing at that time.

Steampunk’s eclectic past might account for why it’s so mutable. It shifts form across media and across sub-genre. Contemporary novelists Stephen Hunt, Gail Carriger and George Mann have created wildly different steampunk worlds. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s beguiling comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen melds together fantasy and science fiction icons against a background which is sometimes – but not always – steampunk in flavour. The production designers on the post-2005 Doctor Who avowedly execute their historical settings with steampunk in mind, continuing an aesthetic the long-running franchise has repeatedly returned to, from Peter Cushing’s Wellsian Doctor through Tom Baker’s wood-panelled secondary control room to Paul McGann’s beautiful, cathedral-like TARDIS.

Steampunk doesn’t even remain consistent within media. In video games we get everything from the ‘trad’ Arcanum through Final Fantasy VI to the extraordinary stylings of the Bioshock series. In film, too, steampunk is sometimes explicit in all its Victorian or Edwardian grandeur, from the epic Steamboy through The Golden Compass to the much derided but somehow still appealing film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. At other times the steampunk movie can be altogether more lateral, as in the ‘raygun gothic’ of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Perhaps this mutability accounts for the sub-genre’s appeal and the allure of its many variants like diesel punk, gaslamp fantasy and clockpunk. Maybe it’s that steampunk machines, with their cogs,  pistons and valves, return us to a time when the workings of technology were altogether easier to understand? Imagine if you could shovel coal into your PC and watch the exchange chambers of its brain actually working.

Maybe the transparency of steampunk gadgets accounts for why there are such vibrant, fertile and diverse homebrew communities out there fashioning stuff.  Everything from clothing, life-size rocket craft, steampunk Daleks and Imperial stormtroopers through to entire worlds constructed in Second Life. If you want to see the potential, just check out the half-hour steampunk film Aurora, produced by the Australian indy outfit Urtext.

What next for the great clunking behemoth? Where’s it stamping off to? In a world where the role of Empire is continually having to be rethought, spiky, thoughtful steampunk stories in all sorts of media clearly have much to offer. Ladies and gents, I propose nothing less than that we follow the creature on its journey, month by month examining the unexpected, the downright weird, elucidating insights as we go. Sometimes what we encounter might make us gasp, sometimes shudder. I say to you, man and woman alike, grab your goggles, seat yourself aside me, and strike up a Lucifer.

But don’t for Mercy’s sake touch that lever..!

"CB Harvey is a British fiction writer, academic and journalist currently living in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. He writes this column wearing a stovepipe hat. See www.colinharvey.net for more."

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