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Propulsion, Mechanics, Steam, and Society

By Branch, July 8th, 2010

One of the points I find ironic in the nomenclature of steampunk is that, when you get right down to brass tacks, we are still a steam-driven society. It’s just that, these days, the mechanical movement propelled by the steam generates electricity rather than being applied directly to the motion of pumps or wheels or gears. What the more avid retro-mechanical fans seem to desire is not steam itself but direct mechanical motion. What I find interesting, given this, is that most envisioning of steampunk technology or accessories is either not steam driven or not a direct mechanical process. If it is a direct mechanical process, it’s most likely clockwork–that is spring-driven. If it’s not clockwork, it’s an air-ship, which historically have used internal-combustion diesel engines. And if it’s not an airship it’s very often a ray-gun.

Ray guns imply advanced physics to power the particle beam or whathaveyou, and their frequent presence suggests a certain mish-mash of technologies. I approve of this, since that’s what I would expect to be the outcome of a steampunk world. The kind of “future” objects that this retro-futurism generally calls on are frequently based on indirect processes: computers, sub-atomics, neurally connected prosthetics. Especially in the development ferment I posit for Global Steam, I would expect technology to show its true colors, not as a linear advance but as a reactive explosion. All those narratives we produce about X leading to the development of Y are myths anyway.

In a world where development kicks off faster, I would expect to see a wide variety of direct and indirect processes developing side by side. I would expect to see the water wheel, the steam turbine, and internal combustion jostling each other, and to see power plants cropping up to power the laser canons of cities alongside the coal or oil driven engine of the trains and wagons that get you there. I would expect to see geothermal power coming out of volcanic regions and hydro coming out of strong watersheds, and the development of esoteric power sources (which has potential for glorious amounts of flim-flammery right alongside serious research). I would expect to see both air-ships and sea-going ships, sometimes going the same places, especially the trans-oceanic routes, and to see muscle-power and mechanical-power land vehicles on the same roads.

I would also expect to see environmental degradation happen faster, as more power sources are pursued at the same time all over the world. I would expect a solid handful of real tragedies before anyone woke up to the implications. I would expect the conditions of industrial laborers to be just as dangerous as in our history and even more pressurized. I would expect the international wars to happen alongside more, and possibly more violent, internal revolutions. I would expect the control of armaments to be a holy grail of central governments the world over, and for that to be in constant conflict with the equal need for researchers and developers and factory workers who can hardly be kept from inventing on their own time or from having constant access to the materials to arm themselves.

I would expect it to be a dangerous world, a world in which headlong newness and desperate conservativism run side by side just like the streams of technological development, and often clash violently; a world in which the desire for stability and the desire for change wrestle right across the whole social and political spectrum; a world that is both global and parochial, often at the same time.

And this, this, is what I think makes steampunk costuming and art such a fascinating project. What would reflect this world, what would it produce?

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