Steam, Electricity, Magic, and Complexity

By Branch, October 31st, 2010

A comment in the recent batch of Tor blog posts on steampunk made me reflect on the insistence of one significant faction that steampunk must focus on the mechanical, not the electrical.

As though they were separate. As though the 19th C European technological types weren’t all over electricity, and, in fact, magic.

The rallying point of this faction seems to be “macro-mechanical processes”, with a hefty dose of “a simpler time” underlying it. Even if you just stick to Britain, that’s absurd. The Victorian era was over-complicated, over-mannered, over-wound, and eager to experience the “unseen” while the consumers insisted that the guts of any mechanical process be hidden. Especially the human guts. It was the home and font of Spiritualism, and of truly astonishing credulity. The eagle-eyed scientist and inquiring-minded tinkerer were in the mix, too, but they left steam-power in the dust early on and started looking at (you guessed it) electricity. Well, them and the Spiritualists, and half the time that was the same person. And there we have what I think is the core of the matter.

If I were to point to a hallmark concept out of this, I would not say “mechanical”, I would say “juxtaposition”. Thomas Edison and Madame Blavatsky, biologists attending seances, the pretty brass and wood first class compartment and the black gang, the flaming suffragette who’s a howling racist.

Those examples are all from Europe, but the pattern seems to apply to any major period of discovery anywhere, so I’m inclined to say it holds true for world-wide steampunk also. Concentrated discovery or change happens because some people are tossing over rules that someone else is clinging to with a death grip, and no one knows what will be true in the morning, and everyone is terrified of what it might be, and everyone is dead wrong half the time but right often enough that no one is sure of who’s right this time and is desperately trying to make sure it’s them, and the whole thing rolls on in a welter of mistakes and newness and brilliance and cruelty. And there’s your renaissance for you, or your revolution. That’s what makes this period an interesting place to write or tinker or cosplay or whathaveyou.

The reason I think the “dress up for high tea” crowd is so flat and uninteresting is that they’re imitating one tiny fraction of that ferment without, usually, acknowledging the vast web of tensions and contradictions that fashion and manner were born out of. Similarly the “visible mechanical processes” crowd seems willfully ignorant of the Victorian passion for the hidden.

How boring. And how very un-steampunk.

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