Steam, Electricity, Magic, and Complexity

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.

Propulsion, Mechanics, Steam, and Society

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?

The Historical Fulcrum

The goal of most of my steampunk worldbuilding has been to get everyone to meet at the 17th and 18th centuries. Up to that point, my concept of technological development has been very standard and historical; some things get noticed earlier, like movable type or the steam turbine, some social catalysts are moved around to keep cultures from locking into decline, like a small revolution for the Maya or Dara winning in India or Wu being defeated before he can ally with the Manchu or Selim II picking a different war and not losing his fleet. Overall, though, technology develops in mundane ways.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, though, global trade and communication have evolved and all the centers of development are in contact with each other. Most of them are also at war with each other at one point or another. This makes a logical environment to pressurize both technological and cultural development. At this point, we have the perfect explanation for even the wildest extremes of steampunk. Airships, walking wagons (or tanks), automata serving tea, you name it, with all this driving innovation surely there’s some way to come up with it. Perhaps wars between the Mayan city-states are now fought half by ceramic automata, and the fixed defenses are built in the form of big stone statues with movable heads and arms for aiming. Perhaps China has air-based cities, trade cities that travel. Perhaps someone in Europe has collected everything anyone ever wrote about optics and has developed laser guns, vaporization, for the use of.

There is, of course, always the question of the power source. In some cases, spring and steam power are perfectly feasible, though they do suggest that coal and oil extraction also explodes early. In others that doesn’t seem suitable. One point Chron makes is that mineral fuel sources would be unacceptable for some Native American nations, and this suggests the inclusion of magic as a motive force. I like this! And perhaps that development leads some esoteric scholars in other cultures to take a second look at their own traditions. Golems, after all, have a very long history. I can see wind and water power being used for stationary power plants pretty quickly also. If we assume that cities will see the use of power plants early on, then this suggests it might, indeed, be possible for nations to develop particle beams as stationary defensive installations with dedicated plants.

And this gives us the mix which is so characteristic of steampunk: the old with the not-even-here-yet, tall ships with submarines, water clocks with mecha.