For those of you who don’t know what Steampunk is, here is Urban Dictionary’s definition:
Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.
Essentially, anything that looks like it has cogs and airships added for no reason. The entry goes on to list Steampunk films including Wild Wild West and Van Helsing (though, strangely, it misses League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).
Let’s be clear here, steampunk is counter-factual history par excellence. It’s what would happen if you took the past, cherry picked the bits that appealed to you, and left the rest behind. Take, for example, Phillip Pullman’s best selling ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. The only film that came out of it managed to massively miss its estimated target audience, explaining why the next two books didn’t follow (and you just know that third one would have been split into *at least* two more films).
The still above is from that film, ‘The Golden Compass’. It is modern-day London (yes, there is a brass zeppelin and a steam train – you’re beginning to get the point). The whole story was so in love with the idea of steampunk that it invented an alternate steampunk universe, and spent the entirety of the first book there. The second book went a step further and got a normal lad from Earth Prime and gives him a magical knife so that he can cut his way into steampunk universe any time he damn well pleases.
As someone whose friends include a guy who regularly wears a top hat just because it’s a Wednesday (I’m looking at you, Spindles!), I am wary of pissing off the steampunk community. So let’s not pick on the ones that are beyond our remit and set in the ‘modern’ world.
…just randomly spinning the roulette wheel of rage here…
Wild Wild West!
What’s that? It’s too easy to be scornful of a film with a giant mechanical spider set in the American west? Well screw you. I’m not going to go easy on a subculture that emphasises visual aesthetics over… let’s be honest, it just straight raises two fingers to functionality. On Earth Prime, giant mechanical spiders wouldn’t exist, not because they were impossible to build, but because the logistics of refueling, or just coordinating the movement of eight limbs is not worth the effort.
So, is steampunk a threat to the portrayal of history?
To a lesser extent, this is because steampunk has had its moment (for now at least). The late 90s and early 00s were the heyday of the trend, with Hellboy: The Golden Army being the last high water mark. And if that’s not a screaming indictment, I don’t know what is.
But more importantly, the steampunk community isn’t really interested in history for its own sake. Yes, they may be some of the most well-read people you’ve met, but that’s predominantly because they want to have cool historical things to Show and Tell.
Steampunk is a distraction, but a harmless one, and for that we can forgive it its willful ignorance of basic engineering.