Steampunk: should we be worried?

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).

Golden Compass's take on London

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…

…one moment…

Wild Wild West!

Wild Wild West Spider

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?

No.

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.

3 thoughts on “Steampunk: should we be worried?

  1. I would disagree with your assessment of Pullman’s trilogy. Yes, there are zepplins, but actually they use electricity to run the hansom cab-like vehicles, and this alternate tech is not central to the story in any way. I don’t think Pullman was thinking about steampunk at all when he wrote his alternate universe (which is one of thousands in a multi-verse, and the others that are visited have even less to do with steampunk, or even human kind), which was at its heart a commentary on religion. I also think you are mistaken about Hellboy 2 as the end of the era, seeing as how Steampunk convention attendance continues to rise. Steampunk has a much greater capacity to act as a commentary on history than you are giving it credit for, and you are citing examples that barely scratch the surface or only use the Steampunk aesthetic rather than fully being a part of the genre. The Difference Engine, for instance, is an excellent alternative history, but this doesn’t mean that it throws history or the extent of technological innovations totally out the window. So I agree with your central premise that Steampunk is not a “threat” to history, but it is not necessarily the joke you are making it out to be. Alternative history is a wonderful way to ask readers to think critically about the actual events and interpretations.

    1. A fair point well made. Yes, I suspect I am making a joke at the expense of the steampunk community, and for that I can only apologise. I hope that it is sufficiently clear that this is intended to be a light-hearted joke, made with a lot of love.

      Regarding Pullman, I still feel that there are elements of steampunk, at least for the Northern Lights. The central device is the clockwork Alethiometer, and arcane contraptions, like the daemon-driven gyrocopter, play into this. I think the studio played up these elements in the film.

      On the subject of Steampunk’s growing popularity, I should probably clarify my position. Steampunk absolutely continues to grow in popularity (the For Whom the Gear Turns blog is a stellar example of this and I recommend everyone checks it out). However, I think that the impact on mainstream culture is reduced. Possibly the two trends are related.

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